Dr. Richard Mitchell (April 26, 1929 – December 27, 2002) was a professor, first of English and later of classics, at Glassboro State College in Glassboro, New Jersey. He gained fame in the late 1970s as the founder and publisher of The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter of opinion and criticism that ran until 1992, and wrote four books expounding his views on the relationships among language, education, and ethics.
Richard Mitchell was born in Brooklyn and spent his early life in Scarsdale, New York. He attended the University of Chicago briefly, where he met his wife, Francis, and spent the balance of his undergraduate years at the University of the South, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his Ph.D. at Syracuse University; sources conflict as to whether the subject of his doctorate was classical and Western Literature or American literature.
After teaching college English in Defiance, Ohio, Mitchell became a professor to Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in 1963. Again, sources conflict as to Mitchell's subject at Glassboro; though he is more often listed as a professor of English, a few sources refer to him as a professor of classics. Those listing English, which include the dust jackets of his first three books, all occur before 1985, while those listing classics, including the dust jacket of his final book, all occur in or after 1985, suggesting that his position changed during late 1984 or early 1985; however, no source provides clear details.
In addition to his reputation as a masterful lecturer and extraordinary teacher, Mitchell was a prolific and well-known author. He first gained prominence as the writer, publisher, and printer of The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter that offered lively, witty, satiric, and often derisive essays on the misuse of the English language, particularly the misuse of written English on college campuses. He privately published the journal from 1977 to 1992. Although its circulation was limited, The Underground Grammarian was highly regarded, and, in addition to its academic audience, had a following outside academia that included George Will, Edwin Newman, and Johnny Carson, on whose The Tonight Show Mitchell appeared many times.
Mitchell went on to publish four books: Less Than Words Can Say (1979), The Graves of Academe (1981), The Leaning Tower of Babel (1984), and The Gift of Fire (1987). Virtually all of his writings, including these books and The Underground Grammarian, are available online for free. Mitchell gave his permission that all of these works be made available on the Internet and be disseminated freely, without charge, especially to teachers for use in their classrooms.
Mitchell's final book, The Psyche Papers, was left uncompleted. Mitchell published the four chapters he had completed in the final four issues of The Underground Grammarian (see below). Mitchell said in 2001 that he had "lost his faith." Although he appreciated that his works would live beyond him, he could not help but note how little impact they had on changing education in America.
John Simon said of Mitchell, "There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell's is such a voice."
Mitchell retired in 1991, but continued to teach part-time until the fall of 2002. He died in his home of diabetes complications on December 27, 2002 at the age of 73, and was survived by his wife, Francis, daughters Amanda Merritt, Felicity Myers, Sonia Armstrong and Daphne Keller, as well as five grandchildren.
The Underground Grammarian
In December 1976, the students, faculty, and administrators of Glassboro State College in New Jersey were greeted by a small, 4-page missive printed from hand-set type distributed on campus that proclaimed the following editorial policy:
The Underground Grammarian is an unauthorised journal devoted to the protection of the Mother Tongue at Glassboro State College. Our language can be written and even spoken correctly, even beautifully. We do not demand beauty, but bad English cannot be excused or tolerated in a college. The Underground Grammarian will expose and ridicule examples of jargon, faulty syntax, redundancy, needless neologism, and any other kind of outrage against English.
Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education. We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding. And so, to the whole college community, to students, to teachers, and to administrators of every degree, The Underground Grammarian gives WARNING! RAPE OF THE MOTHER TONGUE WILL BE PUNISHED!
And so began the polemicist career of Richard Mitchell, launched with the January 1977 issue of The Underground Grammarian, wherein he exposed and ridiculed academics, educationists, school principals, and teachers who engaged in spreading mindlessness in the name of enlightenment.
His maiden publication also asserted, under the heading "What Can We Do?", the following:
The Underground Grammarian does not advocate violence; it advocates ridicule. Abusers of English are often pompous, and ridicule hurts them more than violence. In every edition we will bring you practical advice for ridiculing abusers of English.
