The Courage That Faces Obstacles
"YOU may expect to spend the rest of your days tied to your chair."
Theodore Roosevelt's physician made this disconcerting announcement to
his patient a few weeks before his death.
How would the courageous man receive an announcement like that? How
would you receive it?
Let the words spoken in reply by the lion-hearted Roosevelt never be
forgotten by others who struggle with difficulties:
"All right! I can work and live that way, too!"
Surely the triumphant words justified the characterization made by
Herman Hagedorn of this colossal worker:
"He was frail; he made himself a mountain of courage."
At a dinner given to celebrate the worthy achievement of a public man, a
guest spoke of him to a companion at table.
"No wonder he has been so well. Everything is in his favor: he is young,
he is brilliant, he is in good health."
"In good health?" was the answering comment. "Where did you get that?
For years he has been in wretched health; many a night he was unable to
sleep except he knelt on the floor by the bedside and stretched himself
from his waist across the bed. But it is not strange that you did not
know, he has said nothing of his ailments; he is so full of courage
himself that he makes everyone around him courageous."
When the famous Sioux Indian, Charles A. Eastman, was a boy, his father,
who had learned the joys of civilized life, urged his son to secure an
education. "I am glad that my son is brave and strong," he said to him.
"I have come to start you on the White Man's way. I want you to grow to
be a good man."
Then he urged his son, Ohiyesa, as he was called, to put on the
civilized clothes he had brought with him. The boy rebelled at first; he
had been accustomed to hate white men and everything that belonged to
them. But when he reflected that they had done him no harm, after all,
he decided to try on the curious garments.
Together father and son traveled toward the haunts of the white man. As
they traveled Ohiyesa listened to tales of the wonderful inventions he
would see. He was especially eager to look on a railroad train.
But even after he had gone with his father, he was reluctant to enter on
his long training, until his father suggested that he make believe he
was starting on a long war-path, from which there could be no honorable
return until his course was completed. Entering into the spirit of the
proposal, the Indian lad began his schooling at Flandreau Indian Agency,
and persisted for twelve long years. After graduating from college he
devoted himself to his people, and in many years since has accomplished
wonders for them, teaching them the patience he had himself learned, and
enabling them to understand that such patience and persistence always
brings its reward.
The experience of Isaac Pitman, the inventor of shorthand, was
different, yet, after all, it was much the same. As a boy he had little
education. But soon after he went to work he made up his mind to supply
the lack. The record of how he did this is one of the most remarkable
instances of courageous patience on record.
The long office hours at his place of employment, from six in the
morning until six at night, made study difficult, but he showed
conclusively that where there is a will there is a way, and that he had
the will. He was accustomed to leave his bed at four, that he might
study two hours before the beginning of the day's work. Two hours in the
evening also were set apart for study. Sometimes it happened that work
at the factory was light, and the young clerk was excused for the
morning. Instead of taking the time for sport, it was his habit to take
a book with him into the fields or under the trees.
Thomas Allen Reid, in his biography of Pitman says: "One of the books
which he made his companion in morning walks into the country was
Lennie's Grammar. The conjugation of verbs, list of irregular verbs,
adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions, and the thirty-six rules of
syntax, he committed to memory so that he could repeat them in order.
The study of the books gave him a transparent English style."
His father was a subscriber to the local library. "I went regularly to
the library for fresh supplies of books," Isaac said, in 1863, "and thus
read most of the English classics. I think I was quite as familiar with
Addison, and Sir Roger, and Will Honeycomb, and all the Club, as I was
with my own brothers and sisters ... and when reading The Spectator at
that early age, I wished that I might be able to do something in
Before he left school he formed the habit of copying choice pieces of
poetry and prose into a little book which he kept in his pocket. These
bits he would commit to memory when he had leisure. A later pocket
companion contained a neatly written copy of Valpey's Greek Grammar, as
far as the syntax, which he committed to memory. In his morning walks in
1832 he committed to memory the first fourteen chapters of Proverbs. He
would not undertake a fresh chapter until he had repeated the preceding
one without hesitation.
