The year 1837 was a while back, even for me. There were 26 United States. Morse patented the telegraph. Mount Holyoke, now the oldest women’s college in the country, was founded. Chicago was incorporated. James Butler Hickok was born; you know him as Wild Bill – well, I did anyway. The 18-year-old Queen Victoria ascended the throne. Her, I didn’t know.

On the other hand, my buddies Milton, Confucius, Homer, Cicero, Burke – these were old favorites of college students even in 1837. That’s comforting to know and important to realize, and it’s a very generous lesson offered us through the industry and astounding penmanship of Samuel Humes Porter of the Great Class of 1837.  

Porter, consistent with many of his peers in the age of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens, kept a copybook, a small journal of those pearls of wisdom he chose to inspire him in the future. His edition covers his three years at Princeton – he was admitted as a sophomore in 1834 – and contains precisely 99 quotations from authors then living and dead.

A mesmerizing artifact apart from its content, the book is a dainty (about 3 by 6 inches) volume of 32 leaves of gilt-edged paper, slightly yellowed now but supple. It’s bound in brown embossed leather, the damaged spine of which has been painstakingly repaired by the magical restoration gurus at Firestone. The precise inscriptions are penned in lettering little larger than a 12-point font – the size of this sentence; the Latin quotations are in Latin, the Greek in Greek, and there is not a single, even slight, ink correction among the 99 nuggets. Tiny decorative figures and swirls abound. This was a work of planning, precision, and discipline.

The inscribed title of the volume is “Selections by Samuel Humes Porter” (Detroit & Princeton 1834-35-36-37). The choices of wisdom, almost none as long as a page, include Byron’s that precisely captures the essence of the journal:

 “In reading authors, when you find bright passages that strike your mind, and which, perhaps, you may have reason to think on at another season, be not contented with the sight but take them down in black and white. Such a respect is wisely shown, as makes another’s sense one’s own.”

Milton reminds Porter that

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”  

Porter is impressed with the ethical argument that

“The doing evil to avoid an evil cannot be good”

but very oddly misattributes to Schiller that thought of Coleridge, one of his favorite authors. Porter’s choice of Homer is, alas, as Greek to me as it was to Homer.

This is the earliest Princeton student copybook in the archives by almost 20 years and is a rare treasure to us for a depressingly mundane reason: The Nassau Hall fire of 1855 incinerated most historical traces of the preexisting college. The faculty minutes were saved; perhaps the dean had them in his library for reading at sherry parties. The trustees’ minutes survived, too; I like to imagine them safely stowed under the bar at the Nass. Beyond those, only fragmentary hints at academic life survive. So the copybook implies course syllabi and student programs of study barely glimpsed anywhere else. It’s a scarce window on Princeton’s past, handblown by such as Pope, Gibbon, and Montaigne.

This view was enabled by those quixotic folks from pBay, the Princetoniana Committee’s online memorabilia vultures. Spotting an eBay (thanks, Meg!) posting of the copybook in mid-December by an antiquarian bookseller, the group formed an ad hoc Gang of Eight (historical allusion being their métier), comprising Sev Onyshkevych ’83, Steven Brown ’77, pBay leader Dave Cleaves ’78, Scott Clemons ’90, Donald Farren ’58, Cynthia Penney ’83, Jonathan Sapan ’04, and Frank Sloat ’55. Battling the online auction Forces of Darkness (think Luke Skywalker fighting the emperor), they emerged victorious, and the archives was presented with their gift – and Porter’s, of course.

His last senior-year entry in the copybook was clearly intended to be so; 10 blank pages follow. A caution from Locke, it speaks to us as immediately as if it were from Miss Manners:

“Affectation in any part of our carriage is lighting up a candle to our defects, and never fails to make us be taken notice of, either as wanting sense or wanting sincerity.”

Samuel Humes Porter 1837 got a master’s at Princeton in 1840 – studying what, we have no idea. He returned to Michigan, became a lawyer, and in 1845 was a disbursing agent of a trust for the Chickasaw tribe in accordance with its treaty with the United States. His accounting records undoubtedly were flawless. He died in 1874. I have no clue how we even know that; it’s handwritten on an index card in his archives file.  

This small copybook with its 99 entries is in essence his legacy and his soul. We all could do much worse.

Gregg Lange ’70 is a member of the Princetoniana Committee and the Alumni Council Committee on Reunions, an Alumni Schools Committee volunteer, and a trustee of WPRB radio.