An Unexpected Bonus

Friday, January 06, 2012

In the process of going through some old files, I learned that the complete works of "Underground Grammarian" Richard Mitchell, an old favorite of mine, are online for free. I already own three of his four books, lacking only The Graves of Academe, which I look forward to reading at some point after I slowly work down a rather full book hopper with the help of my new ebook reader.

In the meantime, I'm enjoying back issues of Mitchell's Underground Grammarian newsletter. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy his sense of humor, and find his ability to laugh even while besieged with incompetence and foolishness -- whose consequences he understands -- quite bracing. One of Mitchell's opening statements of purpose provides a fair and entertaining introduction to Mitchell's style, for anyone lucky enough to have all of his work to look forward to:

The betterment of fools, Goethe tells us, is the appropriate business of other fools. The Underground Grammarian does not seek to educate anyone. We intend rather to ridicule, humiliate, and infuriate those who abuse our language not so that they will do better but so that they will stop using language entirely or at least go away. There are callings in which the abuse of English doesn't matter; ours isn't one of them. When Bole Administration Building is loud with the clatter of ball-point pens falling from the trembling fingers of frenzied administrators, when semi-literate instructors furtively eye the classified ads looking for honest employment as salesmen in discount stores specializing in floor-covering, when the Faculty Senate disbands because no one is willing to risk uttering gibberish in public, then The Underground Grammarian will have reached some of its goals. If we do our job well, more and more people at Glassboro State College will emit fewer and fewer memoranda. The taxpayers of New Jersey will be spared the cost of thousands of reams of paper; duplicators will consume less energy; professors could put into teaching the effort now expended in replying to inane surveys and checking meaningless ballots that will choose one mediocrity rather than another to serve in a position of no significance; and tall trees saved from destruction will stand for long years in noble forests. Virtues foster one another; so too, vices. Bad English kills trees, consumes energy, and befouls the earth. Good English renews it. 
I've read three issues of the newsletter so far, and thought I'd share a few quotes from the first here, in the order I encountered them.
  • "We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding."
  • Regarding a poorly-written memo: "And furthermore, directness and precision would have relieved Yeldell's nagging fear that his readers would not easily identify his committee. He might then have avoided the ugly legalese of said committee in two places."
  • "[T]he clause implies that this assertion is, at least, arguable, or that the committee may be dead."
  • "The Underground Grammarian does not advocate violence; it advocates ridicule. Abusers of English are often pompous, and ridicule hurts them more than violence. In every edition we will bring you practical advice for ridiculing abusers of English."
  • "This month's target is any barbarian who says advisement..."
Happy reading!

-- CAV


Snedcat said...

Ah, yes, good ol' Richard Mitchell. I devoured his books in high school and frequently find myself using his turns of phrase, or turns of phrase much like his, for he had an indelible way with words. You'll have a great deal of fun with The Graves of Academe, which among other riches has this long passage, the last two sentences of which I very often adopt to the topic at hand when discussing some of the woozier woolier "research" the social science set emits:

Well, nice people are nice, no doubt. But how do we know that, and how can we decide which are the nicer nice people and by precisely how much they are nicer? This is the kind of concern that modern educationism has inherited from Wundt's by now much-debased principles. And answers are sought not by recourse to evidence but by the gathering of testimony, testimony invariably and inevitably tainted by subjectivity. It would be bad enough that such methods nullify the value of educationistic "research." What is far worse is that such research becomes the pattern for the study of "education" generally. Students of teacher-training are continuously exposed to such presumed methods of inquiry. Since they spend so much of their time in education courses, they can have little training in rigidly scientific disciplines, even if they intend to teach them, and they are easily bamboozled into thinking that this kind of exercise is science. Their bewilderment has to be compounded by the fact that this putative science is about things which, for other purposes than dissertations, educationists will claim as human "values" to be inculcated as separate from "mere" intellectual attainments. Those are things like Waterman's Self-Regard, Existentiality, and Inner-Directed (which desperately needs a substantive).

The educationistic mind is deeply divided against itself. It wants to follow Wundt and believe that teaching and learning are objectively measurable phenomena and that those who study teaching and learning are therefore scientists and worthy of chairs in colleges and universities. At the same time it wants to contend that the profoundly important results of an education, especially the education of a teacher, are attitudes, values, and "philosophies" that transcend cognition. Waterman, an educationist, asks this kind of question: How do public and private school teachers compare with each other in their Existentiality? He who asks after the degree of your Existentiality may just as well ask for a numerical value for your hunger, and will, in either case, simply have to accept what you tell him. Such "research" wouldn't even make an interesting parlor game.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes!! Richard Mitchell is my favorite. In fact, I've been reading his website for about 7 years. The first book I read of his was The Graves of Academe. You'll enjoy it.

Bookish Babe

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for the preview of GoA, Snedcat, and for seconding his recommendation, BB!

Snedcat said...

Yo, Gus, it does make you wonder though what other treasures that spread by word of mouth in the past have been digitized and preserved by afficionados online. But then again, one man's treasure is another man's laugh fodder. Remember this?

Gus Van Horn said...

What a find!

Ignatius J. Reilly, the main character of John Kennedy Toole's farcical A Confederacy of Dunces, once described the Smithsonian Institution as, "that grab bag of the nation's refuse."

That's also a pretty apt description of the Internet.