Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Famous Professor Christen

Prof. Arnold Christen
Grower of lip hair
I find it amusing when I look at a newspaper or magazine from decades past and someone is described as “famous” and I have no idea who that person it. It’s an object lesson that fame (and even infamy) can be fleeting. One year your name is on everyone’s lips, and some time after that, everyone’s forgotten who you were. This is particularly true of entertainers.

The Washington Herald described Professor Christen as “famous” in its November 9, 1913 edition. Who? Given the number of times I’ve found that “professors” in early twentieth-century newspapers weren’t any sort of academic (such as the then 18-year-old Edmond Privat or the 14-year-old Val Stone), when a newspaper tells me that someone is a professor, I want to see an academic affiliation.

I went on the merry hunt for Professor Christen. I am happy to announce that this is one of those situations in which we are dealing with an actual academic. Not some teenager either, Arnold Christen was about 56 years old in 1913.

This is all the Herald had for its readers on November 9, 1913:
Esperantist to Lecture
Prof. Arnold Christen, the famous Esperantist lecturer, will give a lecture next Tuesday night at Ingram Memorial Church. The lecture is to be under the auspices of the Kristen-Ingram Esperanto Club.
From something like this, one could easily imagine an itinerant lecturer on Esperanto who had puffed himself up with the spurious title of “Professor.” Think “Professor Marvel” in The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy really should have asked him what his academic affiliation was (the answer probably would have been amusing, though probably not informative).

Professor Christen seems to spent a good deal of time in the United States. He was not a native of Scotland (not with that name, huh?), but was born in Switzerland in about 1857. He lived for a number of years in Aberdeen, working as a professor of languages, most likely at the University of Aberdeen. Around 1910, he seems to have moved to Washington, D.C., teaching at Georgetown University. In addition, he gave many public lectures, including not the the one noted above, but many others, including the National Geographic Society. His December 30, 1910 talk was based on his book From Babel to Esperanto.[1] He gave this as a series of lectures in at Columbia University during their 1913 summer sessions.[2]

Professor Christen became permanent U.S. resident and applied for naturalization in 1914. He seems to have left the academic world at some point, perhaps failing to get a permanent university post in the United States, or maybe he simply tired of teaching. By 1916, he’s living in Manhattan selling insurance. The 1930 Census lists him as “retired.”

I was not able to find any publications by him other than From Babel to Esperanto, which seems to be the cornerstone of his fame. There not only isn’t an entry in Wikipedia, there isn’t one in Esperanto Wikipedia either. Professor Christen’s fame seems indeed to have been fleeting. I did find a photo of him, from a 1911 visit to Washington (reported by the Washington Times). Will you check out that mustache? He should have been famous for that!

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