A Boy Who Would Be President, Part 2
Harry Truman at School, 1892–1901
Fall 2004, Vol. 36, No. 3
By Raymond H. Geselbracht
Most of Harry's and Charlie's tenth-grade English theme books are devoted to an analysis of the characters in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Charlie writes more than twice as much as Harry about each character, and his prose is more elaborate and refined than Harry's. Charlie's writing is remarkably sophisticated for a boy of fifteen; it clearly reaches and exceeds some standard for student exposition that was set by Miss Brown and many others like her for the students of the age. In this sense, it is not remarkable, though always excellent. Charlie could compose, as Harry certainly never could, an extended and elegant simile comparing friendship to music. "A real friendship may be likened to an exquisite symphony," he writes, "the tones of which, though in contrast, are inwardly related, forming one harmonious whole. There are the sprightly, the slow; the sad, the joyous; the playful, the stately; all mingling in one sweet burst of melody, rising wave on wave to charm the ear and entrance the soul of the hearer." The well-cadenced phrases that comprise the simile build and build until they reach a climax as Charlie relates that those who make music are "freed from the cumbrance of the flesh, and soar to heights not reached by mortal man. Such is the power of music," Charlie concludes, "such also is the power of friendship." Harry Truman was not capable of writing like this.
Charlie's essays on the five main characters of The Merchant of Venice typically recount each character's role in the play. He makes judgments on the characters, but his judgments are usually nuanced and somewhat disembodied, rather than strongly and personally felt. He informs us that Antonio's character is centered on his love for Bassanio; he tells us too that Bassanio is capable of being both a true friend to Antonio and the lover of Portia. He describes Portia's development from capricious, independent single woman to loving and presumably dutiful wife to Bassanio. Charlie feels that Portia's "sweet surrender" to her husband is a "notable example of true womanliness."
Charlie's essay on Shylock is his longest. When discussing Antonio, Charlie had pulled back from condemning that character's anti-Semitism. He worried that if he condemned Antonio, he would be condemning as well those in turn-of-the-century Independence, including perhaps himself, who were no less prejudiced. "We cannot condemn him without condemning ourselves," he wrote, "for we have a similar case here at home in our relations with the negro. . . . Very few of us indeed at heart rise above a certain loathing of the negro." Having said this, Charlie examines Shylock's character to determine whether he was on "a lower moral plane than his enemies, the Christians." At the end of his long essay, though, Charlie concludes rather obscurely, "Shylock the oppressed is overthrown, his oppressors vindicated. Truly, the irony of Fate is past all understanding." As for Shylock's daughter, Jessica, Charlie suggests that she not be judged too harshly for abandoning her father. But, having said this, he is tempted to change his mind. Some of Jessica's actions, he says, are inexcusable. To find a way out of this muddle, he decides he will "take a lenient view of the matter and admit that 'Her beauty covereth a multitude of sins.'"
Harry's Merchant of Venice essays are shorter than Charlie's, the prose doesn't flow as smoothly, the exposition of Shakespeare's play is not as satisfactory. One feels that the standard of excellence for student performance that Miss Brown and the other teachers of her time put forward is not approached so nearly in Harry's essays as in Charlie's. In fact, there's something almost objectionable in Harry's essays. Perhaps they're not always sufficiently deferential to some spirit of the age; there's too much opinion in them, too much Harry.
If Charlie is mindful of his readers and their values and their expectations of him, Harry seems to want only to tell everyone very plainly how he feels about things. He decides that Antonio might be an ideal man. He is brave, a good Christian, warm hearted, neither haughty nor hypocritical, and he loves another human being. All this is good, and as it ought to be. But Harry is disappointed that the loved human being is another man. "If Antonio had loved a woman," he writes, "we might have had quite a romance."
