How the 'Harbrace Handbook of English' Changed the Way Americans Learn About Writing

The University of Tennessee's John C. Hodges Created the Best-Selling Textbook of All Time

It's a story about a teacher. It's a story about the explosion of college education. But, first and foremost, it's a story about commas.

This year is the 70th birthday of the Harbrace Handbook of English. It's an anniversary that will go unnoticed by most—even students who do pay attention to their textbooks aren't likely to think about them once they leave school. But it's an anniversary with a lot of significance for the University of Tennessee: Harbrace is the best-selling college textbook of all time, and it's the creation of former UT English professor John C. Hodges.

Yes, that John C. Hodges—the one the campus library is named after. Ask a student studying inside the library who Hodges was or what he did, it's even odds at best that he or she will know, but Hodges might have liked it that way. "He didn't want the spotlight or need it," says his brother-in-law, John Smartt.

In his will, Hodges assigned three-fourths of future royalties from sales of the textbook to a fund that helped pay for UT's new library in the late 1960s. "It's the little handbook that built the library," says Penn State English Professor Cheryl Glenn, who has channeled Hodges' spirit as coauthor of the past three editions.

More significantly on a national scale, it constructed a model of the English language in the minds of generations of American students. That first Harbrace, back in 1941, was a small, maroon textbook, slightly bigger than a mass-market paperback. Since then, there have been 16 more editions; Glenn and her coauthor Loretta Gray are already working on the next one. And according to its publisher, Harbrace really is the top-selling textbook ever, with only McGraw-Hill's Principles of Economics anywhere close. (Book sales are proprietary information for publishers; most authors don't even know their own sales figures, so there is no way to verify this claim.)

Hodges knew his book was a success: When he died in 1967, the textbook was in its sixth edition and had been renamed Hodges' Harbrace College Handbook. But even he might be surprised to know of its continuing popularity.

So how did this happen? How did an in-house manual from UT's English Department in the 1920s become the definitive college composition textbook?

The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with pedagogy—and a lot to do with World War II. It also turns out that the history of Harbrace is, in a nutshell, the history of 20th century English education in the United States.

‘All Matters Needed by Freshmen'

John Cunyus Hodges was born March 15, 1892, in tiny Cotton Valley in northwestern Louisiana, between Shreveport and the Arkansas state line. It was a rural but comfortable childhood.

"His family down in Louisiana was rich," says Smartt. "He knew he wanted to teach, and they resolved to take care of John."

At the age of 19, Hodges graduated with a B.A. from Meridian College in Mississippi, and he got his master's from Tulane a year later. After teaching at Northwestern University in Chicago for three years, Hodges went east to Harvard, where he earned his Ph.D. in 1918.

He taught briefly at Ohio Wesleyan, just north of Columbus, before joining the UT English Department in 1921. Here, Hodges took over "a moribund program of Freshman English," according to Kenneth Curry's history of the department, English at Tennessee.

Within a year, Hodges developed the beginnings of a systematic approach to teaching freshman English. Curry writes that Hodges had students keep their papers and revisions in folders, which they would discuss in regular conferences with their instructors. The folders were then archived by the department. "Over time, Hodges analyzed and tabulated the contents of these folders," Curry explains.

With so many stacks of papers and so many sets of corrections, Hodges was able to systematically determine which errors his students were most likely to make. Starting in 1922, Hodges published his own "Manual of Instruction for Freshman English," which he expanded each year. By 1937, the manual was 29 pages long and included a map of the library and instructions on how to write papers.

Hodges' manual referred students to the 100 rules of the Century Handbook of Writing by Garland Greever and Easley S. Jones, which was a popular composition handbook at the time, along with the 283-rule Guide to Composition by James Finch Royster and Stith Thompson. Curry writes: "Hodges concluded that most of these handbooks included much material that was ignored or irrelevant to the teaching of composition."

Says Bain Stewart, who joined the faculty in 1940, "I think he felt, as many of us felt, that these handbooks were so enormously complicated, and it was impossible to know the difference between Rule No. 279, Rule No. 280 and Rule No. 281."

Sometime in the late 1930s, a Harcourt Brace textbook traveling salesman named Sidney Stanley visited UT. He met Hodges, and after he heard about his system of correcting papers, he passed on the lead to the Harcourt Brace editorial department. Intrigued, the publishing company offered Hodges a contract. What he called his handbook of "all matters needed by freshmen" was published in 1941. ("Harbrace" is a conflation of Harcourt Brace.)

