A brood of sturdy men

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Several times a week, I walk past the "All Wars Memorial to Penn Alumni", on the east side of 33rd Street in front of the Palestra, which features a group of statues surrounding a flagpole:

Behind these impressive figures there's a curved wall bearing the inscription:

The University of Pennsylvania

1740    To her sons who died in the service of their country    1950

A brood of sturdy men who stood for freedom and for truth

The freedom and truth part sounds good, but the "brood of study men" has always struck me wrong. It's been 40 years since I got out of the U.S. Army, but I'm pretty sure that referring to my fellow G.I.s as "a brood of sturdy men" would have been a reliable way to start a bar fight. Today's volunteer soldiers may be better behaved than we draftees were, but I suspect that the reaction would still be a negative one.

The OED agrees with me, glossing brood as

Progeny, offspring, young.

a. esp. of animals that lay eggs, as birds, serpents, insects, etc. a brood: a family of young hatched at once, a hatch.

b. of cattle or large animals. Obs.

c. Of human beings: family, children. (Now generally somewhat contemptuous.)

This entry has not been updated since 1888, so the negative or at least un-military connotations are nothing new.

And in the Google Books ngram corpus, the fifteen commonest nouns for the context "brood of ___" are children, chickens, vipers, chicks, larvae, ducklings, Folly, caterpillars, ducks, evils, hell, moths, serpents, eggs, and worms. Again, not a great set of resonances for military service.

Passing over in silence, for now, the fact that some of the statues around the flagpole are clearly female, I've wondered for some time where the whole "brood of study men" thing came from, and so in honor of  Veteran's Day, I thought I'd find out.

A bit of web search turned up the answer — in the Proceedings of "University Day", February 22, 1902 ("University Day" being a celebration that Penn used to hold annually on Washington's Birthday), I found a long poem by Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell, entitled "The Birthday of Washington", which starts like this:

God of the nations! Thou whose hand
Led forth their best across the sea,
To find in this unfettered land
Thy largest gift — the soul set free.

It ends, 27 stanzas later, with this:

Here shall the mother, at whose knee
They heard the words that guide and guard,
Glad of her children, proudly see
In noble lives, her best reward!

And as Dr. Mitchell heads into the home stretch, we get

Hail! Gracious Mother! Thou whose youth
Sent forth a brood of sturdy men,
Who stood for freedom and for truth
And used the sword to free the pen.

Still ever in thy learned walls
The will, the wish, the vigor live!
Ay ready, if our country calls,
To meet what fate may duty give.

According to Mitchell's Wikipedia entry,

In 1863 he wrote a clever short story, combining physiological and psychological problems, entitled "The Case of George Dedlow", in the Atlantic Monthly. Thenceforward, Mitchell, as a writer, divided his attention between professional and literary pursuits. In the former field, he produced monographs on rattlesnake poison, on intellectual hygiene, on injuries to the nerves, on neurasthenia, on nervous diseases of women, on the effects of gunshot wounds upon the nervous system, and on the relations between nurse, physician, and patient; while in the latter, he wrote juvenile stories, several volumes of respectable verse, and prose fiction of varying merit, which, however, gave him a leading place among the American authors of the close of the 19th century. His historical novels, Hugh Wynne, Free Quaker (1897), The Adventures of François (1898) and The Red City (1909), take high rank in this branch of fiction.

Nine of his prose works are in the Project Gutenberg collection, but in none of them does the word brood occur as a noun (the verb to brood, as in "He wished to be left by himself to brood over the cruel wrong of the morning", occurs twice). So I guess that Mitchell used brood in that 1902 poem because it sounded good, and his conventional poetic archaism rendered him temporarily deaf to its connotations.

His work as a physician has also made its way into the annals of literature:

He was Charlotte Perkins Gilman's doctor and his use of a rest cure on her provided the idea for "The Yellow Wallpaper", a short story in which the narrator is driven insane by her rest cure.

His treatment was also used on Virginia Woolf, who wrote a savage satire of it: "you invoke proportion; order rest in bed; rest in solitude; silence and rest; rest without friends, without books, without messages; six months rest; until a man who went in weighing seven stone six comes out weighing twelve."

Anyhow, here's a plug for the Veterans @ Penn organization. If you're in the Philadelphia area, you might want to come to the flag raising ceremony tomorrow morning at 8:30.


  1. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    Reminds me of when a university up the road, ten years or so after admitting women as undergrads, decided to change the part of its school song that went "Her sons shall give, while they shall live,/ Three cheers for Old Nassau." One alumnus suggested "Her young". This greatly amused my friends and me; I remember we thought of "Her whelps", but "Her brood" might have been another one we considered almost as inappropriate.

  2. David L said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:28 pm

    "Brood" makes a bit more sense in the context of the poem, since Mitchell is describing the sturdy men as the offspring of the "Gracious Mother."

    After reading through the poem in its entirety, I have to confess that I can't figure out who is being apostrophized as the Gracious Mother. The United States? The University? Or is Mitchell referring in a grand way to their actual mothers?

  3. Joe Green said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:30 pm

    I can't really see a problem here. "Brood" suggests merely a large number of similar individuals having a common origin, which seems quite appropriate for a group of men (no women then?) with similar training and goals, working together in the name of the mother country. That at least is surely what Dr. Mitchell was suggesting, to my mind. I see nothing pejorative. Enough to start a bar fight? What short fuses.

