Ford K. Brown

Ford K. Brown

While the primary mission of the Meem Library is to support the College’s academic programs, the Library also maintains various peripheral collections dedicated to the general reading and archival interests of the campus and College community. Among these is a dedicated Faculty Collection, located in the Library’s formal Ault-Evers room and comprised solely of works authored by St. John’s College Faculty. While publication is not and never has been an expectation for our College’s tutors, whose primary duty always remains teaching, a significant number of faculty each year do publish. The Faculty Collection ensures the Library retains an archival copy of each such title, in addition to any copies that are catalogued for circulation in the general collection.

Due to its archival nature, the Faculty Collection includes certain volumes with particularly rich associations for the history of the College. One such volume is a 1961 edition of Fathers of the Victorians: The Age of Wilberforce, authored by Ford K. Brown.

Ford K. (Keeler) Brown holds a special place in the histories of both St. John’s College generally and the Santa Fe campus particularly. In 1937, when Scott Buchanan and Stringfellow Barr took the reins of St. John’s and instituted the New Program the College still follows today, Ford Brown had already been a professor of English at the College for 12 years, since 1925. As described in Tutor J. Winfree Smith’s 1983 history of the New Program In Search for the Liberal College:

Shortly after becoming president, Barr had assembled in his office the incumbent faculty members who were in Annapolis that summer. This was before he has made any announcement to the press about the form and content of the curriculum. There were only about twenty-five faculty members in all. He explained to those assembled that there were three groups of the faculty: (1) those who would be interested in the program and teach successfully in it; (2) those who would be interested but who, for one reason or another, would find that they could not be successful teachers in the new curriculum; and (3) those who would not be at all interested and would prefer to leave and teach elsewhere. He promised help in finding employment for all those who might want to leave or might have to be dropped. There was nothing in the way of organized opposition from the faculty as there might have been in a college or university where there were strong departments…. Some of the faculty left right away, some stayed for a few years, and four continued to the end of their teaching careers: George Bingley, a mathematician; Ford Brown, a former Rhodes scholar and an authority on the Evangelicals in the Church of England; Richard Scofield, another Rhodes scholar who had previously taught art and English and very quickly proved the breadth of his interest and ability by the excellence of his teaching within the new program; and John Kieffer, in whom the program got a warm welcome because of his background in classical languages and literature.

As Winfree Smith indicates, Ford Brown continued on at the College for many years. After Richard Weigle assumed the presidency in 1949, Brown took the lead in the College’s adult education program, through which St. John’s tutors conducted seminars in Baltimore, Annapolis, Washington, and Easton. Brown also appears in living color in the lecture segment (at the 12:40 mark) of the 1954 recruitment film “The St. John’s Story,” available on the College’s Digital Archives here.

Ford Brown’s influence was, however, not confined solely to the Annapolis campus. As the new Santa Fe campus of St. John’s prepared to open its doors in 1964, an initial roster of ten faculty was recommended by the two deans and the members of the Instruction Committee. Among this group of ten who would constitute the inaugural teaching slate for the new campus, now thirty-nine years after he had first arrived at St. John’s and twenty-seven years after serving as one of the New Program’s founding faculty in 1937, was Ford K. Brown. When the members of the Board, government officials, delegates from other institutions, and friends of the College converged on Santa Fe in October of 1964 for the formal dedication of the new campus, Ford Brown, as senior tutor on the Santa Fe faculty, served as marshall for the procession (and was described pointedly by Richard Weigle as “resplendent in the crimson and blue of his academic gown, for he had been a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.”)

Brown taught only that very first year in Santa Fe, but an anecdote Weigle relates in his history The Colonization of a College is indicative of the impression he made:

An incident during the spring of the College’s second year of operation illustrates the spirit which pervaded the campus at the time. Ford Brown, an Annapolis tutor, had come out for the first year of the Santa Fe campus. He had returned to the East in the summer of 1965 but was invited back to lecture on Thucydides in the spring of 1966. Students were delighted, so they formed a washboard band to greet him at the railroad station in Lamy, the stop nearest Santa Fe. As the train came to a halt and the porter opened the car door and set the steps for debarkation, the band struck up an appropriate tune, and cheers arose from the assembled students, many of whom had had Mr. Brown in seminar or tutorial. The porter was greatly impressed and turned to Mr. Brown. “Just who are you?” he inquired. Ford Brown was equal to the occasion. He drew himself up and replied, “I am the Secretary of Defense.” The students loved it.

Ford Brown had married in 1921, four years before he joined the faculty at St. John’s. Within a few years of his arrival at St. John’s his spouse, Zenith Jones Brown, had begun her own writing career, publishing crime fiction under two separate and simultaneous aliases (David Frome and Leslie Ford). Over the next 33 years she would publish several dozen books in the genre, at a rate of more than one a year. Ford, meanwhile, continued with the research and writing he had first begun with the assistance of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1928, eventually publishing his own magnum opus, Fathers of the Victorians, in 1961. According to the New York Times:

The book recounts the national reform movement begun in England in the 1770s by a handful of men and women who were shocked at the moral conditions in England at the time, a national scene described by Dr. Brown as a “spectacle of horror, a nightmare of depravity, vice, sin and infidelity.” It received an honorable mention in the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize given by the American Historical Association for the best work on European history published by an American.

As mentioned above, among the books in the Meem Library’s Faculty Collection is a copy of this same Fathers of the Victorians, signed and inscribed to the library by Ford Brown on September 3, 1965.

Ford Brown continued to teach at the College through 1968, passing away in 1977 at the age of 82.

The Meem Library, Eastern Classics, and the Diamond Sutra

Cover of the 1995 Eastern Classics Catalogue

With the opening of the Meem Library in 1990, the Santa Fe campus’s library shelving space, which for twenty-six years had been severely limited by the lack of a dedicated library building, nearly doubled. Along with this new shelving space came both needs and opportunities to grow the Library’s collection.

