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.
By S. N.
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
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
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
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