Regarding subscriptions, the editor stated rather tersely:
There are no subscriptions. We don't lack money, and we may attack you in the next issue. No one is safe.
We will print no letters to the editor. We will give no space to opposing points of view. They are wrong. The Underground Grammarian is at war and will give the enemy nothing but battle.
By January 1979, The Underground Grammarian had garnered national attention and a circulation of 1800, with Mitchell receiving 12 to 15 letters per day from readers offering examples of bad writing, speaking, and teaching. Mitchell published The Underground Grammarian for 15 years.
Mitchell eventually charged a modest annual subscription fee starting in September 1979: "U.S & Canada, $10; others, $14." In February 1984 Mitchell raised subscription fees: "Persons in USA & Canada, $15US; Persons elsewhere, $20; Institutions, $25." Institutional requests (i.e., libraries) seemed to have bothered Mitchell since before long he had replaced "Institution, $25" with "non-personal entities of any description, $25 or even more." By the April 1990 issue, the subscription information included the subtle declaration, "No more libraries allowed!" After several years, Mitchell gave half-price discounts to retired teachers, stating that their "presence among our readers indicates that they must have been good teachers, and the same discount, or even more, applies to readers who happen to need it."
By then the request for back issues forced Mitchell to write, "We remind readers one and all that we approve when our readers make photocopies, however numerous. It just shows good judgment." Mitchell always encouraged free distribution of his writings. In 1983 Mitchell pulled back from nine issues per year to eight. The amount of text had doubled by then. In 1990 he reduced the number of printed issues to five, and in 1991, the final year, he published only four, but these two years saw double-sized issues (16 half-pages).
Mitchell started out using an ancient Gordon-Franklin press and within two years switched to a Chandler & Price press. By 1981, he had moved on to an elderly (circa 1935) cylinder letterpress, a Webendorfer "Little Giant." In the March 1985 issue, Mitchell informed his readers that he had given up printing from hand-set type for a machine that could self-justify text on a line: the new Macintosh computer. Of hand-set type, Mitchell explained:
This method of composition is interesting and full of suspense, to be sure, but it has certain disadvantages of which most writers have never even dreamed....sometimes, when thirty or forty lines have been set, it becomes obvious that the piece is just no good. That sort of catastrophe might mean a delay of a week or more in what we don't even bother to call a "production schedule." Even one such false start, added to the fact that all the type used to print the last edition has to be redistributed for the next edition, can set us back for a month or more....We are a bit sentimental and sorry. We'll miss the taste of lead. But the choice, although painful, was not difficult. Our proper business is to get this thing out, and not to preserve a fine and ancient craft.
The first seven issues of The Underground Grammarian were published anonymously, simply referring to the author/editor as "The Grammarian." The eighth issue announced that "R. Mitchell of our staff has been promoted to the post of Assistant Circulation Manager." In the December 1986 issue, R. Mitchell was quietly promoted to Associate Circulation Manager, and then in the Spring 1991 issue, he was promoted to Full Circulation Manager, "with tenure," the title he carried to the end.
Mention was also made of "Central Control," the real power behind the scenes. Central Control was Mitchell's title for his wife and apparently held the mailing list. Mitchell wrote in the March 1988 issue: "Every morning, the Associate Circulation Manager drives Central Control down to the post office. She sits there dearly hoping that you have not moved. She does not entirely approve of moving. And she has dark visions when your Grammarian comes back marked, Address Unknown, Not Even a Trace of You. She hopes that if you must move, a), that someone else is paying, and b), that you will send her your new address."
Mitchell did not announce to his readers that he was retiring The Underground Grammarian. The final newsletter was mailed early in 1992, still with subscription information, ten years before his death. Articles in the final issue included: "Running on Empty," "Words, Words, Words," and "Psyche in Darkness."