As most of his knowledge of words was gained from books, he had
difficulty in pronunciation. "His method of overcoming the deficiency
was ingenious," his biographer wrote. "Again and again he read 'Paradise
Lost.' Careful attention to the meter enabled him to correct his faulty
pronunciation of many words. Words not found in the poem he discovered
in the dictionary. With unusual courage he decided to read through
Walker's Dictionary, fixing his mind on words new to him and on the
spelling and pronunciation of familiar terms. On the pages of one of his
pocket-books he copied all words he had been in the habit of
mispronouncing. Although there were more than two thousand of these
words, the plan was carried out before he was seventeen."
The labor of writing out so many extracts from books led him to study
the imperfect system of shorthand then current, and to develop the
system that was to bear his name.
So many young people feel that they "simply cannot abide" the long
process of getting an education; they give up when they are only a part
of the way to the goal. But for most of them the day of bitter regret
will come when they will wish that they had been more like Eastman or
Pitman in their determination to be patient and persistent, to allow
nothing to stand in the way of their purpose to fit themselves in the
best possible manner for the serious business of life.
DEPENDING ON SELF
Young men just starting out in life nowadays, who find the path to
success difficult, are more fortunate than some of those who struggled
with hard times a century or more ago, because they are determined to
make a self-respecting fight on their own merits. It was not always so;
once nothing was thought of the effort made by an impecunious young man
to throw himself on the generosity of one who had already achieved
success. Then it was a habit of many authors to seek as a patron a man
of influence and means who would help them live till their books were
ready for the publisher, and then help to get the books before the
From letters of George Crabbe, a poet of some note in his century,
asking Edmund Burke to become his patron, something of his story may be
known. As a boy he was apprenticed to an apothecary; later he was
proprietor of a small shop of his own. Business, neglected for books and
writing, did not prosper. With his sister, his housekeeper, he "fasted
with much fortitude." Then he went to London, with a capital of nine
pounds, and starved some more. Months were spent in trying to enlist
two patrons. At last, threatened with a prison for debt, he decided to
try a third patron; and this was his procedure, as he himself described
"I looked as well as I could into every character that offered itself to
my view, and resolved to apply where I found the most shining abilities,
for I had learnt to distrust the humanity of weak people in all
So he wrote to Edmund Burke, telling him that he could no longer be
content to live in the home of poor people, who had kept him for nearly
a year, and had lent him money for his current expenses. Describing
himself as "one of those outcasts on the world, who are without a
friend, without employment and without bread," he told of his vain
appeal to another for gold to save him from prison, added that he had
but one week to raise the necessary funds, and made his request.
"I appeal to you, sir, as a good, and, let me add, a great man. I have
no other pretensions to your favor than that I am an unhappy one. It is
not easy to support thoughts of confinement, and I am coward enough to
dread such an end to my suspense ... I will call upon you, sir,
to-morrow, and if I have not the happiness to obtain credit with you I
must submit to my fate ... I have only to hope a speedy end to a life so
unpromisingly begun ... I can reap some consolation in looking to the
end of it."
The appeal was successful. Edmund Burke became Crabbe's patron. The poet
was glad to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table, and
submitted to many unpleasant slights and insinuations while he received
the dole of charity.
That suing thus for a patron did not always have the effect of
destroying an author's self-respect is shown by a letter written by Dr.
Samuel Johnson to Lord Chesterfield. When, after years of hard labor,
Dr. Johnson's dictionary was known to be ready for publication, Lord
Chesterfield wrote for "The World" two flattering articles about the
author, evidently thinking that the work would be dedicated to him. At
once Dr. Johnson wrote:
"My Lord: When, upon some slight encouragement, I first visited your
lordship, I ... could not forbear to wish ... that I might obtain that
regard for which I saw the world contending; but I found my attendance
so little encouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to
"Seven years, my lord, have passed since I waited in your outward room,
or was repulsed from your door, during which time I have been pushing on
my work through difficulties, of which it is useless to complain, and
have brought it at last to the verge of publication, without one act of
assistance, one word of encouragement or one smile of favor. Such
treatment I did not expect for I never had a patron before.... The
notice which you have been pleased to take of my labor, had it been
early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent, and
cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and cannot impart it; till I am
known, and do not want it.... I have long awakened from that dream of
hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, my lord,
"Your lordship's most humble, most obedient servant,
The lapse of a century has brought a change. Self-respecting, courageous
young workers do not seek a patron to help them to fame. To-day they ask
only to fight their own battles, win their own victories.