"The rest is history," says Michael Rosenberg, a publisher at Wadsworth/Centage Learning (which currently owns the rights to the now-defunct Harcourt Brace's college textbooks). "The company was hoping to make only a small dent in the freshman handbook market with the unknown author from Tennessee.

"However, the clever organizational plan, the compact, trim size, and the book's ability to explain difficult issues of language cogently and concisely created a demand that catapulted the handbook to best-seller status quickly."

Hodges had two stated objectives when he composed his textbook. The first read, "To make correction of written work as clear and easy as possible for the student." The second was, "To make marking of student papers as easy as possible for the instructor." But it is most likely the latter point—making teachers' lives easier—that has been the secret to its continuing success.

The first edition of Harbrace was divided into 34 major sections (the current edition has 36). Each section included lowercase-lettered subject areas and numbered subdivisions and subscripts. Hodges' numbering of each rule enabled teachers coming upon a sentence like, "While riding a bus, the tornado ripped through town," to simply write in the margin "25f(4)," sending students to the rule, "Avoid dangling elliptical phrases or clauses" and its explanation.

"It's the granddaddy of all successful college handbooks," says Glenn. "It's the handbook that everybody copies. Before Harbrace, there were other books. But they were a mess, a random accumulation of rules. Hodges made a taxonomy that is a template for every other textbook."

Class and the Classroom

Hodges' text is often found on the same shelves with its younger counterpart, William Strunk and E.B. White's The Elements of Style, which celebrated its 50th birthday two years ago.

Strunk and White's "little book" is shorter, with fewer rules (22) and more of an emphasis on an overarching philosophy of elegant expression. The book has Ivy League roots—Professor Strunk taught E.B. White at Cornell—and its genesis was a 1957 article in the New Yorker, in which White reminisced about Strunk. Is it any wonder The Elements of Style has long been the darling of the East Coast elite?

Harbrace, on the other hand, is somewhat the antithesis of Strunk and White. It is not about brevity, and it is not about art. It is a textbook, not a usage manual. It does not assume that the student has a sophisticated grasp of English, or even a fundamental mastery of the sentence.

Legend has it that Harbrace was geared to hardscrabble rural students from the start, that the textbook's unique 5 inch by 7 inch size supposedly came from Hodges' insistence that it be small enough to slide into the front-center pocket of a pair of overalls. But Hodges was no man of the people. He, too, had an Ivy League education, albeit not an undergraduate one.

Just over 30 years before Hodges began classes at Harvard, the university had introduced the prototype of the freshman composition class: "English A." According to an essay and critical history of Harbrace by Debra Hawhee, the course "grew out of a particular historical moment in response to the perceived ineptitude or failure of Harvard applicants to adhere to ‘standards of correctness.' The ‘need' for such a course can largely be attributed to the veritable flood of bourgeois students to American colleges during this period."

But by the 1920s, it wasn't just the bourgeoisie whose prosody wasn't up to snuff. Tennessee in particular at that time, as both a state university and a land-grant institution, had a student body full of first-generation college students fresh off the farm. It was those students whose 20,000 papers were archived and studied by Hodges, and it was those students whose errors became the basis of Harbrace. Hawhee writes: "Hodges universalized the particulars: by examining the ‘bodies' of Tennessee students' writing, he grafted their most common ‘flaws' onto the national student body."

Hawhee says this sampling led to "an obvious Appalachian slant" in the first few editions. Students are told to avoid using dialects, "illiterate constructions," or vulgarisms; section 19g in the first edition instructs students to "avoid faulty diction" by not using phrases like "can't hardly," "drownded," "you all," and "where is she at?"

But it is not just "country" phrasing that comes under the gun—"phone" and "photo" should be "telephone" and "photograph;" "lovely" is criticized for being both vague and colloquial; and "female" is "no longer used as a synonym for woman."

Hawhee is clearly critical of Hodges' elitist judgment. She writes, "All of these proscribed usages are indigenous to the South, or mountain dialect … The Tennessee students, many of who were probably first-generation college students, were taken as those who needed—in the worst way—a simple book to help ‘fix' their language practices."

What Hawhee neglects to note is that many of these students wanted to improve their speech and grammar. Perhaps at no other time in history did the American Dream seem more obtainable, provided you fit the part. You could trade your overalls for a suit and your work boots for loafers and your tractor for a Studebaker, but if you told a colleague, "I can't hardly wait for your cocktail party on Friday," the jig was up.

