George Allan England: The Harvard Years


(Translated into Victorian English by george allan england.)
Illustrated by tracings from the originals.

Science fiction could be considered embryonic at best when England produced this, his first science fiction story. The genre wasn't identified as such at the time and, although there were numerous novels and stories written in the years prior to 1902 that could be considered science fiction, the leading lights of the time were H. G. Wells, Jules Verne and, to an extent, Edgar Allan Poe—all of whom were pointing the direction that the field would follow within a short time. What is surprising is that England, with so little to draw upon for inspiration, could create, as he did with the earlier story “The Divided Letter,” an original work that was unlike anything else available at the time and may be the first time the theme of “future archeology” was used in science fiction.

We have no idea exactly what contemporary fiction England read while a student, nor what influences may have filtered into the creation of “Bench Carvings at Harvard.” Due to England’s belief in Socialism there are two likely candidates: Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) and Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), with the second work being extrememly popular in the US. Aside from their Socialist point of view, both novels place an individual into the far future where these individuals see how the world of the future came about. Both authors then use their stories to make pointed commentary about the state of society in the 1800s. Rather than simply copy this concept, England takes it a step further: What if an archeologist from the future were to look at the relics of the past? What conclusions would they draw about our present day?

That the story is early science fiction is a given. The first line mentions “The Five Thousandth Annual Report of the Australian Anthropological Society” and, later on, there is mention of the year 4957. England gives a “future history” framework to the story, with suggestions of catclysms to come, particularly when he writes “...before the Yellow Race had conquered all the others...” into the first full paragraph—playing on the Yellow Peril fears which were quite prevelant at the time. The main plot of “Bench Carvings,” science fiction archeology, is considered a standard story type of the genre today, yet England explored this concept here, a number of years before it was used on a regular basis and long before the post WWII era when this theme was regularly applied, in comics and prose, to our own Earth.

Of course, England was writing for his fellow students and there are many references to Harvard life in 1902. In order to explain some of these (and there are some that left us puzzled) we have included an Afterword, which we recommend you consult after you read the story. Although the story plays as a broad satire, England manages to make some very important points about how future generations might view Harvard students, or any civilization, were they to look not at what they accomplished, but what they seemed to deem important.

“Bench Carvings at Harvard” first appeared in the February, 1903 issue of The Harvard Illustrated Magazine and this is its first reprinting since that time.

Bob Gay
November, 2015
Introduction © 2015 by Bob Gay

Editor's Note: England included two footnotes in the original printing of “Bench Carvings at Harvard.” These footnoted portions have been highlighted in the text and an asterix added to the end of each phrase. On desktop or laptop computers, running your mouse pointer over these words will cause the footnote text to appear in a small pop-up tooltip. On mobile devices, tapping the highlighted words will cause the same behavior, like this (moving your mouse pointer, or tapping the tooltip, will cause the tooltip to disappear).

We have also made one editorial insertion to the story, by adding a closing quotation mark to the text, since it appears to have been left out of the original printing.

Original title art

THE Five Thousandth Annual Report of the Australian Anthropological Society contains the following account of the recently unearthed bench carvings in North America:

“Professor D. Igger, Ph.D., having just returned from exploring the ruined arches of what is surmised to be the prehistoric London Bridge, stopped on his way home at the site of Cambridge, near Massachusetts Bay on the eastern coast of North America, where he devoted himself for some weeks to a study of the very numerous aboriginal carvings found there. These works occur in vast numbers, decorating almost every inch of surface of the innumerable benches which served some unknown purpose in the life of the extinct autochthonous Amarinds who are supposed to have dwelt here. Longer than the Bayeux Tapestry, more involved and difficult than those classic palimpsests wherewith Petrarch and his fellows used to divert themselves, these time-knawed intaglios unfold, though at times obscurely, the daily life, manners, diversions and beliefs of the primitive Amarinds. They offer a richly documented record of life in pre-Mongolian times, before the Yellow Race had conquered all the others, and, assimilating them, had established its rule across both hemispheres.