Nor do courageous workers complain when little things go wrong.
"I don't know what I shall do if the mail does not come to-morrow. Think
of being two days without a morning paper!"
The complaint was heard when railway traffic had been tied up by
washouts on the railway. The inconvenience suffered by the speaker
seemed to him very great. Though there had been no other interruption to
the many comforts and conveniences to which he had been accustomed, the
single difficulty made him lose his temper and spoiled his day.
When one is tempted to magnify such a small difficulty into a mountain
it is worth while to look at things from the standpoint of a man whose
life far from the centers of civilization makes him so independent of
circumstances and surroundings that he can be cheerful even in the face
of what seem like bitter privations.
A company of travelers in the forests of Canada thought that the
knowledge of the most recent news was necessary to happiness. They
learned their mistake when they reached the camp of a man from whom
they expected to learn news more recent than the events reported in the
paper the day they left civilization, seven weeks before. They felt sure
that, as he lived on the trail, he would have seen some traveler who had
left the railroad since their own departure.
When they asked him for late news from the States, he said he had some
very recent news, and proceeded to tell of events eight months old! "Do
you call that recent?" he was asked, in disgust.
"What's the matter with that?" was the wondering reply. "It only
happened last fall, and there ain't been nobody through here since." And
he contentedly resumed the task at which he had been engaged when
interrupted by the demand for "recent" news.
On the same journey the travelers--whose story is told in "Trails in
Western Canada"--showed that they were learning the lesson. Carelessness
in handling a campfire caused a forest fire which threatened their food
supply. They saved this, but lost their only axes. After a long search
they found these in the embers, but the temper had been utterly ruined
by the heat. Only a few hours before they felt that an axe was
absolutely necessary not only to comfort but to life itself, yet when
the ruined tools were found the travelers turned to their tasks without
giving the disaster a second thought. They knew that there is always a
way out of difficulty. They continued their expedition without an axe,
and found that they managed very well.
The lesson was impressed still more by the attitude of a guide who spent
a few days with them. Like many other people on vacation they allowed
themselves to worry about finances. But their thoughts were set on a new
track by the guide, who, after telling of the success in trapping
grizzly bear and beaver which had enabled him to save a little money,
said: "Life is too short to worry about money. If I lose all I have
to-morrow, I can get a couple of bear traps and by next spring I'll be
on my feet again. The mountains are always here, and I know where there
is a bunch of bear and a colony of beaver, and I can get along out here,
and live like a prince while those poor millionaires are lying awake at
nights, lest someone come and steal their money."
Two other guides were engaged to pole the travelers' raft down the
Fraser River. Nearly every day the cold rain fell in torrents, but the
men were unmoved. "All day long they would stand in their wet clothes,
their hands numb and blue from the cold as they handled their dripping
poles; yet not a comment indicating discomfort is recalled. Physical
annoyances, which in the city would bring an ambulance, scarcely are
mentioned by them."
One day one of the men was asked what they did when they were sick.
"Cain't say we ever are sick," was the reply. "The worst thing that ever
happened to us, I reckon, was when Mort here had a bad tooth; but, after
a day or two, we got sick of it, and took it out." That was all he
thought worth saying about it till he was pressed for an account of the
operation. "Oh, I looked through our dunnage bag," he said, "and found
an old railroad spike. Mort held it against the tooth and I hit the head
with a big rock, and knocked her out the first time."
His companion was unwilling to agree that this was the most trying
experience. He told of a day when the man who had reported the tooth
extraction, cut his foot severely with an axe. "Oh, that didn't bother
us," the victim interrupted. "I just slapped on some spruce gum and
never thought anything more about it." Asked how long he was laid up,
the surprised answer was: "Laid up for that? We weren't laid up at all.