The seeds of the first significant need appeared at nearly the same time as the Library’s construction, as Santa Fe faculty study groups began their focus on the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese texts that would soon become the foundation of the Graduate Institute’s Eastern Classics master’s program. Eastern Classics, or EC as it has come to be known here on campus, first began as a pilot program (the “Institute for the Study of Eastern Classics”) in 1992 and has run continuously as a St. John’s College graduate degree program since 1994. The history of the founding of Eastern Classics on the Santa Fe campus has been told many times through the years in various College publications available on the College’s Digital Archives, and most recently in a 2017 article by tutor and former Associate Dean of the Graduate Institute David McDonald. As tutor James Carey (Class of 1965), under whose deanship the early development of the Eastern Classics program occurred, has remarked:

How could we not be interested in what the human mind does when it has leisure and letters and it’s free from political persecution—what fundamental questions arise for it … and what form do they take, particularly if they’ve not been touched by Greece, or by Jerusalem? So the idea of looking at the thought of ancient India and ancient China was immensely appealing….

With the addition in the 1990s of an entirely new reading list rooted in great works of the East came a need for new core library acquisitions, including multiple class copies in a wide range of English translations for each reading, original language editions of these works, and texts and reference materials to support the program’s two new Language Tutorials in Sanskrit and Classical Chinese. As has so often been the case through the years at a College like our own, where the central place of books is undisputed, our alumni and friends quickly rallied on behalf of this new program and the Library’s collection. This included significant acquisitions funding during those early years from three members of the very same family, all of whom became EC graduates and advocates: Louise Heydt (EC95) and her son and daughter-in-law William (AN95, EC98) and Elizabeth (SF85, EC03) Rohrbach. Their joint efforts over the course of a full decade led to three crucial grants from the William H. and Mattie Wattis Harris Foundation that together were instrumental in building the Library’s Eastern holdings into the strong collection we now have today. It should also be noted that the College’s annual Rohrbach Memorial Lecture, which each year brings a guest scholar to the Santa Fe campus to speak on some topic related to the Eastern Classics, is funded in honor of this same William A. Rohrbach, who passed away suddenly in 2013. Now, nearly three decades since the beginning of the EC, two of our three staff librarians have themselves been through the campus’s Eastern Classics program, and the Library continues to expand its Eastern collections with additional primary and secondary literature, new translations, and supplementary works on Asian art, calligraphy, and other topics supporting our reading and understanding of these texts.

While the Eastern Classics program is sometimes viewed as a latecomer adjunct to our Liberal Arts programs, it is worth noting that the Western tradition owes to the East a debt of which many readers may be unaware. This debt lies not in the content of Western great works, but in the very medium of their survival and dissemination–in the actual technology behind the printed book as such. Physical books are, after all, the vehicles by which the texts we read at our College have made their journeys down through the millennia and centuries and decades and into our own hands today. If the existence of books as physical objects seems merely incidental to our questionings and reflections, it bears remembering that their physical existence is in fact the sine qua non of all our reading and discussion. The being of books, we must occasionally remind ourselves, lies not only in the ἐπιστήμη of those who wrote them; it is also literally bound up in the τέχνη of the mostly anonymous multitude who through the ages have printed, preserved and purveyed them.

As a lamp, a cataract, a star in space
an illusion, a dewdrop, a bubble
a dream, a cloud, a flash of lightning
view all created things like this.

Diamond Sutra, tr. Red Pine

Through this lens both our undergraduate and graduate Liberal Arts programs have deep roots in China, for it is to the Chinese that we owe the invention of that essential and now ubiquitous material all readers and book lovers have come to take for granted: paper. While the West continued to struggle with the fraught and limited media of papyrus and parchment and vellum up into the 11th century, the Chinese had already discovered the process of paper-making by the start of the Common Era, a full thousand years before. Initially used primarily as a convenient and pliable packing and wrapping material, by the third century paper had begun to be recognized for its value as a textual medium and soon became a powerful catalyst in the growth of China’s written culture. It was only through the paper-making process’s slow migration from the East westward through the Islamic world that paper as a technology finally reached and then began to take hold in Europe around the year 1100, leading to the ubiquity we know today.

Nor is it only for paper-making that the literary West owes a debt to the East, for printing as a means of efficiently duplicating texts also had its origins in China. Here, in the history of book-making, we actually find a direct connection to our own EC program, for it so happens that one of the seminal works on the Eastern Classics reading list, the Diamond (or Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā) Sutra, provides the text for the oldest complete dated printed book in existence. Printed by woodblock on paper sections subsequently connected into a five-meter long horizontal scroll, the renowned Dunhuang copy of the Diamond Sutra was unearthed from a sealed cave (known since as the Library Cave) in northwest China in 1900. With a colophon dating its production to May 11, 868, this copy had been interred with some forty thousand other manuscripts and artifacts sometime in the 11th century and then lost to time for nearly one thousand years. Acquired by the British Museum in 1907, it can now be viewed in high-resolution digital form on the British Library website as part of the International Dunhuang Project, a collaboration among institutions across several continents that seeks to make more than 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, and artifacts from Silk Road sites available worldwide on the Internet.

A brief and fascinating account by the British Library of the conservation of this early example of Chinese printing can be viewed here:

Finally, for those interested in exploring in more depth and detail the discovery and significance of the Dunhuang Diamond Sutra in the context of early book-making, we recommend the following talk by Susan Whitfield, Director of the International Dunhuang Project, given at the Getty Center in Los Angles in conjunction with the 2016 exhibition Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on the Silk Road, which brought this unique book to the United States for a brief period: