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Don Marquis Letter to Knox College Alumni

Don Marquis's Education

Letter to Mr. Edward Caldwell of New York City
February, 1930

My dear Mr. Caldwell:

I wish I were able to be present at the Dinner. . . .

I have always had a very strong sentiment with regard to Knox College -- an almost inexplicable sentiment, when you consider that I was never there more than a couple of months. I am, in fact, loyal to the college education I might have had if I had had one; loyal to the college I should have gone to if I had gone to college. As a youth of fifteen my then school teacher, Mr. John Wylie, fired me with an ambition to go to Knox College; and a few years later Albert Brittle came through the village where I lived, singing a barber shop baritone, as I remember it, on something he called a Glee Club. If you don't think Brittle can sing, ask him to at dinner and -- but I was never any judge of music. At any rate, Mr. Brittle fired me once more with the ambition to go to Knox College. I took a lot of firing, it appears. Later, Mr. S. S. McCloskey, through the medium of his magazine, fired me once again; all I had to do was get a thousand subscriptions to the magazine, and I could go to Knox college. I was never any good selling books or magazines, however -- to this day my books don't sell very well; and I left the McCloskey proposition flat, after I had put in six months getting twelve subscriptions. Then John Cleveland fired me with ambition to go to Knox College again, and this time I borrowed $20 and went.

Twenty dollars was an immense sum in 1898 -- and indeed, I've seen a lot of times since when I'd rather have twenty dollars than what I had at the moment -- and I went down to Galesburg on a railroad pass (I knew some brakeman on the C. B. and Q.) and started to college.

There were two things right at the start that bothered me. One was my appetite and the other was a desire to play football. I never got any farther than an assistant substitute tackle on the second team, but I found I couldn't even do that and work my way through school. And if I didn't work I could not satisfy my appetite, which had dilated owing to contact with football. After coming out of a showerbath, my appetite was imperious. I spent enormous sums for food. I used to go to the 3-cent restaurant and put away as much as 27 cents worth of food at one meal, and you could get large quantities of food in 1898 in that lunch room for 27 cents. Any time I got away from being massacred in practice games and eating, I put in reading the romances of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas in the college library. The purely academic side of my college career was increasingly neglected.

Before Thanksgiving I saw a showdown rapidly approaching. I would either have to give my time to manual labor and study, or inherit a fortune, or quit college. While I was still hemstitching Dr. Finley sent for me -- I suppose he had heard that I was a fellow who needed a job. At any rate, I was afraid of that; I was afraid that he had a job for me. I couldn't face it. I sold my books, laid away one final enormous meal in the 3-cent restaurant, and left Galesburg in an empty box car. For many years afterword I hoped that I would be able to get back there; my plan was to save enough money to put myself through Knox and have a fairly good time doing it. But in the thirty years since I have never been able to save the money. Perhaps by the time I am 75 years old I will be able to matriculate with some hope of getting through the whole academic course. If that ever comes to pass, I pledge myself to the matriculation. I am not as optimistic as I used to be, but I still have some hope.

But what I am trying to get at is this: During all those years of frustration, my primary loyalty to the particular school has remained unimpaired. It has always been my college, though I have never been its -- at least it has been my alma step-mater. And as I look about me in the world and see the men and women who have helped make the college, and who have been made by it, I grow increasingly prouder of this step-college of mine. I can, in a way, take a more detached point of view than any of the rest of you -- in fact, mine has been rather a continuing detachment from than a continued connection with. But, seriously, this college and the few like it have done a great quiet work in the world which the world can ill afford to get along without, whether the world is aware of that fact or not.

I hope you will continue to allow me to retain my sentiment for the college -- my spiritual kinship -- despite all my physical absences. Perhaps this sentiment may strike old Knox graduates as a little bit absurd under the circumstances -- rather like a sentiment on the part of an old bachelor for the girl he never married. But the elusive character of these things does not mitigate their poignance, and I insist on keeping this feeling for the place I did not spent my youth at.

Hoping you will pardon my multitudinous prepositional endings, and assuring all Knox people of my cordial regards, I am,

Sincerely yours,
                  DON MARQUIS.

From "The Bowling Green" column by Chrisopher Morley in the January 22, 1938, issue of The Saturday Review

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Jim Ennes

Don Marquis