Hodges Turns 120

The University of Tennessee carries on the legacy of John C. Hodges, creator of the Harbrace Handbook

This Ides of March brings a special anniversary to the University of Tennessee: the 120th birthday of Dr. John C. Hodges, longtime head of the English department, who would be counted among the most influential scholars in UT's history even if he hadn't written the Harbrace Handbook of English back in 1941 and used the royalties to build the library and endow a fund for the English department.

It's a measure of his influence that, 45 years after Hodges' death, the department still thinks of itself as carrying on his legacy. "The John C. Hodges Better English Fund supports all the essential things that we do," says Stan Garner, head of the UT English Department. "And Dr. Hodges' pioneering work with student writing is an inspirational legacy.

"Our First Year Writing Program and Writing Center will receive a Certificate of Excellence by the Conference on College Composition and Communication later this month [March]. This award recognizes the nation's top writing programs, and I'm sure Dr. Hodges would have been proud."

Dr. Jenn Fishman, now an assistant professor at Marquette University, joined the UT English department in 2004. "I was intrigued by Hodges because his name was on the library," she recalls, "and because the teaching of writing is one of my areas of focus. It was important for me to know something about one of the most widely circulated and continuously updated college writing textbooks ever written." During her seven years in Knoxville, Fishman spent months in the archives reading Hodges' papers and writings.

"Together, MA candidate Laura Sceniak and I went through all of Hodges' grade books," she says, "and we learned that he did something remarkable: Over 40 years and even when he was chair of the department, he not only taught 18th-century literature. He also taught undergraduate writing every year. His commitment to hands-on contact with the very earliest students continued across the decades."

From Louisiana to the UT English Department

John Cunyus Hodges was born March 15, 1892, to a well-to-do family in Cotton Valley, La. He got his B.A. from Meridian (Miss.) College in 1911 and his master's in English from Tulane a year later. Hodges taught at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., for the next three years. He met Lillian Nelson at a summer program at the University of Wisconsin, and they married in 1914. They then headed to Cambridge, Mass., where Hodges earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1918. After teaching for three years at Ohio Wesleyan, he joined the UT English Department in 1921, beginning the work with Freshman English, described in these pages last June, that eventually led to the creation of Harbrace.

Hodges became assistant head of the department in 1937 and acting head between 1938 and ‘41. In these years Lillian entertained members of the English department and new UT faculty members at their home at 1908 White Ave., and faculty friends described her as "almost a right arm" to Hodges' in his studies and research work.

After Harbrace was published, Hodges embarked on a program of identifying best practices in among English teachers across the state and spreading their gospel. "By collecting the scores of freshmen entering the colleges in the state of Tennessee," wrote Kenneth Curry in his department history, English at Tennessee, "it was possible to identify the high schools with superior programs in English as well as the superior teachers of high school English. Dr. Hodges himself visited many schools and began a program that was to be expanded after the war."

"This was serious research," says Fishman. "Like other academics of his generation, Hodges was able to apply his training as a textual scholar to both his literary scholarship and his research on college writing and instruction.

So, too, did Hodges expand the English department, which had six staff members at the end of World War II. "Hodges was a catalyst for the amazing transformation of a small, sleepy department into a lively, expanding department," wrote Curry. "Where others in the University had been pessimistic and defeatist, Dr. Hodges was positive and hopeful and confident that, given the opportunity, the department would justify his faith."

The Bawdy Bard to the Great "Mr. Carlberg"

In his own academic research, Hodges was a leading authority on the 17th century English playwright William Congreve, who hit it big with five high-brow sexual comedies of manners from 1695 to 1700. This was during the roaring Restoration Period, when the rakish Charles II had replaced the stick-in-the-mud Puritans, reinstated the Anglican Church, re-opened the theatres, and allowed women (including his own mistress, Nell Gwyn) to perform on stage.

Congreve's plays included memorable lines like, "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned," "Never go to bed angry, stay up and fight," "Music has charms to sooth a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak," and "Say what you will, ‘tis better to be left than never to have been loved."

In studying the Restoration era, Hodges would have noted some historical echoes that reverberate in East Tennessee culture. In 1661, Charles had decided to crush all denominations except his royal Anglican church. As part of this effort, he outlawed the 1634 Solemn League and Covenant of Presbyterians. Of course this was a slap in the face to the irascible Scots—always ready for a fight, anyway—who had signed the Covenant in their own blood and worn red pieces of cloth around their necks to flaunt their resistance to highfalutin, raiment-wearing Anglican bishops.

The Scots' anti-government resentment burned on through centuries, migrating with Scottish Covenanters to Ulster in the 1600s and then to the American frontier and our own Appalachians in the 1700s, where instructing authority figures to kiss one's ass remains a touchstone of our culture.

Back in Congreve's day, the dawn of the 1700s brought a conservative reaction to Roaring 1690s. A wave of button-down mores swept England, Congreve's bawdy style fell out of fashion, and Congreve turned thereafter to politics of the Whig party, which favored constitutional monarchy and aristocratic families over absolute rule and the loyalist Tories, who kept a soft spot for those pesky Catholic Stuarts. In the first quarter of the 18th century, this rivalry evolved into the industrial interests and wealthy merchants on one side versus the landed interests and royal family on the other.

