Then and now: the teacher of America's best writers of the past

ONCE upon a time Harvard College trained the only men in America who could write the English language. The ability to do this, it was held, began with the year 1819 and ended with the year 1851 -- the tenure of Edward Tyrrell Channing, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Channing is the model of teachers of the art of writing English prose, the hollow-eyed crew who make a living out of the ``comma splice'' and ``awk'' and ``Sp!'' Those foolish enough to take up this calling should steel themselves to imitate his practices. And anyone sending a son or daughter off to a place of instruction -- public or private -- should first ask how close its teachers come to the standard he set so long ago. Professor Channing's life was ``strictly academic,'' as the charming old Dictionary of American Biography puts it. Before coming to Harvard, he had edited The North American Review for three years and occasionally in later life contributed to it literary articles still worth reading. But he published practically nothing else. In a real sense, Channing was not himself a writer, but a teacher of writers. T. W. Higginson, the man who ``discovered'' Emily Dickinson, wrote that Channing ``probably trained as many conspicuous authors as all other American instructors put together.'' And Van Wyck Brooks once speculated that Channing may actually have been the cause of the mid-century New England Literary Renaissance. He taught Emerson, Holmes, Sumner, James Russell Lowell, Charles Francis Adams, Richard Dana, and Thoreau. Jones Very wrote some themes in verse for him and later dedicated to him his ``Essays and Poems.'' But characteristically the professor himself said: ``No modest teacher would claim to have made his pupil a good writer; and no prudent one, even if he believed in his so great success, would undertake to say how it was effected.''

One thing is clear, however. Channing made his students write. After their freshman year, all Harvard undergraduates were required to turn in an essay every two weeks, 18 a year for three years. In addition, once a month juniors and seniors composed a somewhat longer piece called a ``forensic,'' in which they argued both sides of a set question. Though it is hard to be accurate, Channing seems to have marked upwards of 150 essays a week, beginning the first of September and ending sometime in June.

By contrast an instructor today may mark only 25 or 30 essays a week, and his pupils may graduate from college having written a grand total of 10 constricted into one half-year course called ``English Comp.''

Channing's method was to give out theme topics two weeks in advance: ``Gray's `Elegy' compared to Bryant's `Thanatopsis,' '' ``American Eloquence as affected by our institutions,'' or ``What do you understand by the word, liberal?'' Every two weeks each section of the class (perhaps a dozen or more students) would deliver its themes to him in the recitation room and then wait as he held individual consultations on the previous theme. Students could hear their colleagues' evaluations and profit from them.

Channing based his comments on his own notations in the margins: O for obscurity, R for repetition, W for trite expressions, T for questionable taste, etc. Today's instructor is likely to litter the kid's effort with ``Frag! Agr! Ref?'' and, for egregious nonsense, ``Gee!'' or ``Wow!'' But then and now it is the conference, not the correction, that is essential. I learned this as a beginning teacher when I saw a student glance at his grade and then chuck the returned theme -- with all of my midnight comments -- into the wastepaper basket. Teaching writing is an eyeball-to-eyeball, one-on-one endeavor full of embarrassment and tears. I remember a teacher looking at my own careless essay lying naked on his blotter and angrily shouting, ``Beeching, what's the matter with you?'' A man I know who has been at this trade for some 25 years awards an average semester grade in Freshman Comp of D-. But students have complained to me only three or four times about his strictness.

Nor have the comments in the teacher-student dialogue changed much in what surely is the second- or third-oldest profession. ``Hale, you do not mean to say that you think a Grub Street hack the superior to John Milton?'' or, ``Why do you write with blue ink on blue paper?'' Augustine must have talked like this to students in Carthage.

Here is Oliver Wendell Holmes's portrait of the Boylston Professor at work: written 50 years afterward for an alumni dinner: And Channing, with his bland, superior look, Cold as a moonbeam on a frozen brook, While the pale student, shivering in his shoes, Sees from his theme the turgid rhetoric ooze.

He was not unaware of the emotional element in criticism: ``Other strictures may be more galling,'' he wrote, ``but I suspect there are none which a man bears less patiently, than those which require him to part with a favorite word. . . .'' Higginson wrote, ``Never in my life have I had to meet such exacting criticism on anything written as came from Professor Channing, and never have I had any praise so encouraging as his.''

In 1893, Edward Everett Hale recalled Channing and his labors at Harvard for The Atlantic Monthly:

``Poor dear man! to read these acres of trash must have been dispiriting. Half a century afterwards, when I was an overseer, the president of the time said to me, `You cannot get people to read themes for many years together.' I said, `I thank God every day of my life that Ned Channing was willing to read themes for thirty-two years.' ''

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