Less Than Words Can Say
In the summer of 1979, Little, Brown & Company published Richard Mitchell's first book, Less Than Words Can Say. Mitchell had originally submitted the title as The Worm in the Brain but his editors felt it too frightening and grisly. The book is a gloomy contemplation of the new illiteracy, its roots and consequences, and its prosperous practitioners.
Clifton Fadiman called it "the wittiest, the most brilliant and probably the most penetrating discussion now available of our growing American illiteracy." Josiah Mitchell Morse praised Mitchell for having "the courage to write well — an even rarer courage now that sloppy thought is equated with democratic virtue. His own prose illustrates the qualities and habits of mind our educationists don't want our children to develop: wit, clarity, precision, mastery of detail, intellectual self-respect, and contempt for charlatans."
What follows is a list of the chapters and pointed quotes from each:
Foreword "Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought."
1. The Worm in the Brain "The next step is not taken until you learn to see a world in which worms are eaten and decisions made and all responsible agency has disappeared. Now you are ready to be an administrator."
2. The Two Tribes "There is a curious thing about the way they use their verbs. They have, of course, both passive and active forms, but they consider it a serious breach of etiquette amounting almost to sacrilege to use the active form when speaking of persons."
3. A Bunch of Marks "An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages."
4. The Voice of Sisera "Jefferson must have imagined an America in which all citizens would be able, when they felt like it, to address one another as members of the same class. That we cannot do so is a sore impediment to equality, but, of course, a great advantage to those who can use the English of power and wealth."
5. "let's face it Fellows" "The questions are good ones. Who does hire teachers who can't spell? Where do they come from? The questions grow more ominous the more we think about them. Just as we suspect that this teacher's ineptitude in spelling is not limited to those two words, so we must suspect that she has other ineptitudes as well."
6. Trifles "Our educators, panting after professionalism, are little interested in being known for a picayune concern with trifles like spelling and punctuation. They would much rather make the world a better place. They have tried on the gowns of philosophers, psychologists, and priests."
7. The Columbus Gap "American public education is a remarkable enterprise; it succeeds best where it fails. Imagine an industry that consistently fails to do what it sets out to do, a factory where this year's product is invariably sleazier than last year's but, nevertheless, better than next year's."
8. The Pill "Thought control, like birth control, is best undertaken as long as possible before the fact. Many grown-ups will obstinately persist, if only now and then, in composing small strings of sentences in their heads and achieving at least a momentary logic. This probably cannot be prevented, but we have learned how to minimize its consequences by arranging that such grown-ups will be unable to pursue that logic very far."
9. A Handout of Material "The propensity for borrowed jargon is always a mark of limited ability in the technique of discursive thought. It comes from a poor education. A poor education is not simply a matter of thinking that components and elements might just as well be called factors; it is the inability to manipulate that elaborate symbol system that permits us to make fine distinctions among such things."
10. Grant Us, O Lord "One of the most important uses of language in all cultures is the performance of magic. Since language deals easily with invisible worlds, it's natural that it provide whatever access we think we have to the world of the spirits."
11. Spirits from the Vasty Deep "Bad writing is like any other form of crime; most of it is unimaginative and tiresomely predictable. The professor of education seeking a grant and the neighborhood lout looking for a score simply go and do as their predecessors have done. The one litanizes about carefully unspecified developments in philosophy, psychology, and communications theory, and the other sticks up the candy store."
12. Darkling Plain English "The bureaucrats who have produced most of our dismal official English will, at first, be instructed to fix it. They will try, but nihil ex nihilo. That English is the mess it is because they did it in the first place and they'll never be able to fix it."
13. Hydra "At one time I thought that I was the victim of a conspiracy myself. I was certain that the Admissions Office had salted my classes with carefully selected students, students who had no native tongue."
14. The Turkeys that Lay the Golden Eggs "The minimum competence school of education is nothing new. We've had it for many years, but we didn't talk about it until we discovered that we could make a virtue of it."
15. Devices and Desires "If you cannot be the master of your language, you must be its slave. If you cannot examine your thoughts, you have no choice but to think them, however silly they may be."
