Thursday, January 1, 2015

John Barrett’s New Year’s Resolution: Learn Esperanto

Seven months! Plenty of time!
John Barrett was a career diplomat,[1] notable (in part) for being the first director of the Bureau of American Republics (the predecessor to the current Organization of American States). He was also the second president of the Esperanto Association of North America (something not mentioned in the Wikipedia entry). As 1909 became 1910, Mr. Barrett has something of a New Year’s resolution. He had one shortcoming as the newly elected EANA president: he didn’t actually speak Esperanto.

The early days of the Esperanto movement in the United States attracted some well-connected individuals. Barrett’s predecessor was George Harvey, the publisher of the North American Review (although it seems that Henry James Foreman, the magazine's associate editor[2] was the real Esperanto enthusiast at the North American Review). Like Mr. Barrett, Mr. Harvey doesn’t seem to have actually learned Esperanto.

I am not certain that John Barrett ever learned more than some basic Esperanto. This does not seem to have been a barrier to his continued service as President (or Honorary President) of the EANA through 1912.[3] As Mr. Barrett was a prominent political figure, his election was reported in several newspapers, as was his pressing need to learn Esperanto. The Washington Herald reported on January 1, 1910 that John Barrett

John Barett, as New President, Must Learn by August

Universal Language to have Supreme Test at World-wide Convention to be Held Here.
John Barrett, whose election as president of the Esperanto Association of North America was announced yesterday, will be one of the first men to make an address in the universal language. The international convention of the Esperantist will be held in Washington in August, and as president of the North American Association Mr. Barrett will welcome the delegates from all parts of the world. Many who are coming will now nothing of the English language, but most of them will have prepared themselves to transact business of the convention in Esperanto.

Mr. Barrett, who is director of the Bureau of American Republics, was elected by the Esperantists to succeed Col. George Harvey, of New York. He has studied the new tongue but little, and therefore to fit himself for his address he will be compelled to master the language before August.

Free classes in Esperanto will be opened at 7:30 Monday evening at the Business High School. Secretary Edward C. Reed, of the Chamber of Commerce, invites visitors and queries from the public, and will make no charges.
The Herald was incorrect in claiming that Mr. Barrett would be “one of the first men to make an address in the universal language.” Public addresses in Esperanto had been part of the Esperanto conferences since 1905; the language had already proved itself that way. Also, why would a conference in Washington be a “supreme test”? There had already been five world-wide conventions of Esperanto.

The New York papers also noted Mr. Barrett’s failings as an Esperantist. The New York Sun reported
John Barrett Chosen President of the Esperanto Association.
Washington, Dec. 31.—John Barett, director of the Bureau of American Republics, to-day was elected president of the Esperanto Association of North America, succeeding Col. George Harvey, editor of Harper’s Weekly. Mr. Barrett, it was said, does not speak Esperanto yet, but experts to be the time the sixth international convention of the association meets in Washington next August.
And the New-York Tribune:
[From The Tribune Bureau.]
Washington, Dec. 31. — Announcement was made to-day of the election of John Barrett, director of the Bureau of American Republics, as president of the Esperanto Association of America, to succeed Colonel George Harvey. Mr. Barrett’s election was made by mail ballot. He received the unanimous vote of the twelve members of the general council of the association. Mr. Barrett has recently taken up the study of Esperanto and expects to be able to speak the new language fluently when its advocates hold their international convention in Washington in August.
Getting back to D.C., the Washington Times ran only one sentence:
All other languages having failed to justice to his vocabulary, John Barrett will now deliver himself of a few burning thought in Esperanto.
Of the four, the Times is the only paper that seems confident that Barrett would be expressing himself in Esperanto. Their caution seems to have been justified. When August came, Mr. Barrett pled illness and Dr. H. W. Yemans presided over the conference. And in November 1910, Amerika Esperantisto said that Barrett could only “carry on a very elementary conversation.” There had been plans for Barrett to host a diplomatic reception as part of the 1910 Universala Kongreso, but they were abruptly cancelled.

For about five years, the Esperanto movement in the United States had titular heads who didn’t speak the language themselves. It’s hard to imagine that they provided any effective leadership to the movement. This must have stuck in the craw of the dedicated Esperanto speakers who had formed a group in 1905 only to see the attendees of the 1908 Esperanto conference in Chautauqua, New York decide to form a new organization.

John Barrett doesn’t seem to have made good on his 1910 New Year’s resolution to learn Esperanto. That’s a shame, because if he had put a little effort into it, he could have mastered the language by August 1910 (and then he wouldn’t have been making those remarks that illness was keeping him from the Esperanto conference). By spending a couple of hours a week on Esperanto, you can learn a lot in seven months. It’s too late for Mr. Barrett, but you could make a New Year’s resolution to learn Esperanto. And, if unlike Mr. Barrett, you put the effort into it, by summer, you’ll be chattering away.

Feliĉan novan jaron!

  1. A brief biography of him can be found on Wikipedia.  ↩
  2. (Update: Found it! Henry James Forman.) I can’t put my fingers on it (one the problems of not actually creating an organized history of the Esperanto movement in the United States), but I remember running across a reference to George Harvey sending one of his editors to Esperanto conferences as his representative.  ↩
  3. Just as a side note, perhaps to spur some future research: Barrett was succeeded by H. W. Fisher, who was in turn succeeded by J. D. Hailman. A future project on my to do list is to work my way through the old issues of Amerika Esperantisto in order.  ↩

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