Congreve was a lifelong friend of Jonathan Swift, the Irish satirist who lampooned the complicated political folderol of the day in Gulliver's Travels and skewered the heartless British rule of Ireland in "A Modest Proposal," an essay which offered as a solution to his country's desperate famine that the Irish simply boil and eat their babies. Swift, ever practical, included some recipes. A priest in the Church of Ireland, Swift started out a Whig then switched over to the Tories in 1710.

Over the years Hodges amassed one of the largest collections of Congreve's plays in the world, which are now housed in the UT Special Collections Library. In the late '40s, Lillian accompanied Hodges to England and Ireland to help him collect material for his book, The Life of Congreve.

In the late spring of 1951, Lillian grew ill. Still, right hand that she was, she accompanied Hodges on a trip to the Huntington Library in Pasadena, Calif., to gather material for the book, The Library of William Congreve. Unfortunately, Lillian's condition worsened. She entered a Pasadena hospital and died a month later.

They had one son, Nelson, who was living in Philadelphia "working in the literary field" at the time of her death.

Hodges met Cornelia Smartt Hendley when she served as executrix of the estate of Hodges' former colleague John B. Emperor, whose had set up a fund for the English department in his will, much as Hodges did later on. "My sister had an uncanny ability to handle details and amounts," says John Smartt, Hodges' brother-in-law. "She had a good business head on her."

Cornelia and John married in 1952 and spent six months together in Europe doing Congreve research. One of their key findings was to clear up confusion about the authorship of the play that begins with the line, "Music has charms to soothe the savage breast." Some manuscripts of the day attributed the play to the Duke of Leeds in Yorkshire, England, but Hodges located Congreve's private library catalogue and verified that the lines were, in fact, his. In all, Hodges' search for duplicates of books owned by Congreve was a four-year project that took him to libraries in five countries.

John and Cornelia lived for 15 years at 8 Hillvale Circle in Sequoyah Hills, where she threw elegant English department parties and displayed her lively wit. "She was whip smart and hilariously funny, while always the genteel Southern lady," says Ginna Mashburn, a faculty spouse and instructor. She also remembers Cornelia describing how she handled an obscene phone call: "I kept saying, ‘I beg your pardon. Could you repeat that?' again and again, until he got so frustrated that he hung up." Mashburn describes Hodges himself as "total southern charm, with that steel-eyed businessman underneath."

Hodges got along well with Cornelia's two sons—Bill, now head of the Economics Department at Hampden-Sydney, and Owen, a doctor at the University of Virginia known for his research on the common cold. "He encouraged them in everything they wanted to do," says Smartt. Cornelia died in October 2010 at 104.

In those years, Hodges and Shakespeare scholar Alwin Thaler, another Harvard Ph.D., enjoyed periodic visits from Carl Sandburg, who had retired to Flat Rock, N.C., in 1945. Sandburg spoke at least once at Alumni Gym and contributed a poem to one of the first issues of Tennessee Studies in Literature in the late 50s.

Stewart remembers a twice-told tale of an evening when Sandburg was staying at Hodges' home. "Dr. Hodges was not much for drinking," says Stewart, "and Sandburg liked to drink beer, and liked to sit up at night and drink it. So he kept Hodges up until the early hours of the morning and almost did him in." At one point Sandburg said, "Dr. Hodges, have another," and Hodges—quoting accurately from the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem "Mr. Flood's Party" but slipping on a couple of syllables—replied, "Well, Mr. Carlburg, since you propose it, I believe I might."

Mashburn recalls a party at the Hodges' in 1964 when the English Department had hired "these young whippersnappers," including her ex-husband, as assistant professors. "They all stood in a line in their living room with their crew cuts, narrow-lapel suits, little ties," Mashburn recalls. "Cornelia turned and said, "Why John, they all look the same!" The next year several more Tab Hunter look-alikes joined the faculty, forming the core that would carry on Hodges' tradition of excellence for the latter decades of the century.


In July of 1967, Hodges died at 75 after a heart attack.

When the Hodges Library was dedicated two years later, Cornelia helped put in place a cornerstone that to this day contains a 1969 UT yearbook, a '69-'70 catalog, library-development annual reports for 1966 to '68, and Hodges' three books—the sixth edition of Harbrace, The Life of Congreve, and The Library of Congreve.

"I like to consider Hodges as an exemplary 20th-century college English scholar-teacher," says Fishman. "At the same time he shaped two fields—18th-century studies and rhetoric and composition—he was also a dedicated teacher. The same man who answered letters about page proofs while he was in the hospital having his spleen removed was also someone who students remembered as really caring about them.

"And, another significant thing about him as a person: after coming from somewhere else—Louisiana – and studying at places like Northwestern and Harvard, when Hodges landed in Tennessee and he made it his place, and he made the university his home."