Couldn't travel quite as fast for a day or two, but we didn't lose no
time at that, for we traveled longer to make up."
Still another guide gave an object lesson in making light of
difficulties when his horse fell on him, bruising one of his knees so
that it swelled to an enormous size. The injured man made no complaint,
though his companions were full of sympathy. He knew he could reduce the
swelling by heroic remedies.
One day when traveling was unusually difficult, the guide cheered his
employers by telling them of the fine camp he owned just ahead--"a house
like a hotel," he said. And when the camp was reached he pointed proudly
to "a great log with a few great pieces of bark and some cedar slivers
stretched over the top." In this camp the night was spent, without
blankets and in the rain. "But as no one seemed to consider this
anything out of the ordinary, the travelers made no complaint."
Perhaps a taste of the wilderness is what we need when we become
impatient of trifles and make ourselves miserable because everything
does not go to suit us.
Failure camps on the trail of the man who is ready to give up because
difficulties multiply. A representative of a large paper warehouse made
up his mind to add to his list of customers a certain Michigan firm.
Repeated rebuffs did not daunt him. Every sixty days he sent the firm a
letter of invitation to buy his goods. During twenty-seven years one
hundred and sixty-one letters were mailed without result. Then, in reply
to the one hundred and sixty-second letter, the Michigan firm asked for
quotations. These were given promptly, and two carloads of paper were
sold. What if this letter writer had become discouraged before he wrote
this final letter?
"I thought you were planning to complete your education," a friend said
to a young man whom he had not seen for some time; "yet now you are
clerking in a store. Perhaps, though, you are earning money for next
"No, I am earning money for this year's expenses," was the discouraged
reply. "I did want an education, but I found it was too difficult to get
what I sought, so I have decided to settle down."
Of course it is easier to give up than it is to push on in the face of
difficulty, but the youth who pushes on is fitting himself to fill a
man's place in the world, while the young man who is easily discouraged
is fitting himself for nothing but disappointment. The world has no
place for a quitter.
There is a tonic for young people who purpose to make the most of
themselves in glimpses of a few college students who had the courage to
face difficulty. One of these was an Italian boy, who was glad to beat
carpets, wash windows, scrub kitchen floors, mow lawns, teach grammar,
arithmetic and vocal exercises at a night school for foreigners.
Then--as if his time was not fully occupied by these occupations--he
made arrangements to care for a furnace and sift the ashes, in exchange
for piano lessons. That student finished his preparatory course with
credit, taking a prize for scholarship.
A seventeen-year-old boy wanted an education, but he had nine brothers
and sisters at home, and he knew that he could look for no financial
assistance from his parents. So he picked cotton at sixty cents a
hundred pounds, sawed wood, cut weeds and scrubbed floors--and thus paid
One student could not spare the money to pay his railroad fare to the
school of his choice. But he had a pony. So he rode the pony the entire
distance of five hundred miles, working for his expenses along the way.
A beginner in college was too full of grit to give up when bills came on
him more heavily than he had expected. During the school year he did
chores, rang the bell for the change of classes, did janitor work, and
waited on table in restaurants. In the summer he found work on farms
"No task is too difficult for the man with a purpose," declared a worker
with young men, some of whom were ready to give up. "Two things are
necessary if you would be successful," was another man's message to
those whom he wished to inspire to do purposeful work. "First: know what
you want to do. Second: do it."
Those who permit obstacles to stand in the way of the performance of
tasks they know they ought to perform if they would make the most of
themselves, need to take to heart the message given by a mother to her
son when he was ready to give up the unequal struggle with poverty and
physical infirmity. "Thou wilt have much to bear, many hardships to
suffer," she said. "But mark what I say, we must not mind the trouble.
During the first part of the night we must prepare the bed on which to
stretch ourselves during the latter part."
