Saturday, June 25, 2005

Richard Mitchell, Underground Grammarian

Richard Mitchell was one of my many teachers. An English professor at Glassboro State College (now known as Rowan University), he published a newsletter titled "The Underground Grammarian." He used a real printing press. The kind where the printer sets the type by hand, picking the letters, one by one. The page, once set, was placed in the press and inked, and the pages were printed, one by one. Mitchell claimed that his was the last regularly published periodical printed in this manner. To the best of my knowledge, no one challenged his claim.

The printing press preceded the newsletter. That is, Mitchell acquired the press and then decided that, as a matter of principle, it must be used. The first few newsletters were intended for circulation among friends and colleagues, but one thing led to another, and pretty soon Mitchell had a loyal and far-flung group of readers.

At some point, Mitchell got a Macintosh computer and used it to do the word processing and initial layout. Mitchell let the Mac do the hard work of justifying the columns, but he still set the type by hand, and still printed the newsletter page by page.

Once, while visiting his home, he told me that his initial assumption was that the computer would make it easier to go back and edit -- to remove excess and redundant verbiage -- resulting in leaner prose. He was dismayed to find that more often than not, his editing resulted in adding words rather than subtracting words.

Blogging puts me in mind of Mitchell. Editing on the fly, I'm reminded of his advice -- borrowed from Strunk and White -- to eliminate where possible. When the weather cools and the gardening winds down, I'll be sorting through old books and papers. As I uncover old "Underground Grammarians," I'm sure I'll find quotes to post.

I do not hold myself up as a paragon of grammar, however. I'll be making mistakes. Some honest, some lazy, and some due to the nature of typing. Go ahead and point them out. That's how I learn.

For more about Richard Mitchell, read this .


Anthony said...

I just read your post. I'm a former student of Dr. Mitchell's and am now an adjunct English teacher at Rowan. I'm also a fan of Mitchell's writing, and I'd love to hear what it is about him that's so appealing to you.

peter hoh said...

Thanks for stopping by. I'll do what I can to explain why he was such a significant teacher for me, but I am reluctant to try a formal analysis. Over time, I'll post vignettes that will, I hope, offer some insight.

I was a student of his during the early 80s, when he had already honed his role as beloved curmudgeon. Was it an act? Well, he was a great performer -- what good teacher isn't? I think he was fully aware of the persona he created for teaching. However, there was no doubting his passion for literature, teaching, and the examined life.

Among his skills, he could draw on the blackboard while facing the class and speaking. I remember one occasion when he drew a map of the lower 48 United States in sweeping, fluid movements, while making snarky comments about various features like the 48th Parallel.