Sawyer names reflect literary tradition


“Aristotle, Virgil, Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare.” These five names are carved on the side of the former Stetson Hall front of Sawyer Library facing Paresky; another five adorn the Hopkins Hall face. Though most of us pass under the Sawyer names without giving them much thought, the placement of these names in a prominent position on our main library sends two messages. First, the names are a claim to academic legitimacy on the part of the College, and second, they implicitly form an intellectual standard towards which the College asks us to strive. But who chose these names and why?

Laurel Rhame, project archivist for the Special Collections in Sawyer Library, said there are a series of letters from 1920 between the College’s President Harry Garfield and Cram and Ferguson, the Boston-based firm contracted to build Stetson Hall, which the current Sawyer Library was built onto in 2014. Surprisingly, it was the architects who first proposed the idea of inscribing names on the face of the building. The architects’ preferred sequence was “Aristotle, Virgilius, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Emerson,” their two main reasons being, first,  “historical and local comprehensiveness” and, second, the approximate “right number of letters.” The first principle dictated that the chosen names should represent “Hellenistic, Roman, medieval, Renaissance and modern” time periods spanning the western canon. The second dictated that “Virgil” become “Virgilius,” that “Thomas Aquinas” become “Th. Aquinas” and that “Shakespeare” — by then the conventional spelling, used by the architects in their correspondence with Garfield — become “Shakespere.” Both principles reflected the architects’ fixation with symmetry, be that the canonical symmetry conferred by names spanning history or the visual symmetry dictated by names of similar length.

Though Garfield evidently accepted four of the architects’ five proposed names, he ruined the symmetry they had desired. When he adapted their sequence to what we see today, the architects rebelled. “Dante” had too few letters and disrupted the time period distribution — Dante was an Italian medieval writer, like Aquinas. “I very much wish you could adhere to our original scheme,” an affiliate of Cram and Ferguson wrote to Garfield, “for it seems to me much more comprehensive and significant. If you still feel that your choice is better, then we will put Dante in the middle, so that the short name will not try to balance a long one.” Unfortunately for the architects, Garfield didn’t let them put Dante in the middle and quashed their other objections by simply ignoring them.

What was Garfield’s rationale? The correspondence does not answer this question for us, but Assistant Professor of English Emily Vasiliauskas has a theory. “Aristotle is to Aquinas as Virgil is to Dante, a figure through which to redeem pagan antiquity … but also to demonstrate that Christianity is truth,” Vasiliauskas said. Readers of Dante’s Divine Comedy will know exactly what she means. Dante derives much of the Comedy from Virgil’s Aeneid, recasting its pre-Christian plots and metaphors as Christian, “demonstrating that Christianity is truth,” according to Vasiliauskas.

Then what about Shakespeare? With Aquinas and Dante having salvaged the works of Aristotle and Virgil, Shakespeare is “liberated to do anything he wants to do,” Vasiliauskas said. This included merging pagan and Christian traditions and, in doing so, “exceed[ing] the logic of tradition.” Garfield’s ordering and spelling of names, according to Vasiliauskas, represent a synthesis of pagan and Christian art all leading up to the mastery of Shakespeare.

Thus, the names on Sawyer’s face emerged from both the contracted architects’ desire for canonical and visual symmetry and Garfield’s desire to visually synthesize pagan and Christian art. Yet neither concern has stood the test of time. For most of this community, the reconciliation of pagan and Christian art is far from a hot topic; a survey of the posters around campus suggests we have different problems to address. The Sawyer names — though belonging to authors still loved and studied by many here — do not fully represent Williams anymore, both in their dead white maleness and in the outdated reasons for their choosing.

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