Giving up after failure is always easier than trying again, but the men
and women who count are those who will not be dismayed by failure. When
J. Marion Sims, the famous surgeon, was beginning the practice of
medicine, he proudly tacked an immense tin sign on the front of his
office. Then he lost two patients, and pride and courage both failed
him. "I just took down that long tin signboard from my door," he wrote
in the story of his life. "There was an old well back of the house,
covered over with boards. I went to the well, took that sign with me,
dropped it in there, and covered the old well over again. I was no
longer a doctor in the town." But fortunately he conquered
discouragement, made a fresh beginning, and overcame tremendous
obstacles. After his death a famous man said that if all his discoveries
should be suppressed, it would be found that his own peculiar branch of
surgery had gone backward at least twenty-five years.
Indomitable perseverance is necessary for the business man as for the
professional man; and it will just as surely bring reward to those who
are engaged in Christian work as to those who are seeking worldly honor.
So when the uphill climb seems too difficult, there must be no
faltering. Remember--as Christina Rossetti said--"We shall escape the
uphill by never turning back."
In gathering material for a history of Charles V of Spain, a Spanish
historian was painstaking in his researches. Finally he was able to tell
the king's whereabouts on every day of his career, except for two weeks
Then friends assured him that he had done his best. In all probability
nothing of importance happened during those days. But the historian
believed in being thorough to the end. So he delayed publication. For
fifteen years he sought news of the missing fortnight. Finally, and
reluctantly, when he was seventy-five years old, he published the book.
At length an American woman, studying in the archives of Spain, having
learned of the lost days, resolved to find them. Among musty documents,
in many libraries, she toiled. Then, by a woman's intuition, she was led
to look for documents of a sort the Spanish historian had never thought
of. And she found where the king was on some of those days. The news was
sent to the historian, just in time for him to make additions to his
inaugural address to be delivered on taking his seat in the Academy of
History. In this address he rejoiced to give full credit for the
discovery to the American.
But the woman was not satisfied; there was still a gap to be filled. She
made further trials, and failed. Again intuition led her to documentary
sources that had hardly been touched since they were filed away nearly
three hundred years before. She succeeded, and now that bit of history
A well known writer for young people was also persistent in tracing a
story to its source. When he came to America from his native Holland he
heard for the first time the story of the Dutch hero who stopped the
hole in the dike, a story unknown in Holland. He resolved to prove or
disprove this. The record of his long search was published later. Not
only did he prove the existence of the boy, but he proved that the boy's
sister was a partner in the heroic deed. Thus the helpful story has been
saved for future generations.
These incidents make interesting reading. But do they not do more?
Surely it is unnecessary to urge the lesson of persistence in a task
seriously undertaken. Often there is temptation to slight some
worth-while task, after one has worked on it painstakingly for a time.
"Why pay so much attention to detail?" is asked. "Surely no real harm
will be done if I give less time to some of these things that seemed so
important at the beginning!"
Fortunately there are multitudes of workers who are constitutionally
unable to slight a task. The proofreader on a paper of large circulation
is an example. It is a part of her work to prove statements made, to
verify facts and figures, to see that these are altogether accurate.
Once when there was an unusual pressure of work the editor suggested
that she might wish to take certain things for granted, but she showed
her conscientious thoroughness by performing the task to the end,
according to the rules of the office, and in the face of weariness that
was almost exhaustion.
It may not be given to you to be a historian. You may not be called upon
to prove the story of a hero. It may not be your task to read proof or
to verify manuscripts. But each one has a definite part in the work of
the world and there is no one to whom the example of historian and
proofreader is without value. All need to remember the truth in the
assurance, "There is nothing so hard but search will find it out."
Two young people were passing out of a building where they had just
listened to a speaker of note.
"What a wonderful talk that was!" said one who found it a heavy cross to
make the simplest address in public. "I wish I had such a gift of
"It isn't a gift in his case; it is an acquirement," was the response.
"If you had known that man five years ago, you would agree with me. When
I first knew him he could not get up in a public meeting and make the
simplest statement without floundering and stammering in a most pitiful
manner. But he had made up his mind to be a public speaker, and he put
himself through a severe course of discipline. To-day you see the
The biography of Dr. Herrick Johnson tells of courageous conquest of
difficulties that seemed to block the way to success: "Hamilton College
has always given great attention to public speaking and class orations.
