Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Death of an Esperantist

An unhappy end
Let’s clear this up first: despite the words of the Chicago Tribune, Herbert Harris was not “the chief exponent in America of Esperanto,” though he was certainly an active member of the Esperanto Association of North America, and the translator of two books into Esperanto (he was no Edward Payson, when it came to translation, or even leadership of the Esperanto movement). In 1919, when Harris died, it would have been more accurate to describe Payson as “the chief exponent in America of Esperanto.” That said, Harris was clearly an important and beloved figure in the Esperanto movement.

Sadly, Harris committed suicide by drowning. submerging himself in the waters of Lake Michigan in early June, 1919. He had been in the Esperanto movement for more than a decade. His obituary in Amerika Esperantisto notes that he learned Esperanto in 1906. (Amerika Esperantisto clearly went to press late, since the obituary written “as this number of the magazine goes to press” appeared in the June 1919 issue.)


The Chicago Tribune gives both the news and a bit of biography in their June 9, 1919 issue.

WEIGHTED BODY OF OLD MUSICIAN FOUND IN LAKE
Herbert Harris, Esperanto Expert, Believed a Suicide.
Fear that he would become a burden to himself and others was the probable cause of the suicide of Herbert Harris of the Hyde Park hotel, whose body was found Sunday morning in the lake near Fifty-fourth street. He disappeared from the hotel Friday. Stones and a heavy paper weight found in the pockets of his coat are conclusive evidence, the police say, that he threw himself into what water.

Harris was 72 years old. He was born at East Machias, Me. His mother, Deborah Longfellow Harris, was a relative of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

A Thirty-third Degree Mason.
Mr. Harris was a thirty-third degree Mason. He was the chief exponent in America of Esperanto, and attended several congresses as the representative of the United States. He was a church organist in Boston and Portland, Ore. He came to Chicago four years ago from Portland to be near his niece, Mrs. A. W. Hobson, 5328 Dorchestester avenue. For a time he resided at the Graystone hotel, and later removed to the Hyde Park.

Among his effects was found a letter directing that his body be creamated and the ashes sent to East Machias, Me., to be laid in the family plot. On another paper was a brief typewritten autobiography.

Niece Tells of Life.
“Mr. Harris was a man of rare attainments,” said Mrs. Hobson. “He was always of a frail constitution, and on this account he was 20 years old before he entered college. After his graduation he was an instructor at Bowdoin several years. On severing his connection with the college he went to Boston and took a thorough course in music.

“He taught music in Boston and also was organist of a church there until 1883, when he retired to his old home in Maine to care for his mother. I might say he abandoned a promising musical career to make his mother’s declining days happy. He lived at Portland, Ore., until he came to Chicago in 1914. 

Wrote Esperanto Dictionary.
“Mr. Harris was author of an Esperanto Dictionary, and he also translated several books into Esperanto.

“Mr. Harris was a daily visitor at my home. He was here the last time Thursday night and appeared to be in his usual good spirits.

“Although Mr. Harris was not a rich man he was independent. He inherited a small fortune and by his frugal mode of living he was able to meet all demands.

“The report that he lost $100,000 in speculation is preposterous.”

The funeral will be held this afternoon from the residence of Mr. Hobson. It will be private.

Herbert Harris was born on December 17, 1846, the third son of Peter Talbot Harris and Deborah Longfellow Harris. Harris dabbled in a bit of genealogy (long before the days when scanned archival documents and indexed databases made things a lot easier), compiling a work on his ancestors. He wrote, it would seem, three Esperanto works: a pocket English-Esperanto dictionary, and two (not several) translations.

Both of his translations were of works by his friend, Arlo Bates. Bates was a writer and professor of English Literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Like Harris, Bates was from East Machias, Maine. Bates’s book, A Book o’ Nine Tales is dedicated to Harris, and Harris translated the first story, “A Strange Idyl” as “Stranga Idilio.” The other work by Bates (and his wife, Eleanor Bates) that was translated into Esperanto by Harris is the children’s tale, Prince Vance, which in Esperanto became Princo Vanc’.