Armed with a Manual of Epigraphy and a vocabulary of the American language, Professor D. Igger succeeded in deciphering a number of the inscriptions, moreover, he arranged the pictorial designs in certain categories determined by their frequency and importance. Most common and striking is the rune “H,” large and small, twisted, scrolled, or cut with geometrical squareness; some are incised, others stand forth in reliefs of varying height, surrounded by a depressed field. The hieroglyph “Y” often occurs, and when found in connection with the “H” is invariably smaller. There doubtless attached some idea of cult to these symbols, but whether of any value other than the temporary superstition inherent in all rude races it is hard to state.

Next in frequency comes “TO HELL WITH YALE” of all sizes and degrees of elaboration. The meaning of this inscription, so long a “spoiled child of archaeologists,” was, as we all remember, made clear in the year 4957 through the discovery in the Hall of Sever* of a sort of Rosetta Stone or polyglottic version, being the trilingual text:


This furnished a key through the Latin, to a very large number of inscriptions all bearing damnatory exhortations directed, it is believed, against some hereditary or tribal enemy; though of the latter no trace, either of habitat or culture, has been found. There seems to have been a traditional chant prophetically declaring that Yale would be “swallowed up,” and it may be well that the impending event finally took place, though when or how we cannot ascertain. At all events we are assured that the Yale tribe* disappeared a number of centuries before the Gentes Harvardianæ, leaving no relics. Certain fossils found at Novum Ostium have led certain of our explorers to place the tribe there, but nothing along this line has as yet been substantiated. A variant is noted in the carving “To Yale with Hell”—an unusually drastic anathema to be directed against a place of supposedly just punishments!

Very noteworthy are the numerous shields, standing alone or enclosed in circles. The motto reads usually “VERITAS,” varying occasionally with “VANITAS,” whence it is inferred that, in the culture-area represented by these inscriptions, the two terms were synonymous. One shield is particularly worthy of note—it bears the legend “H—17, Y—0, ’98.” The exact meaning of this would furnish some of our scientists a very liberal field for speculation. No less numerous than the shields are the personal names, masculine and feminine, that mingle their characters with the twining scrolls of many a design. Some of the names stand alone, others are joined in divers ways or surrounded by symbolic devices like hearts and the like. As the Australian Bushman to this day makes an outline of his hand by laying it against a hard rock and blowing powdered ochre all about it, so did these ancient barbarians record with crude labor their own personality and that of their women.

ANOTHER entertaining group of decoration represents the female form divine. Always abundantly constructed, some of these ladies impinge on the canons of beauty current among the Hottentots. All the latest contemporary fashions in boots, hosiery and the like are here deftly set forth, no doubt more or less influenced by the “corrobborrees” or theatrical representations of the epoch. Over the queen of all these anatomical studies (also in the Hall of Sever), some dispute has arisen: not a few of our leading archaeologists maintain that it is intended for a portrait of Eve, while others hold for Lady Godiva. It is an interesting and suggestive problem for some of our young scientists to investigate.

Numbers of women also appear with elaborate coiffures, some of which still retain traces of the savage ornaments worn in the hair at that time, such as birds, feathers, small animals and the like. The practice of waist-binding was also in vogue, and, indeed, lasted down until the time of the Mongolian Invasions, when fortunately foot-binding was introduced in place of the older and more injurious custom. A few of these figures show some approach to art: yet in general they are crudely barbaric, and must have been produced by a race extraordinarily low in æsthetology. As if to counterpart the grotesque women, a number of masculine persons appear among the fretwork and arabesques. One or two are apparently officers in whatever military organization this race produced: such persons have rows of buttons, long swords and stripes down their legs. Others have aboriginal moustaches, the ideal of the period; some carry sticks of unknown use; while in two cases the figures are accompanied by squat, misshapen dogs. These dogs are especially interesting as illustrating an extinct species: they are prognathous, with stub tails, bow-legs and large spiked collars. If we had no other proof of the low status of art among these primitive people, their only domesticated animal would furnish us complete evidence that they lacked all or nearly all sense of beauty.

Grave-stelæ also appear with some frequency, and from them a number of inscriptions have been obtained. One bears the cryptogamic “Y” with a motto encircling it:

Another states that
while a still larger monument yields the following lyric:
Illustrations of bench carvings

BEYOND the general categories of design there are multifarious individual ornaments of interest both in themselves and in shedding some glimmer of light on this long-vanished race. Here is a realistic shark, dorsal fin and all, with the legend “You know him,” an apparently irrelevant statement. An elaborate checker-board pattern suggests that some form of gaming was known even then; a pair of clovers, one four-leaved, the other three, may have had some mystic or symbolic meaning connected with the superstition of good and bad fortune. This design was probably engraved at two separate times, perhaps before and after one of those penitential rites known as “Exams.”

