'Are Their Heads Off?'
THE annual slaughter of the innocents has begun. Columbia University, holder of the world’s record for hospitality to educational convocations, provides the battlefield. The august College Board, used by parents nowadays to fear babes withal, summons the defensive army. The offense, newly recruited each year, is making another assault upon the colleges.
We whose privilege it is to preserve the President’s English have sharpened our pencils and squared our jaws and spied out the weaknesses of the enemy. Each split infinitive and comma splice will soon run red with our markings. Not a misplaced modifier shall escape our ambush.
We are not a bad lot in a general view. We are even a trifle merry now that the classroom no longer smothers the fire of our wit. Something of a holiday air pervades the scene in spite of the solemnity of the task we are engaged upon. I even find my heart warming a little to Mr. A—, who collects errors in punctuation with the delight of a connoisseur and keeps a private record of them (which he carefully shades from the curious with his left hand). One suspects that he is meditating a magnum, opus on the full stop. Miss H—, headmistress of one of our leading female seminaries, greets me with a cordiality I had not supposed she felt toward any man. But then, this is a festive season for her; she has consecrated her life to the defeating of enthusiasms, and these hundreds of aspiring papers give her a fair field.
So generally pleased with our reunion are we that not until the third day shall I find myself annoyed by the languid young master in English from the S— School. He is convinced, I am certain, that he is a thwarted genius. He devotes his ruined life, magnanimously, to the discovery of mute Miltons among the candidates. Where a more jaundiced eye can find only nonsense, he discerns fantasy which suggests a Barrie-to-be. He trembles with expectancy over a squalid little theme on ‘Adventures in My Back Yard,’ hoping to see a Zola burst out of this drab cocoon.
If we have a fault, and I suppose we must have (one hundred Ph.D.’s can’t always be right), it is that we will not tolerate humor, especially if it is unconscious. The candidates have a real grievance against us. As for myself, I am weary of this compulsion to bluepencil the fine imaginings of American Youth. Is it not true (except to a schoolmaster) that one finds in Burke ‘all sorts of grammatical illusions’? Meredith could not have invented a finer figure than this description of Lady Macbeth’s ambition: ‘The bug of temptation had whispered in her ear.’ I myself prefer, though I dare not admit it to my colleagues, thinking of the French peasants as dancing the rigmarole in the streets of Paris to remembering whatever was the name of their bloody revel. After struggling for many seasons to explain to the modern generation the anguish caused by scientific determinism in the heart of the young Tennyson, I welcome with frabjous joy this exegesis of ‘Crossing the Bar’: ‘He and his friend went out for a row and they were afraid to come back because they did n’t know how much the bar would be moaning.’ What if Eugene O’Neill never wrote a poem called ‘Little Boy Blue’? He ought to try once. Were I making the 829th edition of Shakespeare, I should adopt with delight these critical comments and make my edition the best since Johnson’s. Of Cassius: ‘He was a keen politician with an intuitive knowledge of stagecraft.’ Of Hamlet: ‘ Queen Gertrude had a fine boy in the younger Hamlet. He was a well-built fellow, though he might be considered a little too heavy for his height.’ Of Portia: ‘She showed Brutus that she could keep things to herself when she swallowed the live coal and did not tell him what ailed her.’
Clinical notes taken at these sessions yield two hypotheses I have no longer the right to keep from the world. I have discovered the cause of the American mind, that great mystery to European visitors, and I am prepared to suggest a cure for it. There can be no doubt that we are what we are because we were all compelled in our youth to read Silas Marner, A Tale of Two Cities, and Burke on Conciliation. Visiting Englishmen, amazed by our cult of service, should be made to ponder the fact that every American child at the age of fourteen is obliged to heave up his right hand and swear allegiance to little golden-haired Eppie. Consider our suspicions regarding the French. How can we be expected to believe that the French are respectable? Did their effete nobility not kill little children wantonly, and are not their wives all Madame Defarges? Where can we find a better explanation of our national fondness for making mental reservations when swearing to uphold the Constitution at home and abroad than the fact that we were forced in our youth to lie prodigiously about Burke’s abortive masterpiece? Did we not once pretend that it was our fondest pastime to read orations, particularly this oration, just as six thousand boys and girls have done this year?
There is a ready cure for these delusions of the American mind. The examiners in English have only to throw overboard Self-Reliance and the Vision of Sir Launfal and lay a new course. Better than making the songs of a nation is to prescribe what its adolescents shall parse in the schoolroom. What might the Board do for this great commonwealth if it should oust Silas in favor of Tristram Shandy? Consider for a moment the state of our national consciousness after five generations had been fed on Jude the Obscure. For variety’s sake we could bring up the mothers and fathers on Don Juan and Point Counter-Point, and demand of their sons and daughters a complete working knowledge of Lucile, Aurora Leigh, and Evangeline.
I have propounded these ideas to some of the examiners, but they were coldly received. That is why I suggest them here; popular sentiment must be created to force the hands of the Board.