16. Naming and Telling "Two things, then, are necessary for intelligent discourse: an array of names, and a conventional system for telling. The power of a language is related, therefore, to the size and subtlety of its lexicon, its bank of names, and the flexibility and accuracy of its telling system, its grammar."
17. Sentimental Education "The history of mankind hasn't yet provided any examples of a decrease in stupidity and ignorance and their presumably attendant evils, but we have hope. After all, history hasn't provided anything like us, either, until pretty recently."
Critical Bibliography "I should say, for those who might think these things unusual, that they aren't and that they weren't difficult to find."
The Graves of Academe
Mitchell's second book started out as a collection of articles from The Underground Grammarian before transforming into a description "by extrapolation from one visible protuberance to another, and with a little probing, the great invisible hulk of the beast, the brooding monstrosity of American educationism, the immense, mindless brute that by now troubles the waters of all, all that is done in our land in the supposed cause of 'education.'"
What follows is a list of the chapter titles and quotes from each chapter:
Foreword "Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education."
Propositions Three and Seven "It was Jefferson's dream that civilization could best perpetuate itself in which the citizens were 'educated,' whatever he meant by that, and we do have some clue as to what he meant."
Educated People "It is possible, of course, to keep educated people unfree in a state of civilization, but it’s much easier to keep ignorant people unfree in a state of civilization. And it is easiest of all if you can convince the ignorant that they are educated, for you can thus make them collaborators in your disposition of their liberty and property. That is the institutionally assigned task, for all that it may be invisible to those who perform it, of American public education. "
The End of the String "It seemed to me that those teacher-trainers must be amiable and playful folk with well-developed aesthetic sensibilities and a penchant for drama, in bold contrast to the rest of us who taught what you call 'subjects,' dour and narrow people reciting lectures and devising 'thought' questions."
The Wundter of It All "There is no counting the doctorates in education that have been awarded to those who have done nothing more than tabulate the answers to questionnaires. That such degrees are so common, however, is not only because the work is easy, bad enough, but also because the supposed objects of study often cannot be known directly. When they can, in fact, they are obviously trivial."
The Seven Deadly Principles "After sober and judicious consideration, and weighing one thing against another in the interests of reasonable compromise, H. L. Mencken concluded that a startling and dramatic improvement in American education required only that we hang all the professors and burn down the schools. His uncharacteristically moderate proposal was not adopted."
The Principles March On "It is fascinating, of course, to hear those who operate the schools argue that because there are people who can build aircraft for profit and cite law in their own cause we may conclude that the schools have actually provided too much "excellence." What is even more fascinating is that this bewildering and ignorant line of reasoning should find, apparently, no detractors among the vast membership of the National Education Association..."
The Pygmies Revenge "Peter's well-known Principle was obviously discovered by a man who knew nothing at all about schools. In schools it just isn't true that the people who can actually do their jobs get promoted until they find themselves, at last and forever, in the jobs they can't do. This is because the most difficult and demanding jobs in education are what industry calls "entry-level positions," teaching in classrooms."
Problem-Solving in the Content Area "The problems and disorders in education have become more and more visible in the last few years, of course, and even the ordinary citizen who happens to have no children in the schools suspects that something is very wrong, but he will never understand exactly what is wrong until he realizes that all our educational problems and disorders, none of which are new, although they are more obvious, provide endless and growing employment for the people who made them."
Every Three Second "Schools do not fail. They succeed. Children always learn in school. Always and every day. When their rare and tiny compositions are "rated holistically" without regard for separate "aspects" like spelling, punctuation, capitalization, or even organization, they learn. They learn that mistakes bring no consequences."
Afterword: Plus Ça Change "The ideologues of educationism (fortunately for us, if we will pay thoughtful attention) have so thoroughly given themselves to their disdain of intellectual discipline that they always, and always inadvertently, reveal some truth when they pretend to do the work of the mind in writing."