A grotesque head labelled “Cyrano” has thus far escaped identification; it may have been some myth or culture-hero; if so, it does much to substantiate our hypothesis that this race stood lower in the artistic and cultural scale than any other known. A far more elaborate carving represents an animal surmised to be the extinct Equus Caballus, drawing a four-wheeled vehicle. The young woman seated in this vehicle is of an adipose type similar to those already mentioned—a type which must at that epoch have been either very common or extremely popular, so often does it appear. Interesting and suggestive is the find of an Egyptian cartouche, containing the characters for Bird hot, Bottle cold, the meaning of which has, as yet, not been made out. Whether this argues prehistoric contact with Egypt or not is a fit subject for inquiry. In one place a bar and ring have been cut out of the solid wood, the ring sliding on the bar, doubtless to the vast amusement of the pithecanthropic sculptor. Many holes, caves and canons in the benches occur, similarly entertaining.

Under the crouching figure of an anthropoid ape the figures “1902” are engraved. Up to the present the significance of this motto has quite escaped us; it may represent a class of helots or a whole subject race, or, on the other hand, it may be connected with ancestor-worship. The point remains disputed. A similar question arises in regard to the “ ’04” which decorates the head of a cat highly conventionalized in quasi-Egyptian style. Another inscription reads “IMMORTAL ’99”; still another shows “ ’03” surrounded by a halo of glory. Enough of these figures have been identified to establish the existence, at that time, of some concatenated series, probably of races or individuals, all bitterly hostile toward the others, and regarding themselves and their own group as the acme of physical and mental perfection. Frequently where one of these tribal or totemic marks appears, some other tribe has inscribed over it the already mentioned damnatory formula. This is a breach of primitive manners that no other known barbarians would be guilty of; when a Polynesian, for example, sets his property-mark on a tortoise and lets it go, he knows that the tortoise is his indefinitely and that, if caught by any other native it will not be appropriated. Hence our judgment seems not unfair that these protolithic Amarinds were less endowed with moral obligation than even the most primitive Polynesian. A study of their inter-tribal feuds might shed considerable light on the origin and operation of the totem.

ANCESTOR-worship is clearly indicated by the frequent skulls and cross-bones, often of grotesque character, and by the discovery of this legend:


This points strongly to the Vandals as being the near precursors of this vanished race, the fact being moreover substantiated by the barbaric manner in which all their possessions were hewn and carved. Some of our leading epigraphers have affirmed that these people were the Vandals themselves; the theory is at least suggestive and has a large degree of versimilitude.


THE arts of navigation and war had probably reached a fair state of advancement, judging from the canoes, catamarans and coracles that appear, and from the swords and daggers. Representations of slender-stemmed glasses, jugs and bottles indicate that the manufacture of spirituous liquor was known and that its use was universal. Numbers of verses are found celebrating wine, women and song, and other pleasures. The following fragments have been deciphered:

“Such is your gentle beauty Claire
That other faces, other hair
No longer please me:
I'll fill my glass with good Tokay
And toss it down to thee alway
Until Death seize me.”
“Wine, woman and song!”
In another style:
“A killing diet,”
And added still later:
“Damned good, though!”

THE summing up of it may be said that enough specimens have been noted and analyzed to enable us to form some general idea, at least, of these vanished tribes. It has been surmised that they resembled the red race in their somatic features, and one portrait-carving exists to support the view, representing a male warrior, longhaired and aquiline-nosed, crowned with a fillet and tufts of bristles or feathers. It is well established that the primitive Amarinds used to adorn their persons in this fashion, whence a strong probability arises that the races were at least cognate. That the men who left these inscriptions were “Indians” can in no wise be doubted. If the discovered figures and portraits bear any claim to realism, the race must have been abnormal in many ways, the women unusually afflicted, the men ill-proportioned in shoulders and thighs, and addicted, moreover, to what is supposed to be the prehistoric vice of smoking tobacco.