The high standard was set by a remarkably gifted man, Professor
Mandeville, who instituted a system in the study of oratory and public
speaking which has been known ever since, with some modification, as the
"In 1853, Dr. Anson J. Upson was in the Mandevillian chair, and had
lifted up to still greater height the standard of public speaking, and
had awakened a great, inextinguishable enthusiasm for it. Not one of the
boys who entered that year, and who were at that prize-speaking contest,
could fail to be seized with the public-speaking craze. It especially
met Herrick Johnson's taste and trend and gifts, and fired his highest
aim. Probably there was nothing he wanted so much as the prize in his
class at the next commencement. But unfortunately his standards and
ideals of public speaking were just then as far as possible from the
Mandevillian standard. He had acquired what was called a ministerial
tone, and other faults fatal to any success, unless eradicated. The best
speakers of the upper classes were the recognized and accepted
'drillers' of the new boys, who at once put themselves under their care
and criticism. Every spring and fall a certain valley with a grove,
north of the college, was the resort of the aspirants for success at
this time. The woods would ring with their 'exercises' and strenuous
declamation, and I presume it is the same to-day.
"Herrick Johnson had a magnificent voice, well-nigh ruined by his sins
against the right method of using it. He soon saw that it was going to
be essential for him to go down to the foundation of his wrong methods
and break them all up and absolutely eradicate his 'tone.' It was no
easy thing to do, but the young man was intensely ambitious, and so he
worked with the greatest energy. He failed of an appointment on the
'best four' of his Freshman class. But he worked away throughout his
Sophomore year and failed again. The upperclassmen saw his pluck, they
recognized his grand voice, and they worked with him during his Junior
year, until he had mastered the Mandevillian style, wholly eradicated
his 'tone,' corrected all defects, and got his appointment for one of
the best four speakers of the Junior year; and on the prize-speaking
night of that commencement, he went on the platform conscious of his
power and swept everything before him as the Junior prize speaker. It
set the standard for that young man. Voice, manner, address, were all
masterful and accounted easily for his great success as a public speaker
through all his subsequent prominent and successful career in his
A part of the good of "speaking a piece" is to try again, determined to
retrieve failure. Success is not always a good thing for a boy or a
girl, any more than for a man or a woman. The discipline of failure is
sometimes needed. To fail is not always a calamity, if the failure leads
to the correction of the faults that lead to failure. Whether it be
speaking a piece or learning a lesson or facing a trying situation in
business, no matter how many times one has failed, he needs to take to
heart the message of Macbeth:
But screw your courage to the sticking-point,
And we'll not fail.
Always there is a reward for those who fight against difficulties, who
persist in their struggle even when failure follows failure. Everyday
the glad story of the sequel to such persistent struggles is recorded.
The records of commercial life, of school life, of home life are full of
Of all obstacles that can stand in the way of courageous conquest, one
of the most fatal, in the opinion of many, is blindness. Yet it is not
necessary that the loss of the eyes should be the fatal handicap it is
almost universally considered. It is a mistake to feel that when a
worker has anything seriously and permanently wrong with his eyes he
cannot be expected longer to perform tasks that are normal for one who
has the full use of all his five senses. In fact, when we hear that a
man is going blind we are apt to dismiss with a sigh his chance for
continuing productive labor of any sort; we feel that there is little
left for him but sitting resignedly in a chimney corner and listening to
others read to him or patiently fingering the raised letters provided
for the use of the blind.
In protest against this error a novelist has taken for his hero a young
man who lost his sight. His friends pitied him, talked dolefully to him,
promised to look after him in the days of incapacity. Of course he sank
lower and lower in the doleful dumps. Then one came into his life who
never seemed to notice his blindness, who talked to him as if he could
see, who encouraged him to do things by taking it for granted that they
would be performed. Her treatment proved effective; before long the
blind man was learning self-reliance, and was well on the road to
The story was true to life for, times without number, blind men and
women have shown their ability to work as effectively as if they could
see. More than two hundred years ago a teacher in London named Richard
Lucas lost his eyesight. Many of his friends thought that he would, of
course, give up all idea of being a useful man; in that day few thought
of the possibility of one so afflicted doing anything worth much. But
the young man thought differently. He listened to others as they read to
him, and completed his studies. He became the author of a dozen volumes,
and was among the leaders of his day. One of his greatest works was the
book "An Enquiry after Happiness." He knew how to be happy, in spite of
his affliction, so he could teach others to follow him.
