Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

II. The College and the Man

Fitz Hugh's higher education began in 1854 at the College of New Jersey (now known as Princeton), where his father had been in the seminary. He was not there long, and little is known of the time he spent there. We know that he joined the Cliosophic Society, and we have an itemized expense sheet that he sent to his father to explain where all the money was going (items include three cents "given to a poor blind man," a two dollar "[s]ubscription to the College literary Monthly," and two more dollars for "[t]wo bottles of wine, taken when sick at beginning of term.")

Nassau Hall today, rebuilt after the 1855 fire that prompted Ludlow's move to Union College

When Nassau Hall was destroyed in an accidental fire in March of 1855, Fitz Hugh left Princeton and transferred to Union College in Schenectady the following month, joining Kappa Alpha and living with other members of the fraternity on the fourth floor of North College.

Reminiscences of classmates are varied. One describes him as "conspicuous for his uniform good nature, brilliant talent, unbounded enthusiasm, marked generosity, congenial companionship, keen sense of humor, simplicity and courage," while another says that "[h]e was regarded as somewhat 'queer' by the other students, among whom he was not very popular. He was reticent, and hilarious and talkative at intervals..."

He performed academically at a level just about in the middle of a graduating class of sixty-six, from an original class of one hundred and five, doing well enough to make a shot at, but not well enough to succeed at Phi Beta Kappa. "...I shook the tree of knowledge / Till it rattled down pippins of gold," he wrote in a poem to a Kappa Alpha brother, "And though I coined none of those pippins / To the shape of a Phi Bete key, / Yet their fragrance is none the poorer / In the hoards of memory..."

Among the classes Ludlow took at Union must have been some intensive courses in medicine. As early as 1857, he is talking with authority of having been an anesthesiologist on occasions of minor surgery, and being asked by surgeons for his opinions on the actions of various courses of anesthesia.

A class in which Fitz Hugh always got the highest marks was a course taught by university president Eliphalet Nott and based on Lord Kames' Elements of Criticism, although by the time Nott got through with it it really became a course on the philosophy of Eliphalet Nott.

Nott's philosophy, particularly his frequently asserted belief that knowledge in itself was next to worthless without subjective experience to back it up would have an influence on Ludlow, but perhaps more immediately Nott's assertion that "[i]f I had it in my power to direct the making of songs in any country, I could do just as I pleased with the people."

Union College president Eliphalet Nott

It may be a testimony to Nott's feelings toward Ludlow - both toward his philosophy and his writing talent - that he asked Fitz Hugh to write a song for the commencement ceremony of his 1856 class. College legend holds that Ludlow, having finished writing the lyrics to the tune of a drinking song ("Sparkling and Bright") late at night, was so unhappy with what he had written that he threw away the manuscript and it would have been lost had not his roommate discovered it and brought it to Rev. Nott's attention. "Song to Old Union" became the alma mater, and is sung at commencement to this day.

In fact, Ludlow wrote several college songs, two of which were even fifty years later considered the two most popular Union College songs. You can believe his enthusiasm, in The Hasheesh Eater, when he says that "[h]e who should collect the college carols of our country... would be adding no mean department to the national literature... [T]hey are frequently both excellent poetry and music... [T]hey are always inspiring, always heart-blending, and always, I may add, well sung."

Ludlow would return to Union on future occasions, to recite commencement poems from the perspective of an alumnus. He hoped to return as a professor, saying that "Union has always been one of my idols; I have hardly ever seen the time, even when my prospects in a worldly point of view were most flattering, when I would not have abandoned them to return to the pleasantest home of my life." But it was not to be: "I should have been very glad if Union had ever appeared to care for my connection with it as much as I did."

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