  4. Sili said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 6:50 pm

    Granted, I'm not an expert in these matters, but sturdy or not, that does not look to be a man in the middle.

    [(myl) Indeed. More evidence here and here. The artist was Charles Rudy, and there's a more elaborate description of the piece here:

    Five human figures, three men and two women, surround the cylinder. The figures are approximately 8 ft. tall and partially clothed. A male figure at front of sculpture, above insignia on base, extends his arms near his sides. His proper left arm touches the cylinder and his proper left leg is slightly bent. the next figure, in clockwise rotation, is a bare breasted woman draped in a full length skirt, feet exposed. Her proper right hand is placed on her hip and her proper left arm is extended near her side. Her proper right leg is slightly bent. Next, a male figure is holding a cloth with his proper right hand, his proper right arm is bent. His proper left arm is extended near his side and his proper right leg is bent. Next, a male figure bends his proper right arm and holds a scroll in his right hand. His proper left arm is extended near his side and his legs are apart. Next, a bare-breasted female figure is draped in a long skirt, feet exposed. Her proper right arm is bent and her right hand is near her abdomen. Her proper left is extended near her side.

    But I haven't been able to find any discussion of the iconography. In 1950, when the memorial was conceived, I doubt that the role of women in the military was part of the plan. Perhaps these are Penn students pondering the sacrifice of earlier generations.]

  5. mgh said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 8:39 pm

    Like Joe Green, I am at a loss to understand the offensiveness of "brood." Is it the barnyard connotation? Or the sense that they are not yet fledged? For me (and perhaps for Dr. Mitchell, who also trained in life science) it sounds no more pejorative than "sons" or "children".

  6. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

    Could we review for a moment the meaning of "proper" in the note above. I can find lots of instances of "proper arm" and "proper leg" in descriptions of sculpture, but no explanation and my dictionary's no help.

  7. Matt McIrvin said,

    November 11, 2012 @ 11:47 pm

    I'm guessing "proper" in this context means that "left" and "right" are to be interpreted relative to the human figure, rather than relative to the viewer.

  8. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 12:26 am

    @Joe Green and mgh: Yes, I think it's the connection with egg-laying animals. The OED found something contemptuous in the uses leading up to 1888.

  9. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 12:38 am

    @David L: I feel sure the Mother, who has "learned walls", is alma mater, the university.

    By the way, I can't remember ever seeing the syntactic inversion of "To meet what fate may duty give" (in a declarative sentence). Could Dr. Mitchell have invented it, or have I just not read enough Milton?

  10. CherylT said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 2:44 am

    Why, do you suppose, he chose brood over the more conventional breed? It's hard to think of good reasons aside from reinforcing the mother-child image. Perhaps it was sheer clumsiness in using archaic language or avoiding the more conventional words breed and race.

  11. Geraint Jennings said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:05 am

    Might a readership more attuned to classical allusions than today's have picked up echoes of the Aeneid?

    Dryden's translation has:

    Strong from the cradle, of a sturdy brood/We bear our newborn infants to the flood;

    And Fairclough's version (1916) seems comfortable enough with, for example:

    Lo, under his auspices, my son, shall that glorious Rome extend her empire to earth’s ends, her ambitions to the skies, and shall embrace seven hills with a single city’s wall, blessed in a brood of heroes

  12. Barrie England said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:40 am

    Not quite the same, but

    'This happy breed of men, this little world . . .
    This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England'

    (‘Richard II’)

    [(myl) I can't imagine Shakespeare writing this as "This happy brood of men", can you? His uses of "brood" are generally rather, well, un-happy, e.g.

    Draw not thy sword to gard iniquitie,
    For it was lent thee all that broode to kill.

    Such things become the Hatch and Brood of Time;
    And by the necessarie forme of this,
    King Richard might create a perfect guesse,
    That great Northumberland , then false to him,
    Would of that Seed, grow to a greater falsenesse,

    Why what a brood of Traitors haue we heere?

    and so on…]

  13. Acilius said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 10:24 am

    @Geraint Jennings: I'm sure you're right.

  14. Geraint Jennings said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 1:25 pm

    @Barrie England: One of R. F. Delderfield's plays is titled "This Happy Brood" (1956), so the notion of breed/brood and Shakespeare has evidently been around for a while.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    Unless Penn was a more avant-garde place in 1950 than I would have supposed, I'm assuming that the dress code for female students was such that they were unlikely to be metaphorically represented by bare-breasted statuary. There are chaster forms of pseudo-Classical attire that could have been used if that were the intent.

  16. Mark Mandel said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    @Jerry Friedman: I'm sure you're right. alma, fem. of almus, means "nourishing, affording nourishment, cherishing … — Hence, genial, restoring, reviving, kind, propitious, indulgent, bountiful, etc." < alō 'to feed, nourish'; cf. "aliment". — Lewis & Short, Latin Dictionary (1879); familiarly known as Levis et Brevis, because it is neither light nor short.

  17. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 12, 2012 @ 6:42 pm

    @Geraint Jennings: I'm convinced, especially with the Dryden quotation.

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