A little earlier there lived on the farm of a poor Irishman the boy
Thomas Carolan. When he was five years old, he had smallpox, a disease
that was much more virulent in those days than it is to-day because the
treatment required was not understood. As a result the boy lost his
sight. Soon he showed a taste for music, and he was able to take a few
lessons, in spite of the poverty at home. As a young man he composed
hundreds of pieces of music, and it has been said of him that he
contributed much towards correcting and enriching the style of national
Another youthful victim of smallpox was Thomas Blacklock, the son of a
bricklayer in Scotland. "He can't be an artisan now," his friends said.
But it did not occur to them that he could be a professional man. His
father read him poetry and essays. When he was only twelve the boy began
to write poetry in imitation of those whose verses he had heard. After
his father's death, when the blind boy was but nineteen, he was more
than ever dependent on himself. By the help of a friend he was enabled
to go to school for a time. Then he became an author, and, later, a
famous preacher. Often, as he walked about, a favorite dog preceded him.
On one occasion he heard the hollow sound of the dog's tread on the
board covering a deep well, and just in time to avoid stepping on the
board himself. The covering was so rotten that he would surely have
fallen into the water.
As a boy Francis Huber, of Geneva, Switzerland, was a great student. He
insisted on reading by the feeble light of a lamp, or by the light of
the moon, even when he was urged not to do so, and the result was
blindness. A few years later he married one who rejoiced to be "his
companion, his secretary and his observer." He became the greatest
authority of his day on bees, although he knew nothing of the subject
until after his misfortune. The strange thing is that all his
conclusions were based on observation. Among other things he studied the
function of the wax, the construction of their combs, the bees' senses
and their ability to ventilate the hive by means of their wings. In
recognition of his work he was given membership in a number of learned
societies. His name must always be connected with the history of early
Not long after the close of the American Revolution James Holman, a
British naval officer, lost his eyesight while in Africa. He was then
about twenty-five years old. Later he became one of the best known
travelers of his day. The world was told of his travels in lectures and
in books, and others were also inspired to travel. "What is the use of
traveling to one who cannot see?" he was asked at one time. "Does every
traveler see all he describes?" he replied. He said that he felt sure he
visited, when on his travels, as many interesting places as others, and
that, by having the things described to him on the spot, he could form
as correct a judgment as his own sight would have enabled him to do.
In 1779 Richmond, Virginia, gave birth to James Wilson, who lost his
sight when he was four years old, because of smallpox. He was then on
shipboard, and was taken to Belfast, Ireland, where he grew to manhood.
When a boy he delivered newspapers to subscribers who lived as far as
five miles from the city. When fifteen he used part of his earnings to
buy books which he persuaded other boys to read to him. At twenty-one he
entered an institution for the blind, for fuller instruction. Then he
joined with a circle of mechanics in forming a reading society. One
friend promised to read to him every evening such books as he could
procure. The hours for reading were from nine to one every night in
summer and from seven to eleven every night in the winter. "Often I
have traveled three or four miles, in a severe winter night, to be at my
post in time," he said once. "Perished with cold and drenched with rain,
I have many a time sat down and listened for several hours together to
the writings of Plutarch, Rollins, or Clarendon." After seven or eight
years of this training, he was "acquainted with almost every work in the
English language" his biographer says, perhaps a little extravagantly.
His education he used in literary work.
B. B. Bowen was a Massachusetts boy just a century ago. When a babe he
lost his sight. In 1833 Dr. Howe--husband of Julia Ward Howe--selected
him as one of six blind boys on whom he was to make the first
experiments in the instruction of the blind. Later he wrote a book of
which eighteen thousand copies were sold.