He takes a very realistic attitude toward Bassanio. This imperfect character loves money, it's true, "but where," Harry asks, "is the man who doesn't like to have 'a little more than he can spend.'" Bassanio likes to have a good time, "and how can there be a good time without a woman?" Harry seems always to be thinking about a woman, a loved companion. In this case the woman is rich, and the man, Bassanio, has debts and is in need of money. This is a dangerous formula, Harry knows, but he resolves the problem with an outburst of romanticism. "Portia," he says, "was beautiful and virtuous, therefore she was worth all." And Bassanio, Harry argues, substituting force of opinion for logic, is worthy of Portia. "If someone will give a reason why he isn't," Harry challenges his reader, "I'll find two why he is." Bassanio has his faults, Harry concludes, "but who's perfect?" One can imagine Miss Brown making her way through this disturbing argument.
Harry gives almost a third of his essay on Portia to taking issue with another of Shakespeare's characters, Hamlet, who said in his play "Frailty, thy name is woman!" Harry doesn't believe women are frail. "Look over the pages of history," he insists, "and find how many a man or nation would have fallen if it hadn't been for a woman." He evokes the strength of character of Esther and Delilah and concludes, "This doesn't look as if [woman is] frail, does it? She's generally frail to a man when she has the best of him." And he adds parenthetically a bit of sentimentalism to his argument. Women, he says, "are generally more virtuous than men."
As for Portia, Harry admits that, as Charlie said too, she went from being a "proud, unbending woman" to being a presumably submissive wife. But where Charlie somewhat Platonically views this transformation as one from a doubtful, incomplete condition to a more perfect one that he calls "true womanliness," Harry more practically concludes that she changed because all of a sudden she had everything she could possibly want—"the man she loved, all the money she wanted and plenty of happiness." Anyone, he clearly believes, would change for the powerful combination of love, money, and happiness.
Harry's essay on Shylock is much different than Charlie's. Charlie spent most of his time recounting Shylock's place in the play's plot, and his problematic "irony of Fate" conclusion leaves one in doubt about what Charlie's view of Shylock in fact is. Harry doesn't bother with the plot much at all when he writes about Shylock. Instead he criticizes Christians for not following their beliefs, for not loving their enemies as they say they should do. Who, he asks, "instituted . . . that very Christian institution, the Inquisition[?] Now if the Christians carry not out their teachings, who's to carry them out? Not China, nor Turkey and surely not the Jews." Harry is sympathetic to Shylock and feels he could not have done anything differently than he did in the play. "Think of him leaving the court room[,] broken, childless, everything but killed. He said he was content to die. What else could he do?" Shylock sought to revenge himself on the people who hurt him. Harry understands this completely. "I never saw a Jew, Christian or any other man who, if he had the chance[,] wouldn't take revenge, although he may say 'Love your enemies' and a lot of other things of the same sort."
One may suspect that Miss Brown suffered some discomfort and felt some disapprobation as she read this essay of Harry Truman's. Perhaps she felt this young man might not be an ideal young man. He was certainly no Charlie Ross. Maybe, though, she suspected there was something unusual, something remarkably and eccentrically mature in Harry Truman. Maybe she suspected he might amount to something some day.
Harry feels the same kind of sympathy for Jessica, Shylock's daughter, as he does for her father. Her mother died when she was born, so she never had a mother's love, and her father did not really love her in a way that was truly meaningful to her. She had to find someone she could love and who would love her, and she did find him—Lorenzo. She stole Shylock's money to run away with her lover, and, Harry admits, this was not exactly right, but Shylock had taught her to value money above everything, so perhaps he deserved to have his money stolen. Besides, Harry concludes with empathy and compassion, Jessica had to have some money for herself and Lorenzo. "How in the world could they run of[f] without anything to run on?" Jessica is an easy character for Harry to understand. "In my opinion," he concludes, "Jes[s]ica is just a common woman who did what anyone would do in her place."
A well-formed personality, if one without much academic polish, emerges with some clarity from Harry's Merchant of Venice essays. Harry Truman the young man is original, and one senses he enjoys being original, and he's somewhat objectionable too. He has some of his own views about people and things, and perhaps those views are not what one would hear from the teachers or the preachers of the time.
