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Crete and James: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield

Crete and James: Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield

by John Shaw

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Crete and James is a collection of letters exchanged by James A. Garfield and Lucretia Randolph Garfield during the mid-nineteenth century. Of the 1,200 or so letters written, the 300 included this work chronicle their courtship and marriage, and also discuss the Civil War, political affairs, and the details of daily life during the years 1853-1881. In them,


Crete and James is a collection of letters exchanged by James A. Garfield and Lucretia Randolph Garfield during the mid-nineteenth century. Of the 1,200 or so letters written, the 300 included this work chronicle their courtship and marriage, and also discuss the Civil War, political affairs, and the details of daily life during the years 1853-1881. In them, we watch Crete grow from a shy girl into a self-confident woman who guides her husband in social and political matters. Through James’s flamboyant yet scholarly style, and Lucretia’s detailed, perceptive insights, we come to know them as though they were our close friends. Through their correspondence, the reader also meets the many people involved in their lives. Crete and James will be of great interest to those studying women’s history.

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A collection of some 300 letters exchanged by James A. Garfield and Lucretia Rudolph Garfield during their courtship and marriage in the mid-19th century. Letters discuss the Civil War, political affairs, and the details of daily life during the years 1853-1881. Includes brief editorial comments by Shaw (English, Hiram College). Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Crete and James

Personal Letters of Lucretia and James Garfield

By John Shaw

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 1994 John Shaw
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62895-255-1


Courtship: The First Year, 1853–1854

During their first year of correspondence James and Lucretia exchanged forty-five letters, of which twenty have been selected for inclusion here. James' first letter to Lucretia, written from Niagara Falls, came as a total surprise to her, for he had not shown any obvious interest in her before. They had known each other as children at the Geauga Academy in Chester, Ohio, and they had been well-acquainted at Hiram, where both were studying at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a newly founded Disciple school, later to become Hiram College.

But in November 1853 James turned his eye to Lucretia and began a correspondence that was to result in an engagement three months later, and in five years, marriage. The first letters are stilted and stiff; both write in a self-consciously "literary" style. In James' phrasing one can detect echoes from the classical texts he was reading and teaching. In a way he was "showing off" stylistically, impressing Lucretia, who had been one of the pupils in the Virgil class he taught the year before. Now she was herself teaching a class of children at a school in Chagrin Falls, a nearby town, while James was continuing his studies and teaching at Hiram's Eclectic Institute.

Though not quite twenty-two years old, James had traveled from home only as far away as western Pennsylvania and southern Ohio. It is not difficult to imagine his awe at seeing "the greatest waterfall upon the globe." Both Elizabeth McKinsey and John Sears, who have discussed the comments of nineteenth-century visitors to Niagara Falls, speak of the emotional experience recorded by countless travelers to this "preeminent American tourist attraction." "Educated people knew what they ought to feel in the presence of the Falls," writes Sears, "but it was inevitable that many of them did not respond with the full Burkean intensity. This was particularly true once the experience of Niagara had become a cliché, as it did by the 1830's." But reading James' account one feels he was indeed impressed by what he saw, though it is true that he has organized his impressions carefully in order to build emotion to a climactic moment.

Still, in his exact account of this vacation trip — he calls it a "statistical document" — James reveals a mind of more scholarly tendency than artistic. He does not speak of the development of industry and tourism, though he mentions the usual attractions: Goat Island, Horseshoe Fall, and the staircase to the foot of the Falls. Like most visitors, too, he visited Lundy's Lane, where a battle took place during the War of 1812.

