The New York Times, May 1, 1960

English 12 Was a Performance and a Good One, Too

COPEY OF HARVARD. A Biography of Charles Townsend Copeland. By J. Donald Adams. 306 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $5.


The biography by J. Donald Adams of Charles Townsend Copeland, the Harvard teacher who "probably changed the course of more lives than any other American of his period," evokes vividly three different eras: life in Calais, Me., where Copey was born (1860) and spent his childhood, an area and a time very little written about; the Boston and Harvard of Copey's days as an undergraduate and as drama and literary critic on The Boston Post and The Advertiser, a very different Harvard and a very different Boston from what we know now; and the years when he returned to Harvard as a teacher, which took him through World War I and to 1928 when he retired.

To analyze a career like Copey's is not easy; it is not a record of achievements in scholarship, nor is there a roster of publications to record. What Mr. Adams, who conducts the Speaking of Books page in this Review, had to convey was a genius that resided in personality. He has done it. Though I was a student in Copey's English 12 in 1915 and read a theme to him weekly and suffered from him, I realize now that I knew very little about him. Mr. Adams fills in completely. It is most revealing, for example, to find out that when Copey was young his most passionate interest was the drama and that he wanted to be an actor. He had the voice and the understanding, but he didn't have the face or the body. He was little, and he felt himself to be ugly.

This frustration was lucky for the legions who came to study with him because he gave his performances for us. We saw him all the time for nothing and from good seats. I've never known a tragi-comedian as consistently and incessantly entertaining as Copey, since professional comedians depend on scripts, often mediocre, and Copey wrote his own, always lively. His script was his conversation, and his cast was his personality.

After he graduated from Harvard in the Class of 1882, Copey didn't know, quite, what to do with himself. He taught for a year in a private school at Englewood, N. J —salary $400 and board—and then went for a year to the Harvard Law School. To see him through this his father managed to raise—"out of capital"—$250. At the end of the first year he went back home to Calais (pronounced Callus), to read for another year. He then decided the law was not for him and went to Boston where he worked on The Advertiser and Post for several years.

Then he got an instructorship at Harvard in English. He began to give private readings and lectures in the small amphitheatre of Sever Hall. These became enormously popular. His classmate, George Lyman Kittredge, was the great rising star in the Harvard English department. "Kitty's" erudition was vast. Copey's popularity with the students and Kitty's erudition grew by leaps and bounds.

There was, Mr. Adams reveals, a rivalry between them. He tells of the long pull Copey had to attain recognition from the powers at Harvard; the students had capitulated long since but the authorities were more coy. I had them both, Kitty and Copey. I remember Copey as if I'd seen him yesterday; all I remember of Kitty is his beard. That was a wonder but not so entertaining as Copey, who didn't need a beard to hold your attention. I don't remember a single thing that Kitty ever said (to my own loss, probably) but I remember numberless things that Copey said and the exact intonation with which he said them.

Finally advancement came. In 1925 Copey was given the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory. I have always felt a passionate neutrality about Abbot Lawrence Lowell who was President of Harvard when I was there, but Mr. Adams tells a story about him which induced a momentary friendliness. Copey came back to Hollis late one afternoon and found President Lowell sitting on the steps of the entry. He had been sitting there for nearly an hour waiting to congratulate Copey on his promotion. Mr. Adams says that this "impulsiveness and warmth of personal interest" were characteristic of Lowell.

The first occupant of the Boylston Professorship had been John Quincy Adams. At Copey's first appearance in class he noted his newly acquired eminence. "Gentlemen, I would have you know that I am now warming the chair once occupied by the cold, correct bottom of John Quincy Adams." That was Copey's vein. He became vastly famous as a public reader and was in great demand everywhere. The frustrated actor came into his own; he took it out in these readings just as Charles Dickens did.

Once in class Copey read us a nice letter from the president of a woman's club asking him to come and read, wishing to know his fee and inviting him to spend the night in her house. "I wrote to her," said Copey, "that my fee was one hundred dollars and one hundred and fifty if I stay all night." Once, driving to lunch in New York in a taxi with Maxwell Perkins of Scribner's, Copey noticed that the driver's photograph was not in its accustomed place. The driver said that he had pasted it on the ceiling of the cab. Copey looked up at it devotionally: "Ah," he said, "just like the Sistine Chapel!"

It was Copey's custom, when you came to read a theme to him in his composition course, English 12, to sit you down before his fireplace, hand you a red or green pencil, with which you had to write down his comments while you read it aloud to him—that is, if he stayed awake, which often he cunningly didn't. Mr. Adams takes you right into Hollis 15 and allows you to eavesdrop on an afternoon in 1909, when a student from St. Louis, T. S. Eliot, came to read to Copey a theme on "The Defects of Kipling." Mr. Eliot, equipped with the colored pencil Copey had given him, sailed in:

"As the novelty of certain innovations dies away, as the school literature of which Mr. Kipling is the most illustrious representative, the exotic school, passes with all its blemishes exaggerated more and more into the hands of less able practitioners, so Kipling's fame is fading, and his unique charm is diminished. [Opposite these words Copeland had the young Eliot write, 'A mouth-filling sentence.'] He himself has made little effort to increase his reputation in his own special province of literature, the Anglo-Indian Orient, and in his late writings has turned to other subjects. This may well be the part of wisdom. For the popularity of his work was due not more to his emphatic and vigorous style, his unquestioned technical merits, than to the unfamiliarity and picturesqueness of his background. Now that a score of writers can boast of an acquaintance with the Equator, we are no longer so entranced by the Kiplingesque as we were when cobras had first learned to talk, and bears to bring up small boys 'by hand.' We are at ease with Oogly, the China Sea, even with the Khyber Pass. [Alongside this entire first paragraph and page, Eliot was instructed to write down: 'A harsh statement with some elements of truth.']"

Copey's general comment on the theme was as follows:

"As usual, you lean to the unduly harsh. Your opinion of Kipling's faults would carry more weight if you could appreciate without any niggling qualifications such masterpieces as the 'End of the Passage,' the 'Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney' and—the best of all perhaps — 'The Man Who Would Be King.'

"Kipling is no favorite of mine—I am a pianola that often resents the music it plays—but we should all be heartily grateful for the mere vital energy of this immature, middle-aged man in a feeble era of literature.

"Although it is a great pleasure to see that you can at last swing a long sentence, swing several, each growing out of the one before, you must now be on your guard against becoming pompous, orotund, and voluminous."

There were dissenters from Copey. Of the Harvard writers of Copey's era, James Gould Cozzens and John P. Marquand never took him at all. T. S. Eliot, Dos Passes and Van Wyck Brooks, who did take him, didn't take to him. They fought him, and Copey fought back. But for the vast majority of his students, even for such an intransigent as John Reed, Copey was a blessing.

He established, with his students, the most intimate possible relationship: he was tough, which toughness prepared you for the brickbats you would get later; he was especially hard on pretension; often he seemed merciless. And yet, even when he reduced you to despair, there was something in his personal aura, some emanation from him, that made you feel that ultimately you were in the same boat with him. Mr. Adams acutely makes clear that Copey was a lonely man—and that what appeared so often as vanity was actually a deep need for reassurance.

For those who knew Copey, Mr. Adams' book is a loving cup brimming with nostalgia. For those who didn't know him, it is the most winning possible introduction.

Since turning in themes to Covey, Mr. Behrman has written many successful plays and an autobiography, "The Worcester Account."

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