Harry's originality is founded very solidly in insights about what people are really like, as opposed to what they are supposed to be like, and about the lives they really lead, as opposed to the lives they're supposed to lead. People are supposed to be good, and sometimes they are, but sometimes they're not so good, and maybe, Harry feels, that's the only way things can realistically be. People don't always live up to their ideals, and then, plainly said, they're hypocrites, and perhaps people who suffer hurt from hypocrisy have the right to respond in certain less than ideal ways. And life shouldn't be based completely on ideals anyway. People like to have fun, to have some money and some friends to have some fun with, and, very importantly and specially, Harry believes, everyone needs to have a beautiful and loved woman, or handsome and loved man, as one's companion.
All these things are part of humanity's real life. Human beings are as they are, not perfect, and the only sensible attitude to have toward them, and toward oneself, is one of compassion and hence of tolerance. This is the homegrown philosophy of life one finds in Harry Truman's Merchant of Venice essays, written during his senior year in high school, when he was sixteen or seventeen years old. Miss Brown gave this remarkable collection of writings a grade of 90, with no comment.
Harry Truman and his classmates graduated from Independence High School in May 1901. The students posed for photographs on the school's front steps, underneath a large, arched stained glass window that proclaimed, in Latin, "Youth the Hope of the World." About this time, Truman's father had lost or was losing virtually everything he had in speculations in grain futures. Harry could not go to college. He went to commercial school for about six months, and then he went to work to help support his family. Except for some night school classes he took twenty years later, Harry Truman's formal schooling was over.
The schoolboy always remained in the man Harry Truman grew to be. When he became President of the United States on April 12, 1945, he was—to some degree, in some important ways—the same person as he had been when he was a boy in Independence, many years before. He had certainly learned and changed in the passing years, but one can feel in the schoolboy many of the same beliefs and qualities of character that inhered in the President and helped to shape the policies of his administration. He was still the good boy in Miss Ewin's and Miss Ward's classes who was never late, worked hard, behaved well to everyone, and wanted everyone to like him; and he was still the young man in Miss Brown's English class who understood that real life and real people were not always what they were supposed to be, ideally, and that compassion and tolerance were the right response to this less than perfect reality.
Harry Truman the schoolboy and Harry Truman the President believed that ordinary people should have the opportunity to find their own real-life happiness in their own way. This is true for Shylock the Jew and his daughter, Jessica, or for the Jewish people in Europe and Palestine following World War II; for Bassanio the ruined merchant or for the struggling people of Western Europe after World War II; and for those Americans who had suffered, like Shylock, from the hypocrisy of those who espoused ideals they did not practice. All these people deserved their fair deal, their Marshall Plan, their civil rights, or maybe, if the situation required it, their own place in the world.
All the most important policy initiatives of Truman's presidency had their origins in some important way in the fundamental personal makeup that we call his character; and this essential character of Harry S. Truman's was to some degree formed by, and to a much greater degree evident during—even if only in the brief but bright glimpses the limited documentation allows—his nine years as a schoolboy in Independence, Missouri, from 1892 to 1901. Many years later, from 1945 to 1953, the content of that character entered into the country's life and became part of American history.
Raymond H. Geselbracht is Special Assistant to the Director at the Harry S. Truman Library. He has published several articles on historical and archival subjects, including Truman's relationship with the Marx brothers, his love of playing poker, and the courtship and marriage of Harry and Bess Truman. He has also published a map showing places in the Kansas City area that had special importance to Truman.
Note on Sources
All of the documents cited are in the holdings of the Harry S. Truman Library. The Noland School ledgers; copies of Truman's high school theme books; his autobiographical manuscript, written in 1951 or 1952; his correspondence with Ardelia Hardin Palmer about the burning of Independence High School and his position in his class; and his letter to Bess Wallace in which he writes about spelling (February 13, 1912) are in Truman's papers. Truman's and Bess Wallace's report cards are in the Miscellaneous Historical Documents Collection. Charlie Ross's high school English theme book, with Matilda Brown's "Excelsior" note interleaved, is in his papers. Ardelia Hardin Palmer's and Mary Jane Truman's oral history interviews are in the Oral History Collection. Newspapers articles describing Independence schools in Truman's time, and Mira Ewin's late recollections of her famous pupil are in the Vertical File. Jonathan Daniels's biography of Truman is The Man of Independence (Philadelphia, 1950).