Scholars (Professional and Amateur) and Squirrels

Binkley’s letter to Leo C. Higgins

Here’s a letter in verse which Binkley wrote to Leo C. Higgins, a salesman in New Bedford.1 The letter to which this is a response hasn’t turned up, but it appears that Higgins had picked up Binkley’s thoughts about amateur scholarship somewhere and they had some exchange about its value; or perhaps they met during Binkley’s year at Harvard in 1932-33. This letter is in iambic tetrameters, in four-line stanzas (except the last, which has six), rhymed aabb, including a daring rhyme of “limb” with “paradigm”. He had it typed in a normal business letter layout.

Since the original form of the letter is visible in the page image, I’ll present it here laid out as verse.

My guess is that squirrels were part of the preceding correspondence. Binkley develops the metaphor of the squirrel for the scholar’s life, which enables him to contrast himself (the academic, the caged squirrel), with Higgins, the free amateur scholar.

There are two other letters in this form among Binkley’s papers from a few years earlier, both holiday greetings to friends. He also used used the squirrel wheel as a metaphor for his situation at the beginning of classes in a letter to Frances a couple of years later.


December 2, 1935

Mr. Leo C. Higgins
13 Hussey Street
New Bedford, Massachusetts

Dear friend:

                  You must have thought me dead;
I’m full of squirrels in the head;
the rush of work has made me feel
a squirrel in a squirrel wheel.

I’d like to take the squirrel cure,
promote myself to amateur,
then chattering from a leafy perch,
do all my teaching and research!

I hate the planned economy
and bourgeois virtues of the bee;
I loathe the platitudes and cant
that touch upon the busy ant;

but I can find in squirrel-lore
a satisfying metaphor!
The human mind that imitates
the well established squirrel-traits, –

that lives at comfortable height,
sees all with interest and delight,
is tempted down by small rewards
and gathers nuts in little hoards

and when the slightest stir is made
is not afraid to be afraid,
and leaps about from limb to limb –
it is the scholar[’]s paradigm.

Then let the scholar type of man
accept as totem for his clan,
the squirrel – whether bond or free.
Some are caught up and caged like me,
and others may run wild like you.

      Good luck in everything you do.

Robert C. Binkley


  1. All I know about Higgins is from this letter, another that Binkley wrote a few months later suggesting he start a WPA newspaper digest project like Annals of Cleveland, the 1940 census (where he appears as a 44-year-old salesman for “store advertiser” or an “advertiser store” with four years of college), and scattered search results that seem to place him as a Harvard graduate in the class of ’20.↩︎