Elihu Burritt

In  an address delivered by Governor Everett, before a Mechanics' Association, in Boston, 1837, he introduced a letter from Elihu Burritt, a native of Connecticut, and then a resident of Worcester, Massachusetts, of which the following is a copy:—

"I was the youngest of many brethren, and my parents were poor. My means of education were limited to the advantages of a district school, and those again were circumscribed by my father's death, which deprived me, at the age of fifteen, of those scanty opportunities which I had previously enjoyed.

"A few months after his decease, I apprenticed myself to a blacksmith in my native village. Thither I carried an indomitable taste for reading, which I had previously acquired through the medium of the society library,—all the historical works in which I had at that time perused. At the expiration of a little more than half my apprenticeship, I suddenly conceived the idea of studying Latin.

"Through the assistance of an elder brother, who had himself obtained a collegiate education by his own exertions, I completed my Virgil during the evenings of one winter. After some time devoted to Cicero, and a few other Latin authors, I commenced the Greek: at this time it was necessary that I should devote every hour of daylight, and a part of the evening, to the duties of my apprenticeship.

"Still I carried my Greek grammar in my hat, and often found a moment, when I was heating some large iron, when I could place my book open before me against the chimney of my forge, and go through with tuptotupteistuptei, unperceived by my fellow-apprentices. At evening I sat down, unassisted, to the Iliad of Homer, twenty books of which measured my progress in that language during the evenings of another winter.

"I next turned to the modern languages, and was much gratified to learn that my knowledge of Latin furnished me with a key to the literature of most of the languages of Europe. This circumstance gave a new impulse to the desire of acquainting myself with the philosophy, derivation, and affinity of the different European tongues. I could not be reconciled to limit myself in these investigations, to a few hours, after the arduous labors of the day.

"I therefore laid down my hammer, and went to New Haven, where I recited to native teachers, in French, Spanish, German, and Italian. I returned, at the expiration of two years, to the forge, bringing with me such books in those languages as I could procure. When I had read these books through, I commenced the Hebrew, with an awakened desire of examining another field; and, by assiduous application, I was enabled in a few weeks to read this language with such facility, that I allotted it to myself as a task to read two chapters in the Hebrew Bible before breakfast, each morning; this, and an hour at noon, being all the time that I could devote to myself during the day.

"After becoming somewhat familiar with this language, I looked around me for the means of initiating myself into the fields of Oriental literature; and, to my deep regret and concern, I found my progress in this direction hedged in by the want of requisite books. I began immediately to devise means of obviating this obstacle; and, after many plans, I concluded to seek a place as a sailor on board some ship bound to Europe, thinking in this way to have opportunities of collecting, at different ports, such works in the modern and Oriental languages as I found necessary for this object. I left the forge at my native place, to carry this plan into execution.

"I travelled on foot to Boston, a distance of more than a hundred miles, to find some vessel bound to Europe. In this I was disappointed; and, while revolving in my mind what steps next to take, I accidentally heard of the American Antiquarian Society, at Worcester. I immediately bent my steps toward this place. I visited the hall of the American Antiquarian Society, and found there, to my infinite gratification, such a collection in ancient, modern, and Oriental languages, as I never before conceived to be collected in one place; and, sir, you may imagine with what sentiments of gratitude I was affected, when, upon evincing a desire to examine some of these rich and rare works, I was kindly invited to unlimited participation in all the benefits of this noble institution.

"Availing myself of the kindness of the directors, I spent three hours daily at the hall, which, with an hour at noon, and about three in the evening, make up the portion of the day which I appropriate to my studies, the rest being occupied in arduous manual labor. Through the facilities afforded by this institution, I have added so much to my previous acquaintance with the ancient, modern, and Oriental languages, as to be able to read upwards of FIFTY  of them with more or less facility."

This statement, however extraordinary it may seem, is well known to be but a modest account of Mr. Burritt's wonderful acquirements. He is still (1843) a practical blacksmith, yet he finds time to pursue his studies. Nor are his acquisitions his only merit. He has been frequently invited to deliver lectures before lyceums, and other associations, and in these he has displayed no small degree of eloquence and rhetorical power. As he is still a young man, we may venture to affirm that his history affords an instance of self-cultivation, which, having regard to all the circumstances, is without a parallel.