* * *

Niagara Falls, Nov 16, 1853

Lucretia My Sister,

Please pardon the liberty I take in pointing my pen towards your name this evening, for I have taken in so much scenery today I cannot contain it all myself. Finding a necessity of stirring around some before the confinement of another term, and having long cherished a strong desire to see the greatest waterfall upon the globe, I concluded to do so now. Accordingly I went to Cleveland on Tuesday and tried to get a passage on the Lake, but the boat had left a short time before I reached the wharf. Being thus deprived of a passage upon moonlit Erie, I took the cars at 4 1/2 o'clock, and passing across the neck of the Key-Stone State, I arrived in Buffalo at 11 o'clock at night. The city is about three times as large as Cleveland, and contains 10,000 inhabitants. I strolled through the city till 9 o'clock, when I again took the cars, and in less than one hour I came in sight of the hoary monument of mist that stands in the abyss below the Falls, and bathes its head in the clouds. Most of the distance from Buffalo, we were in sight of the St. Lawrence through whose channel flows the water of all the great Western Lakes. It is about two miles in width and is tranquil and smooth as polished silver, till we reach the rapids. First there is seen only a slight ripple. Soon wavelets become waves, which burst into whitecaps and are scattered in foam. Among the "bounding billows" of the rapids are several beautiful islands covered with hemlock and other evergreen trees, and a bridge passing over from the American side to Goat Island, the principal one of these, where there are a few buildings, and walks are elegantly laid out through this forest island. It divides the river and forms the American and Canadian Fall, which last from its Shape is called "The Horse Shoe Fall." It comprises a circle of 2100 feet and is 158 feet high. I stood upon the Canadian shore (having crossed the ferry below the falls) and beheld embattled myriads of hoary billows leaping along the rapids till they reached the awful brink, where they sprang with a furious bound and disappeared in "thunder and in foam." Then clothed in an oilcloth suit, I descended a spiral staircase, and followed a guide behind the falling sheet of table rock to the distance of 230 feet. The scene there presented overwhelms the soul and beggars all description. To look above you and behold a liquid world begirt with rainbows, tumbling from the skies, and thundering as it comes, would seem as though the heavens themselves were molten seas and falling to the earth. ... I am stunned and overwhelmed at its immensity and grandeur, and to attempt to describe is only to desecrate it. I leave it — you can never feel it till you gaze yourself.

I then proceeded a few miles into Her Majesty's Dominions to the "Battle Ground" of\at Lundy's Lane where Gen Scott and his compeers won wreaths of lasting fame by being successful in the slaughter of 1100 human beings. An old soldier who was in the battle was there upon the observatory, and "fought the battle o'er again." I feel like moralizing here upon war and worldly fame. But I desist. From the Battle Ground by an "equestrian proceedure" I arrived at the suspension bridge. It is 800 feet long and is 230 feet above the water which at that place is 250 feet deep. They are now building a Rail Road Bridge about 40 feet directly above the other. From there I sauntered along the evergreen bank of the river looking down far below me upon the tops of tall trees growing at the water's edge, and thus closed the explorations of the day. I shall visit several other places of interest tomorrow, and in the afternoon return to Buffalo and if possible get an evening passage on the lake to Cleveland. I fear I shall miss it again, for there are but few boats that venture out now.

Now, Lucretia, if you have had patience to read thus far, this statistical document, I shall be fully confirmed in the belief that you are a woman of remarkable patience; and would say, I know not why I have written, only just I felt like it and did so. I expect, Deo Volente, to be in Hiram in a few days, perhaps in advance of this. Meantime with the kindest regards, I am, as ever, J. A. Garfield.

Address: J. A. G., Hiram, Portage C., Ohio.

Lucretia's reply to this letter comes from Hiram, where she lived. Her father, a carpenter, had been one of the founders of the Eclectic Institute in 1850 and had moved to Hiram from nearby Garrettsville in order to give his children the salubrious atmosphere of a "college town." At this time, however, Lucretia, who was twenty-one years old, was living a short distance away in Chagrin Falls, teaching at a school there; she visited her family's home on the weekends. She excuses her boldness in answering his letter by pretending that his noun "Address" was an imperative verb, so that James was in fact requesting that she "address" him. Even after she had returned to Hiram from Chagrin Falls, the two corresponded rather than talked, at least three or four weeks more. On one occasion the postmistress received a letter from Lucretia and, as James came in, simply handed it to him.

* * *

Hiram, Nov 20, 1853

Very Kind Brother:

Your Niagara offering was not received until last Saturday evening. None the less welcome, however, nor less fraught with interest to me by its delay, for until its reception I was not aware of your visit to the world's greatest wonder, and to receive a line prompted by the inspiration of that mighty torrent's grandeur truly called forth a large amount of gratitude. Often as I have read or listened to descriptions of its inconceivable vastness and sublimity have I desired to stand beside it and "feel" myself the power of its overwhelming might, and as often have I determined that thus it should sometime be — when, however, the future must reveal. At present my attention and my mind with all its energies are directed towards and concentrated upon one little spot of Earth; so that I do not know that even the Great Niagara could attract my notice, only if it might serve to amuse my little dear ones, as to illustrate some wonderful idea I could impress on their minds. A little time, however, each day I devote to Virgil and other reading. Have you ever read a work of Carlyle, "Heros and Hero Worship"? If not, I think you would be interested with it.

I presume you are enjoying yourself and that the school is prospering. This time, though, I know but little more about it than I would a hundred miles distance. I would like to know how many hundred lines the Virgil class are ahead of me, etc. and trust I'll see you before long, as I would like to learn and hear about your trip, and whether you were favored with a night's sail upon Erie's blue waters, and if so whether all or any of your youthful conceptions of a home on the billows were realized.

I have no apology for troubling you with this line since you charged me to "Address J. A. G., Hiram, Portage County, Ohio," and as I know not when an opportunity would permit my so doing personally, concluded to at least acknowledge the reception of your favor and my gratitude for the same, hoping you will receive it with a brother's kindness and forbearance. Truly your sister, Lucretia.

* * *

Curiously, James in his next letter repeated some of the descriptive material from his first letter, namely, the process of the build-up of the waters from "placid and smooth as polished silver" to the furious rapids and the "embattled host of billows." He apparently liked these phrases. The psychology of growth or development appealed to him; this emphasis on the process of emotional or intellectual build-up appears frequently in his writing in various guises.

* * *

Hiram, Dec 8, 1853

Much Respected Sister:

Many thanks to you for your kind and very welcome letter, which was recieved last Monday morning. I well understand your feelings in reference to your school, that your whole being is absorbed in the work of moulding and giving direction to the plastic minds of the youth placed under your care. To know that we are handling the delicate machinery of mind, and impressing thoughts on the principles that shall remain forever must necessarily impress us with a sense of great responsibility. I think every person should teach at least one school to obtain the true viewing of humanity and human life.

I have never read Carlyle's work, but have heard it spoken well of, and very much desire to read it. I am fully satisfied that textbooks alone will not make the mind rich and overflowing with that fullness of thought that everyone desires, and I know that for my part I am very deficient in general knowledge. I am, however, trying to do something this winter. I am now reading "McCaulay's History of England" and some miscellanies. I have a book called "The Heroines of History" which I like very much, so far as I have read it. Also, a book called "Hurry Graphs" by N. P. Willis, in which there are some fine things. Have you ever read them? There is great beauty in his writings, but it is said that his personal character is rather exceptionable. Should we allow that consideration to influence us in reading an author?

I spent the forenoon of the day after I wrote you in wandering through the beautiful islands above the falls, writing, pondering and admiring. I have no words to describe the emotions inspired by that awfully sublime scene. To see the majestic Niagara two miles in width with its surface placid and smooth as polished silver, first become gently ruffled, and then the sloping channel stirs its crystal depths, and maddens all its waters. An embattled host of billows come leaping down the opposing rocks of the rapids until they reach the awful brink, where all surcharged with frantic fury, leap bellowing down the rocky steeps which thunder back the sullen echoes of their roar, and shout God's praise above the cloudy skies. O that the assembled millions of the earth could once behold that scene, sublime and awful....

I loved to be alone, but still I wished all of my friends were by my side to gaze with me upon that scene. I must sometime see it again — if I live.

That afternoon I took the cars for Buffalo, and at 4 o'clock P. M. was seated in the splendid cabin of the steamer "Ohio," bound for Cleveland. A cloudy night succeeded, and I contented myself with visiting the boat. I went into the hold, where were 40 or 50 Irish and German emigrants. I made some of their acquaintances, listened to the songs and stories of their dear Fatherland, then viewed the complicated machinery of the powerful engine, and then walked, talked and discussed with the passengers in the cabin. Among these were a Canadian scholar and a young Catholic who is educating himself for a priest. With these I spent much time in discussing the comparative merits of England and America, and Protestantism and Catholicism. We were, on account of head winds, all that night, the next day, and next night till nearly midnight upon the lake. The last evening, just as we were leaving Fairport, and as Virgil says, "urbesque terraeque recedebant," the virgin moon rose in a clear sky. I stood upon the hurricane deck alone. Her blush paved the lake with silver, and she looked down upon her own bright face immersed in its crystal depths. Then I gazed far back towards the receding city, and beheld the swirling waves of the steamer's wake, sparkling in the moonbeams like diamond gems, and then a slight breeze arose, which rippled gently the bosom of the Lake that glittered then with drops of gold and pearl. You ask me, "if any of my youthful conceptions of a home on the billows were realized." I will not trouble you with that long, strange story of my early youth, but only say for years my soul longed for a home upon the deep blue sea, and even yet, when higher aims and objects fill my heart, I love the ocean with its foaming waves, and let me often from the cares of life retire, and listen to its deep toned music and gaze upon its crested waters.

The latter part of that night I spent at the "Forest City House," where lingered other recollections of a former visit, and the next evening I was in Hiram.

The school is going on quite pleasantly, though among the 240 that are here we have some unruly ones. Today, the Virgil class finished the third book and are going about 50 lines per day. Are you ahead? I presume so. Won't you come in to both Greek and Latin in the spring? We miss you very much in these two classes. What are your views now with regard to studying the classics? Have you reconciled yourself to devoting a few more years to them? I would like to hear your reasonings on the subject. I would much rather converse "ore quam calamo," but it seems that our leisure hours do not synchronize, and will you therefore forgive me for inflicting so long a letter upon you.

I should be much pleased to receive another bundle of thoughts from you, if you deem it worth your time to send them. Have you concluded to keep closed doors or to admit spectators to your school's, your winter's empire? I have some interest in the decision. Hoping that you will overlook these many imperfections, and pardon them, I am

Truly and sincerely Your Brother, James.

* * *

Hiram, Dec 14, 1853

Brother James:

We seem very artlessly to have commenced a correspondence by letter as a substitute for an occasional personal interview, which the concurrence of circumstances unavoidable appears at present to forbid, and as it is in perfect harmony with my inclinations I shall not be the one to discontinue it at present; indeed, I could with the familiarity of a Sister ask rather that it be continued, since by your queries concerning my views now in reference to studying the classics you have paved the way for an investigation of their merits, which I do hope will result in some kind of a decision in my mind. Candidly, I will confess that thus far I have prosecuted the study of them without any argument in their favor which appeared to me conclusive. Do you wonder that conscience sometimes upbraids me? Doubtless, it is owing to my lack of penetration and ignorance and with this consideration I have quieted the Monitor. But am I never to get wiser, or is it indeed a truth that the time and attention they demand might and therefore should be devoted to pursuits more worthy? True, it is a rigid discipline for the mind in that digging out those Greek and Latin roots, and straightening those crooked sentences; but is it there alone it can receive it? Perhaps it is. Perchance the phrenologist is right when he affirms that a certain class of faculties will remain uneducated unless culled out by their pursuit. Strange, however, that the Creator should have endowed man with such faculties, and for over two thousand years left him unprovided for their training. I wish you would convince me of their superior merit if they really possess it; for I do not like to give them up — neither do I like to continue in them feeling ever that precious moments are being wasted, moments that should tell of stores of wisdom treasured.


Excerpted from Crete and James by John Shaw. Copyright © 1994 John Shaw. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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John Shaw was emeritus professor of English at Hiram College.

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