Another of the men who proved the loss of sight was not a bar to
successful work was Thomas R. Lounsbury, the Yale scholar whose studies
in Chaucer and Shakespeare made him famous. Toward the close of his busy
life he was engaged in a critical study of Tennyson, preparatory to
writing an exhaustive book on the life of the great poet. He did not
live to complete the work, but he left it in such shape that a friend
was able to put it in the hands of the publishers.
In the Introduction to the biography this friend told of the courageous
manner in which Professor Lounsbury faced threatening blindness and
continued his writing in spite of the danger. We are told that his eyes,
never very good, failed him for close and prolonged work. "At best he
could depend upon them for no more than two or three hours a day.
Sometimes he could not depend upon them at all. That he might not
subject them to undue strain, he acquired the habit of writing in the
dark. Night after night, using a pencil on coarse paper, he would sketch
a series of paragraphs for consideration in the morning. This was almost
invariably his custom in later years. Needless to say, these rough
drafts are difficult reading for an outsider. Though the lines could be
kept reasonably straight, it was impossible for a man enveloped in
darkness to dot an i or to cross a t. Moreover, many words were
abbreviated, and numerous sentences were left half written out. Every
detail, however, was perfectly plain to the author himself. With these
detached slips of paper and voluminous notes before him, he composed on
a typewriter his various chapters, putting the paragraphs in logical
Francis Parkman, the historian who made the Indian wars real to
fascinated readers, was a physical wreck on the completion of "The
Oregon Trail," when he was but twenty-five years old. He could not write
even his own name, except with his eyes closed; he was unable to fix his
mind on a subject, except for very brief intervals, and his nervous
system was so exhausted that any effort was a burden. But he would not
give up. During the weary days of darkness he thought out the story of
the conspiracy of Pontiac and decided to write it. Physicians warned him
that the results would be disastrous, yet he felt that nothing could do
him more harm than an idle, purposeless life.
One of his chief difficulties he solved in an ingenious manner. In a
manuscript, published after his death, his plan was described:
"He caused a wooden frame to be constructed of the size and shape of a
sheet of letter paper. Stout wires were fixed horizontally across it,
half an inch apart, movable back of thick pasteboard fitted behind
them. The paper for writing was placed between the pasteboard and wires,
guided by which and using a black-lead crayon, he could write not
illegibly with closed eyes."
This contrivance, with improvements, he used for about forty years of
The documents on which he depended for his facts were read to him,
though sometimes for days he could not listen, and then perhaps only for
half an hour at a time. As he listened to the reading he made notes with
closed eyes. Then he turned over in his mind what he had heard and
laboriously wrote a few lines. For months he penned an average of only
three or four lines a day. Later he was able to work more rapidly and he
completed the book in two years and a half. No publisher was found who
was willing to bear the expense of issuing the volume, and the young man
paid for the plates himself.
Friends thought that now he would have to give up. His eyes were still
troubling him, he became lame, his head felt as if great bands of iron
were fastened about it, and frequently he did not sleep more than an
hour or two a night. Then came the death of his wife, on whom he had
depended for some years. At one time his physician warned him that he
had not more than six months to live. But when a friend said that he had
nothing more to live for, he made the man understand that he was not
ready to hoist the white flag.
He lived for forty-five years after it was thought that he could never
use his eyes again, and during all this time he worked steadily and
patiently, accomplishing what would have been a large task for a man who
had the full use of all his powers.
An Englishman was told by his physician he could never see again. For a
time the news weighed heavily upon him. Afterward he said: "I remained
silent for a moment, thinking seriously, and then, summoning up all the
grit I possessed, I said, 'If God wills it, He knows best. What must be
will be. And,' I added, putting my hand up to a tear that trickled down
my face, 'God helping me, this is the last tear I shall ever shed for my
blindness.'" It was. He secured the degrees of doctor of philosophy and
master of arts. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and
the Chemical Society. He made many valuable scientific discoveries and
inventions, saved a millionaire's life, and received the largest fee
ever awarded any doctor--$250,000.
To these men difficulties were a challenge to courage. They accepted the
challenge and proved themselves superior to circumstances. Thus their
lives became a challenge to the millions of their countrymen who read of
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