DURING the month of May, universities across the nation will offer honorary degrees to distinguished individuals. Some of these are writers.
Colleges assume the proposed honorary degrees will be taken as compliments and therefore accepted with pleasure. In most cases this will be true. But writers are a peculiar breed and their reactions can vary from delight to disgust - or from Mark Twain and Sinclair Lewis to George Bernard Shaw and H. L. Mencken.
When Mark Twain was offered an honorary doctor of literature by Oxford University in 1907, he, delighted, wrote in his autobiography that, "Oxford is heal-ing a secret sore of mine which has been causing me sharp anguish for many, many years. It has been an annual pain to me to see our universities confer an aggregate of 250 honorary degrees upon persons of small and temporary consequence - and never a degree offered to me! This neglect would have killed a less robust person than I am, but it has not kil led me; it has only shortened my life and weakened my constitution; but I shall get my strength back now. An Oxford decoration is a loftier distinction than is conferrable by any other university on either side of the ocean."
Actually, Twain had received honorary degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, but resented the fact that Harvard had not followed suit. In accepting an honorary doctorate from Johns Hopkins he told his hosts he appreciated the honor but wondered if the public would "have full confidence in a college that didn't know how to spell John."
Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for literature, was even more delighted by an honorary doctorate from Yale, which he had attended as an undergraduate. According to his wife, Dorothy Thompson, that Yale honorary degree meant more to Lewis "than anything else that had happened in his life."
Yet Yale had been fearful Lewis might refuse to accept an honorary degree since he had recently refused to accept the Pulitzer Prize. So the offer was not made until an emissary from Yale had sounded Lewis out and found that he actually was eager to receive an honorary degree from his alma mater. Thompson, who was a famous writer in her own right, was just as impressed as Lewis was and actually wept a little during the ceremonies, according to Mrs. Angell, wife of Yale's president.
HE Yale authorities' early fear that Lewis might reject their offer of an honorary degree may have been because they had heard George Bernard Shaw's reaction when the University of Edinburgh offered him a doctorate in law. Shaw was indignant and wrote back: "To pick out the one academic department which my work has never touched and offer me a degree in that is an insult to me and to law, an undignified caper which makes light of learning and its institutes. No doubt the same caper has been cut so often that nobody now supposes that an Edinburgh degree means anything; but if so, how dare the university off it to me. I am not snubbing the university: I am rebuking it." Shaw closed his letter: "Yours on a very high horse indeed."
While Yale may have heard about Shaw's reaction to an honorary degree, others apparently had not because nine years later, in 1935, Harvard sent an emissary to sound out the great Irishman about attending Harvard's 300th anniversary. Shaw's reply: "... If Harvard would celebrate its 300th anniversary by burning itself to the ground and sowing the site with salt, the ceremony would give me the liveliest satisfaction as an example to all the other famous corrupters of youth, including Yale, Oxford, Cambrid ge, the Sorbonne...."
This reply set a record for vigor in rejecting honorary degrees which has never been broken, although H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore, came close. During the first quarter of this century, Mencken was the most famous author and literary critic in America. Lewis dedicated one of his novels, "Elmer Gantry" to Mencken, and the New York Times called him the most influential private citizen in the nation, but his fame was not restricted to the United States. In 1924, Dr. Robert Bridges, England's poet la ureate, visited New York and told reporters that "the only man I want to meet in America is H. L. Mencken."
So it is not surprising that Mencken received many offers of honorary degrees from prestigious colleges and universities. Like Shaw, Mencken had never attended any college, and again like Shaw, he rejected all offers of honorary degrees. Unlike Shaw, his rejections were always courteous, but after about two dozen of them had been written, Mencken issued a general summary on the subject to the Associated Press.
"No decent man," he wrote, "would accept a degree he hadn't earned. Honorary degrees are for corporation presidents, real estate agents, presidents of the United States, and other such riffraff."
After that, Mencken never received any further offers to make him an honorary doctor of literature or anything else.