The Leaning Tower of Babel
In his third book, which turned out to be what was originally meant to be his second book, Mitchell published a collection of articles from The Underground Grammarian under ten topics and with an Introduction by Thomas H. Middleton. In that Introduction, Middleton wrote:
I first met Richard Mitchell when he came from the East Coast out here to Los Angeles to appear on the Johnny Carson show. We had had a bit of correspondence, and I'd told him I'd like to meet him if he ever traveled to the West. I planted myself at the bar of his hotel, the Sheraton Universal, and he came in almost immediately. We had a couple of drinks and a very congenial chat, in the course of which I complimented him on his UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN essays. I said that each of them was a masterpiece. He instantly denied authorship of them. "It's a muse," he said. "Something out there comes down and guides my hand."
I laughed, but he insisted that it was so. He said that surely I must have written columns that seemed to write themselves. I owned that on rare occasions I had — usually when I was mad as hell about something — and I admitted that I had frequently written letters to the editor and letters of complaint to offending merchants and manufacturers, and that those letters flowed effortlessly from a hand that almost seemed not my own.
"Exactly," he said.
So there you are. THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN will have great appeal for anyone who simply loves good writing, for the writing in these articles is superb. Moreover, these pieces, articulate, intelligent, often wildly funny, and frequently dazzling, spring from a splendid mind, tuned to just the right pitch, and fired with an angry passion under the supernatural control of Mitchell's muse.
Before the publication of this book, Mitchell invited his readers to submit entries to the Amazing Blurb Contest. Three readers won, having their blurbs printed on the dustjacket of the book.
The Gift of Fire
I suspect that those who have read some of my other works will be a little surprised by this one. I am a little surprised by this one.
Thus began the Introduction to Mitchell's final book, wherein he describes the turn he has taken from the "castigation of fools... an ancient and honorable task of writers" to writing a book "about how to live by a man who doesn't know how to live, but who has begun to learn that he doesn't know how."
Here are the chapter titles and selected quotes from this unusual book of philosophy:
1. Who Is Socrates, Now That We Need Him? "Nevertheless, people do from time to time come to know enough about Socrates to be drawn into his company, and to agree, with rare exceptions, that it would indeed be a good thing to imitate him."
2. The Square of the Hypotenuse "Who first called Reason sweet, I don't know. I suspect that he was a man with very few responsibilities, no children to rear, and no payroll to meet."
3. The Land of We All "It is an obvious but simple distinction — though rarely made — that there are some things that we can do because we are humanity, and some things that we can do because we are persons, and that there is some radical and absolute difference between the two classes of things. They do not overlap. A person can no more invade Normandy than an army can play the violin."
4. The Right Little Thing "Although many of us seem to have misunderstood, or even deliberately misconstrued, the nature of education for a very long time, that nature is still recognized in some corner of almost every mind."
5. The Gift of Fire "So I imagined myself in conversation with Prometheus, who had come back to find out what we mortals had managed to do with the astounding powers that he had given to us alone of all creatures."
6. Children and Fish "If you should prefer to understand that children are those human beings who have not yet found the grasp of their own minds, then the task you have given yourself, that task of rearing a child wisely and well, is suddenly transformed from indoctrination to education, in its truest sense, and made not only possible but even likely — provided, to be sure, one little prerequisite, which is that you are not a child, that you have come into the grasp of your mind."
7. The Perils of Petronilla "Epictetus, who could neither read nor write, supposed that education was an inner condition, easily — if temporarily — reached, in nothing more than an afternoon of thoughtful discourse, but a condition by virtue of which one could do everything that living requires, and do it well."
8. Sad Stories of the Death of Kings "Any truthful literature will admit: No, this is not life itself, it is only a serious sort of game, but it is like life, and the mind that plays here is like yours, and this vision is what you too can see, and consider, and find worthy, and by which you may know yourself better. For this book is about you. Every truthful and thoughtful book is about you, every story is yours."
9. Home Rule "From Epictetus, we can take another possible understanding of education. It is power over the inner world, the ability to know and judge the self and to do something about it."
