On Amos Morris, Professor of English

 

 

      I entered the University of Michigan in the fall of 1941 with two courses of transfer credit from Wayne University in Detroit, where I had spent the preceding spring semester as a part-time student following my January graduation from high school.  The two courses I had taken at Wayne were part one of a standard Western Civilization course, given by Bossenbrook, and a second course in English composition, because I had “placed out of” the English 1 course by examination.  When I got to Michigan I continued with the second half of  “Western Civ”, pretty much like what I would have had at Wayne, though the professor was no Bossenbrook; but now I needed a second course in English composition because of the graduation rules, and I already had the equivalent of Michigan’s English 2 from Wayne.  For me, then, and for other transfer students with similar problems, Michigan provided a special composition course; and it was taught by Amos Morris.

 

Morris was in his sixties, and if I didn’t now know that the retirement age at Michigan was 68 I would remember him as in his 70s.  He was thin and small, dark, sharp-featured.  He had a cigarette forever hanging from the corner of his mouth, though I do not now remember if it was always, or even ever, lit.  It had been lit once, for sure, because it was more of a butt than a full cigarette.  In later years I heard some lectures of F.R. Leavis in Cambridge, and the appearance of Morris is in my memory so like that of Leavis that I might be confusing the two of them in some details.  For example, Morris’s voice in class was low, and could hardly be heard, and when he had something particularly important to say he would drop it further.  (This was also true of Leavis.) One could fairly easily discern the beginning of his sentence, but not always the end, except in that it must have taken place by the time the next sentence began.

      Our classroom was a seminar room, and the students, who were about twenty in number, maybe as few as 15, sat around a rectangular arrangement of long tables (nothing in the center), with Professor Morris at one end somewhere.  I sat as far from him as possible.  I never got to know the other students, really, because we hardly ever said anything in class.  Seminar though it seemed, it was Morris who did all the talking.  Milling around before and after class does lead to some acquaintance, however, and there were two fellow-students I remember:  Sammy Katz, who turned up later in my life, sharing an apartment with me (and Gwyn Suits) in 1944 Boston , and a guy whose name I never did know, who spent an hour of my time explaining why he was registering as a Conscientious Objector.  It was 1941, though we were not yet in the war (not until December 7), and I was 17 years old and hardly mindful of armies and wars at all, so that what my pacifist classmate was saying didn’t sink in.  But I remember being polite, and he regarded me as a friend all the rest of the term.

      Professor Morris was known as a bit of a crank, even to the students, though to the rest of the faculty he was doubtless notoriously so.  His monologues were mainly about expository writing, but his asides were often about the malice and stupidity of his profession, whether represented by the University itself or by other professors of English.  He extolled simplicity and honesty, and found all too little of these qualities around him. He came from the town of Lithopolis, Ohio, which he said was the home of the finest spoken English in the world, a town where people’s houses had back doors as beautiful, ornate or well-tended as their front doors, for scorn of show.

      We did no reading for his course, only writing.  We did have a textbook of standard sort, a manual of style which Morris used systematically in marking such things as our misspellings, redundancies, grammatical blunders and solecisms:  His red mark in the margin of our returned essays would refer to the paragraph in the book in which that error was discussed.  But correcting diction and paragraphing were minor matters in this course.  The main point had to do with stylistic features of our prose which might be called “prosody.”

      In poetry there is such a thing, and its subcategories include rhyme, rhythm and figures of speech.  In prose there is rarely rhyme; and figures of speech, while important, are generally more blatant and less worthy of special study than the sort of metaphors and allusions that all but characterize poetry.  Rhythm, on the other hand, is extremely important in prose, even though it cannot easily be described in terms of pentameter, quatrain, trochee and the like.  It was Amos Morris’s ambition to construct a science of prosody for prose, even expository prose.  What made him a crank, fundamentally, was his belief that he had done so.  And that nobody, least of all in the University of Michigan Department of English, recognized the excellence, the correctness, of what he had done.  In short, his life’s work constituted his crankdom, and almost everything he ever said in class (so far as I was able to hear it) carried a flavor of injury and blame.  Our whole course, English 31, was an elaboration of this crank’s theories.

      No, this puts it a bit too strongly.  Morris did know good prose from bad, and I did learn during his course how to improve my own writing, and his instruction must have had something to do with it.  “Instruction” has many facets, and eccentricity probably interferes with only some of them, not all.  We were assigned to write a paper each week on an assigned topic, fourteen papers in all, each a thousand words long, to be turned in at our Wednesday class.  He would grade them over the weekend and return them on Mondays.  The first three or four of my own papers came back with a grade of C or C+ or so, far below what I was used to getting— in anything.  In high school, and in my two courses at Wayne, I had never received a grade below A, and so I was worried.

      Early in the term, after the third or fourth paper, Morris had a personal interview in his office with each student.  Any questions; how are you getting along.  English professors always did this.  We were to bring our graded papers to the meeting and go over them for a better understanding of what he had in mind in making his brief notes.  I asked him why I got C’s on my papers, and he replied that they were mediocre, that’s why.  I wanted more detail, and while I’m sure he did what he could in the ten or fifteen minutes we had, I’m also sure I didn’t understand the answers.  He picked out a paper from the most recent stack of papers on his desk, telling me it was from an A student, and he used a couple of examples from it to illustrate some point.  I didn’t follow—it all went by too fast—but I did suddenly get an idea which amazes me to this day:  I asked Professor Morris if I could spend a half-hour reading some A papers, if he had them around.  I wouldn’t trouble him, but would just sit in the hall and read them while he was interviewing the next student (who was already waiting outside).  He said yes and gave me four or five “A” papers by different authors, classmates of mine who had been writing on the same assigned topic.  I read them with interest, and every paper I turned in to Professor Morris from that day on got a grade of A.