A digression on a bit of Esperanto. The typical word for translator is tradukisto, but the -ist- affix usually refers to professional work. Both Harris and Payson used the word tradukinto (the one who has translated) to refer themselves.

Thought it would be inaccurate to call him the “chief exponent in America of Esperanto,” he did have a role in the Esperanto Association of North America. He had been chair of the Examinations Committee, although in the July 1917 issue of Amerika Esperantisto, it was noted that Harris stepped down at that time. Though he had stepped down as from the Examinations Committee, he was still a committed Esperantist. The January 1918 issue had the following statement from him:
GEINSTRUISTOJ ATENTU!
Ĉu vi kapablas instrui Esperanton al viaj lernantoj? Se vi ne estas tute kompetentaj, mi serioze admonas vin, ke tia kompetenco baldaŭ fariĝos abosolute necesa, se vi deziras teni viajn oficojn.

Vi scias ke la internacia lingvo estas longatempe studata en oficialaj kursoj en multe da lernejoj Eŭrpoaj; kaj eble vi scias ke tia instruado jam estas aŭtoritate enkondukita en kelkajn lernejojn en Usono. Bedaŭrinde, estas vere ke tiuj lernejoj ankoraŭ estas tre malmultaj. Tamen, multegaj personoj, disigitaj tra la tuta lando, jam interesiĝis pri Esperanto, kaj la tago estas proksima kiam aŭdiĝos, en multaj urboj de multaj ŝtatoj, subita, insista petego, ke la geknaboj estu instruistaj pri la lingvo.

Mi ne scias, vi ne scias, kiel baldaŭ venos tiu voko; sed, kiam ĝi venos, kie troviĝos la necesaj instruontoj? Ĉu vi, vi kiu nun legas, ĉu vi estos preta? Sed ne, mi konsilas ke vi tuj preparu vin. Eĉ se tio postulos lacigan laboron, la kompenso kredeble estos kontentiga. “La rikolto estas granda, sed la laborantoj estas malmultaj.”

[ ATTENTION TEACHERS!
Are you capable to teach Esperanto to your students? If you are not completely competent, I seriously admonish you, that such will soon become absolutely necessary, if you desire to keep your positions.

You know that the international language for a long time has been studied in official courses in many European schools; and perhaps you know that kind of instruction is already introduced by authorities in some schools in the United States. Unfortunately, it is true that these schools are still very few. However, many people, distributed through the whole country, are already interested in Esperanto and the day is near when it will be heard, in many cities of many states a sudden insistent demand that the children be instructed in the language.

I do not know, you do not know, how soon comes that voice; but when it comes, where will the needed teachers be found? Will you, you who now reads, will you be ready. If not, I counsel you to prepare yourself. If if it will require early work, the compensation will likely be satisfactory. “The harvest if plentiful, but the laborers are few.”]
This has quite the tenor of the appeal to teach Esperanto in the Washington, D.C. schools.

Finally, the Tribune did note that Harris was a thirty-third degree Mason. I had to look this up, since the degrees of Freemasonry are outside my ken. It’s the top. Conspiracy theorists say that’s when you find it’s a devil-worshipping cult. It’s a degree given for meritorious service. He did bring up Esperanto to his brother Masons. Writing in the report of the 1906 Convocation of the Grand Chapter of Maine of the Royal Arch Masons, Harris said:
During the past few months, while writing this report, our attention has been called to the proposed international language called Esperanto. The need of such a language for foreign commerce, scientific publications, and all international gatherings, has long been felt, but no medium of communication which had hitherto been proposed had proved satisfactory. Esperanto, however, in our feeble judgement, appears to be exactly what is needed.
He goes on for the remainder of the page, while pointing out that the Royal Arch Masons do all their correspondence in English. Not a major Esperantist, but major or minor, a sad ending.
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