Their epoch is supposed to have been contemporaneous with that of the Stonehenge people: their habitat, as before mentioned, the eastern country lying about the ancient Massachusetts Bay. Of their food we have, happily, no knowledge: their drinks were, in large degree, mixed. They had a few of the neolithic arts, such as navigation, domestication of animals, at least one animal (Bullpuppus Bandyleggidus), and the cultivation of tobacco. The Egyptian cartouche hints that they may also, by commerce, have obtained some of their tobacco from the Orient. Of their religion we are uncertain save in its damnatory addenda; they evidently believed in a land of departed spirits, presumably a place of punishment, whither they consigned each other and the common, undiscoverable enemy of the Yale or Eli tribe. Their mentality was low; all interest seems to have lain in carnal pursuits, and any allusions to mental, intellectual labor are rare and unpopular. That they were Amarindian Vandals can scarcely be doubted. Their ideals were as crude in art as in intellectual matters; both in the representation of the human form and in the production of ornamental forms they exhibit a barbaric conception and a lack of technique unparalleled even among the Botocudos. No other primitive races are known who could not decorate their shields or spears with greater symmetry and skill than these anomalous barbarians. Mental, aesthetic and technical chaos seems to have reigned among them, and it is doubtful whether, had they been cast upon their own resources without assistance, they could have ever become self-supporting. As a tribe, they ranked some degrees lower than anything yet found on the North American continent; their total extinction ages ago, like that of the Tasmanians, was an unqualified blessing to the human race.”

A drawing of a globe

As with all his Harvard Illustrated work, England was writing for his fellow students and not the public at large. Without knowing specifically what England had in mind with many of his references, we have attempted to explain what he may have been referencing within “Bench Carvings at Harvard.”

  • Hall of Sever - refers to Sever Hall, considered by many to be Harvard’s architectual treasure. Sever was a gift by Ann Sever to the university and constructed between 1878 and 1880. The 1905 Official Guide to Havard states that Sever “contains 37 rooms, used chiefly for recitations and lectures.” England’s joking reference here refers to the mid-year and final exams, while his use of word “expiation” gives the Hall a quasi-religious signifiance and may be an oblique reference to class attendance or the exams.
    A later Sever reference to “the queen of all these anatomical studies” is less clear, since it is unknown exactly to what artwork England is referring. We did find a mention of a portrait of actress Sarah Bernhardt that at one time was displayed in Sever, and considering Bernhardt’s popularity at the time, it is possible that this is the “queen.”
  • Yale tribe (Clan of Eli) - Yale University is named after Elihu Yale, a successful businessman, who made a large donation of goods to what was then known as the Collegiate School. The goods were sold and the name of the school was changed to Yale. “Eli” is the collective term for Yale students and is taken from the first part of Elihu Yale’s name.
  • Novum Ostium - A rough translation would be “new mouth of the river”. Assuming that the section where this phrase appears deals with Yale (which we believe it does), England is making light of the fact that Yale is nearly surrounded by water and that, in this version of the future, some cataclysm removed nearly all traces of Yale from the east coast.
  • Veritas/Vanitas - the official insignia of Harvard has the word VERITAS (truth) displayed over the faces of three open books. The use of the word VANITAS (vanity), displayed in the same way, is a parody form of the Harvard insignia used often on the covers to The Harvard Lampoon. When this parody form became popular is not known, but research has uncovered examples dating back to 1889.
  • H—17, Y—0, ’98. - This was the score of the November 19, 1898 football game between Harvard and Yale. For Harvard students, the game had great significance, as Harvard had only been able to beat Yale three times in the preceeding 18 times the teams had played (two games ended in a tie).
  • VIVAT, CRESCAT, FLOREAT H! - live, grow, flourish, H (the "H" meaning Harvard)
  • BORED TO DEATH BY SILAS MACVANE - Silas MacVane was the McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard from 1886 until his retirement in 1911.
  • “Here is a realistic shark, dorsal fin and all...” - Since there does not seem to be any evidence that a shark and Harvard were symbolically linked, we are led to speculate that England is suggesting that loan sharks were known to the Harvard students.
  • Bird hot, Bottle cold - Bird is the slang term for a girl, hence we have someone in search of a hot girl and a cold libation.
  • “...the figures are accompanied by squat, misshapen dogs.” - This is England poking fun at Yale and their mascot, a bulldog who is always known as Handsome Dan. Handsome Dan first appeared at a Yale football game in 1889 and is believed to be the first college mascot.
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