10. Colonialism "Here is a truth that most teachers will not tell you, even if they know it: Good training is a continual friend and a solace; it helps you now, and assures you of help in the future. Good education is a continual pain in the neck, and assures you always of more of the same."
11. The World of No One At All "Epictetus was doing no more than reaffirming, simply and literally, a very old idea. He could see no sense at all in presuming the existence of goodness or badness where there was no intention, no will."
12. How to Live (I Think) "Look around you, near and far, and find someone whom you can praise, and that without any consideration of self-interest or the profit that you might take from your praising. Whom do you find to praise? The just or the unjust? The patient or the impatient? The courageous or the cowardly?"
Links to online texts are given where available.
- The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter published nine times yearly from 1977 to 1983, eight times yearly from 1984 to 1989, five times in 1990, and four times in 1991.
- Four books:
- Four "Great Booklets", compilations of "Vexatious Readings" from various authors, attributed to "The Underground Tractarian Society":
- Various uncollected essays, articles, and speeches, including:
- "Why Good Grammar?", an article published in National Forum, 1985.
- "", or "Writing Against Your Life", a speech presented at a writers' conference in 1986, and later adapted into the fifth chapter of The Gift of Fire.
- "What to Do till the Undertaker Comes", a supplement to The Underground Grammarian, year unknown.
- Sources are unclear on this subject. See the section "Life" for details.
- Richard Mitchell Memorial Celebration, a program from Mitchell's memorial service. 19 February 2003. Accessed 28 November 2007.
- "Rowan University to Hold Memorial Service for Dr. Richard Mitchell." Rowan Today, 4 February 2003. Accessed 27 November 2007.
- Holmes, Kristin E. "Richard Mitchell, 73, language gadfly". The Philadelphia Inquirer. 1 January 2003, p. B7.
- Richard Mitchell Memorial Celebration, as above.
- Holmes, as above.
- Janson, Donald. "A Professor Goes Underground in Grammar War". The New York Times, 23 January 1978, p. 13.
- Maddocks, Melvin. "A Voice Crying in the Wilderness". Time, 29 January 1979. Accessed 28 November 2007.
- Mitchell, Richard. Less than Words Can Say. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1979.
- Mitchell, Richard. The Graves of Academe. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1981.
- Maddocks, Melvin. "Babel Builders. Time, 7 December 1981. Accessed 27 November 2007.
- Mitchell, Richard. The Leaning Tower of Babel and other affronts from the Underground Grammarian. Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1984.
- Yardley, Jonathan. "Policing Academe; Striking a Blow Against Educational Jargon". The Washington Post, 8 August 1984, p. F1.
- D'Evelyn, Thomas. "The Underground Grammarian vs. verbal nonsense". Christian Science Monitor, 29 August 1984, p. 17.
- Rowan Today, as above.
- Norman, Michael. "Our Towns: The Grammar Maven Meets a Computer". The New York Times, 21 July 1985, p. 40.
- Mitchell, Richard. The Gift of Fire. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
- Boyer, Alan. "THE GIFT OF FIRE" [an otherwise untitled book review]. The New York Times, 13 September 1987.
- Norman, Michael. "Lessons". The New York Times, 27 April 1988, p. B10.
- Mitchell 1987, as above. Simon's words are printed on the back of the dust jacket, along with praise from Thomas H. Middleton, Edwin Newman, and Clifton Fadiman.
- Maddocks, as above.
- Mitchell, Richard. The Underground Grammarian Archived 2007-10-31 at the Wayback Machine, volumes 1-15. Collected on SourceText.com. Accessed 27 November 2007.
- Mitchell, Richard. "Why Good Grammar?" National Forum: Phi Kappa Phi Journal, v65 n4 pp4-6,10, Fall 1985. See citation information.
- nice set of quotes
- The Underground Grammarian
- Less Than Words Can Say
- The Graves of Academe
- The Gift of Fire
Book Reviews and Other Press