His name was Southern, he was an actor, and he was the son of an actor named Southern. I believe one of them was doing "Our American Cousin" when Lincoln was shot.
In my high school days, I heard him lecture in a Chautauqua series, and he told of the tedious time he'd spent in learning to speak and to control his voice. I remember how he showed us he could whisper and still be heard distinctly in the third gallery while he was well back on the stage behind the footlights.
This ability was bread and butter to an actor's son, and he was drilled and drilled in controlling his diaphragm and his vocal chords and in projecting.
I was impressed and gave new attention to the matter. It was customary then to give Friday school afternoons over to "speaking," and I had already appeared several times in speaking contests without winning anything.
Now I knew that I should practice. I tried to be the E.H. Southern of the weekly declamation exercises. The next time I spoke I "gave" "The Man Without a Country" and got second prize. It can be done.
I've thought about this lately as I listened to television personalities who are plainly untrained and talk away until I mute them because I don't understand a word they say.
I thought it was me, but when I asked others what he or she had said, they said, "I don't know, they all talk that way nowadays." I suppose the Friday afternoon recitation session has been replaced in our schools by something much better that you plug in.
A pupil didn't get called on every week, but was expected to be ready to recite. After you had delivered a "piece to speak," you memorized another for next time. Teachers commented on posture, gestures, and so on, and besides making you glib and easy before an audience, the experience taught you some poetry or prose that it was good to know.
Ask, and you'll find today's kids have never heard of "Thanatopsis," the poem by William Cullen Bryant, but everybody in my high school class could repeat the whole thing.
Public speaking was important in college, too.
Unless we passed English 1, we wouldn't get a diploma. It was a "pipe" class, once a week, but it had to be taken seriously. We had "speakers," books with accepted pieces to declaim, and it often happened that half the class picked the same piece to declaim the same day. We'd hear "Against Flogging in the United States Navy" 11 times. Another good one was Thomas Reed's "I Love the State of Maine," and it was believed that anybody reciting it was automatically passed by Wilmot Brookings Mitchell, the Edward Little professor of composition and rhetoric who taught the course and invented the pear-shaped tone.
Foreign students always offered that classic, assured they'd be passed, and there was a student tradition that Chai Hi Fong of Canton and the Class of 1916 had delivered his Chinese translation of it. Anyway, every alumnus was a public speaker, and that was a good thing.
School-day recitations were given in the main room with the teachers all at the rear, in order to be serviceable. But at college we spoke in the vast auditorium of Memorial Hall with only Professor Mitchell in a rear seat.
It took some good projecting to reach him, but he could whisper and be heard when he corrected and suggested.
"Not 'gunga din,' " he'd whisper, "Watch the rhyme and be British, 'deen, deen, deen!' "
Professor Mitchell frequently spoke at dinners and occasions. It was a joy to hear him practice what he taught, each vowel and consonant, each phrase and sentence perfect and precise, and every peroration brought to a resounding success.
There are Edison phonograph recordings of William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued orator, and they are remarkable for their quality. But Bryan was a piker compared with Professor Mitchell. The professor never slurred, he never er-ah'ed, and he had withering ways to silence things like "you-know-you-know-you-know," which today are about all some public speakers can say.
Because other classes were meeting in other parts of Mem Hall, we did not disturb them with applause for good speaking, but Professor Mitchell allowed us to snap our fingers, a somewhat droll reward, and when he joined in the speaker knew all was well. When nobody snapped, it told the disappointed speaker it was time to do "I Love the State of Maine."
No doubt the microphone and public-address loudspeaker and broadcasting have something to do with the decline of articulation, a mistaken belief having arisen that because something is heard, naught else matters.
But Aristotle's rules are still valid. He is still our best authority, and he insisted on pleasing language. It would be nice to hear some now and then.
"Prunes" and "prisms" were proper words for young ladies to say.