      What had I done?  I had violated the first schoolteacher dictum: Originality!  Progressive education had not come as far in 1941 as it has come now, but the Sunday supplement psychologists and Educators were already trumpeting the glories of what is now called Constructivism:  A true education, it was held, comes from inside.  It cannot be laid on by teachers.  Even in mathematics, “discovery” is the talisman.  And in Art especially, in writing and painting, nothing must be done to trammel the natural creativity of the budding human spirit.

      It was many years later that I first heard the opposite advice—the lesson I discovered in Amos Morris’s office— explicitly given to students by an artistic master.  Saul Bellow was visiting the University of Rochester, and after reading to a large audience from his work-in-progress, Henderson the Rain-King, he attended a smaller meeting with students, a question-answering session in a student lounge.  One student asked (approximately), “How do you go about developing an individual [writing] style?” Bellow’s answer was [verbatim], “You begin by imitating your betters.” 

      The notion that anyone could be one’s “better” was so shocking to the students of that era, 1965 or so, that I believe they thought he was joking.  At any rate, this was the lesson I learned for myself at the knee of Amos Morris, even though I probably did not believe the authors of those A papers to be my betters, but only more skilled in getting A’s from Professor Morris.  Today, however, I can hardly think of a better definition of “better.” 

      As to what Amos Morris actually taught, two sentences he used as examples for one thing or another will provide a clue.  They are, according to Morris,  good examples of their kind:

1.  He went his way; I went mine.
2.  How better can an old man die than doing a young man's work?

      The first example is what he called a "periodic sentence", and he favored such things where practicable in expositions.

The second example was spoken by a character in Gone With The Wind, a novel Morris praised highly.  It also shows the periodicity he loved so ("periodicity" is a poor word for this opposition, or symmetry of qualities, but it is the word Morris used), and it also shows how grammatical inconsistency sometimes is of no consequence.  Example 2 is hard to parse unless you put in some missing words, perhaps "in" after "than", but Morris insisted it was a "good sentence".  He did thus teach us that the shibboleths concerning such things as incomplete sentences and beginning a sentence with "and" were not sacred.

      But his main teaching was about what he called (also a poorly chosen word) "centroids", a centroid being a prose foot.  "Foot" as in poetry except that a foot in poetry is one of very few types:  iamb, trochee, anapest, etc., while the prose feet could be considerably longer and needn't conform to any particular alternation of long and short syllables.  What makes a connected set of words a foot is a sense of grouping you would probably follow if you read it aloud.  Each of the two examples above would, by the Morris theory, contain two centroids.

      Good prose has a consonance between thought and centroid.  A unit of thought expressed by one centroid, or two centroids, makes for good prose, while a thought spread out over fractional centroids makes hard reading.  A given centroid must not contain fragments of two ideas.

      Now I'm quite sure he didn't describe his ideas on centroids as I have just done, and I believe I have done it better in fact.  In one of our papers we had to make marks in our own sentences, to identify the centroids and then analyze whether they corresponded to atoms of ideas as they should.  Look at the first part of the opening sentence of this paragraph:

     
Now I'm quite sure / he didn't describe / his ideas on centroids / as I have just done.

     
He would have approved of that sentence.  If you read some bad prose, e.g. the stuff that comes out of educationists, you can easily see that what's worst about it is the dissonance in this very regard, while their errors and the actual jargon might be lesser faults.  Here is a sample from the current edition (January, 2003) of the Journal for Research in Mathematics Education:

 

                  Or was this a case of students developing sociopolitical consciousness but not the mathematical knowledge, conceptual understanding, and procedural fluency and also the cultural capital to make their voices heard in order to effect real change in society?

      So far I'm with Morris.  But he had other ideas I could not understand.  He thought sentences had tunes, and he wanted us to play out sentences on a piano.  And he did other stuff I simply can't remember any more. But what I have written above has good sense to it, and is not a bad way to characterize at least one aspect of good prose.  The trouble with it from a philosophical point of view, I think, is the lack of definition of centroid, and his thesis could become tautological if in any given analysis you select centroids in such a way as to exhibit what you like (consonance and dissonance).  Do the elements of thought dictate what is a centroid?  In good writing they do.  In bad writing there often are no "elements of thought" to speak of, so it is hard to find the  centroids.

 

      Of course, it was not only in English 31 that I would learn to write; one teacher cannot teach all things.  But what he does teach should be learned thoroughly.  That lesson, how to get an A from Morris, taught me something about writing in the style Morris thought good.  As my college years went by, and my years in the Army, my marriage and the raising of children, I came to learn how to please dozens of other teachers, “good” teachers and bad, cranky and serene, and in many other subjects besides writing. A series of such lessons constitutes an education.  In after years I came to realize that my lessons from Morris were not in fact lessons about pleasing an oddball and getting an A, but were lessons in writing, period.

 

Revised March, 2003