It's no coincidence that the period of Hodges' and Harbrace's ascendancy was the era of Gatsby through to the era of the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Because without the right words, and knowing how to use them, it was impossible to reinvent yourself, like Mad Men's Don Draper.

Hodges may have been a snob, but that snobbery was a product of his era. One also wonders how much of Hodges there may be in the text—whether he was not writing down to his students but instead writing to a slightly less educated version of his younger self. No matter how much money his family had, no matter how much education he had, it must have been challenging for the 24-year-old Hodges to enter Harvard in 1916, a man determined to lose his rural Louisiana roots, to become an Ivy League scholar and a gentleman, to show he wasn't just another one of those bourgeois students. It's possible Hodges' dedication to improving students' grammar was his way of giving back to his hometown, such as it was.

Grammar Wars

The first edition of Harbrace came out at the beginning of World War II. At the end of that war, with the introduction of the GI Bill, colleges and universities were suddenly filled with students who never before had the means to pursue a higher education.

Such a dramatic increase in the number of students also meant a dramatic increase in the number of instructors. Is it any wonder that the textbook that was the easiest to use for both parties quickly became the most popular?

A second edition of Harbrace appeared in 1946. A third followed five years later, and a fourth edition five years after that. Coauthors and collaborators worked on the textbook, but the format had stayed exactly the same. One of the biggest changes came in the 1962 fifth edition, when Hodges' name was added to the title, just as he retired from teaching in the English Department.

Several years later, in Hodges' obituary, a student described him as follows: "He was a kind man who never raised his voice in anger. Yet he was exact and demanding of his students, a rigid disciplinarian who urged his students on to a needle-sharp understanding of literature." It was exactly this sort of teaching style that fell out of favor in the 1960s.

By the time Hodges was working on revisions for the sixth edition, Harbrace faced competition from handbooks from publishers like Prentice-Hall, Scott Foresman, and Macmillan. At the same time, Hawhee writes, "surveys of instructors reported a decrease in satisfaction with the fifth edition for its ‘stiff,' conservative approach, its lack of ‘liveliness' . . . and ‘fuddy-duddy' sentence diagrams."

Unwittingly, Harbrace had become the textbook flash point in the grammar wars of the 1960s.

Studies in theoretical linguistics and new ways of thinking about grammar in the 1950s—especially works by C. C. Fries and Noam Chomsky—began to trickle down to the English-teaching establishment. Other concerns about equating correct grammar with correct usage had been bubbling up for years, according to an essay on the history of grammar in U.S. schools by Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock.

In 1963, at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, the council issued a statement that was the discipline's equivalent of the atomic bomb. It reads, in part: "In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing."

As the 1960s wore on, scholars such as Peter Elbow promoted a student-centered classroom, suggesting activities like journaling and peer review to improve writing skills. Elbow writes, "[T]he process of learning grammar interferes with writing: It heightens your preoccupation with mistakes as you write out each word and phrase, and makes it almost impossible to achieve that undistracted attention to your thoughts and experiences as you write … For most people, nothing helps their writing so much as learning to ignore grammar."

It was against this background that Harcourt Brace pushed Hodges for major revisions. Hodges pushed back, sending a letter in November of 1966 to then-editor William Jovanovich: "No successful handbook has gone through six editions—not even four—with so little basic change or reorganization as ours. The fundamental sameness of all editions, not the minor changes to which we have been limited, explains the success of the book."

In the end, the section on diagramming sentences was expelled from the 1967 sixth edition, never to return, but the rest of the textbook remained quite the same.

In July of 1967, Hodges died at age 75 after a heart attack. At his funeral, UT President Andy Holt said, "I have never known anyone more dedicated to the advancement of mankind and more effective as a teacher than Dr. John C. Hodges."

Legacy Edition

The explicit teaching of grammar continued to fall out of favor in U.S. secondary schools in the ensuing decades, even as the number of students attending college continued to rise. The result? College composition is now a bigger business than ever.

At UT alone there are 135 sections of English 101 and 102, which are required classes for all freshmen. The required textbook, of course, is the 17th edition of the Hodges' Harbrace Handbook.

"Oh, yeah, we still use it," says Kirsten Benson, interim director of UT's First Year Writing Program. "I love it. … I view Harbrace as a kind of security. For anybody who wants to find out the answer, you can look it up."

Although recent trends in pedagogical theory posit the return of grammar to the classroom—especially after the SAT and ACT added "writing" sections to their tests in 2005—Harbrace remains the core component of any sort of grammar or usage instruction for thousands of students every year.

"We complain that our college students haven't already learned grammar, but the responsibility lies with us," says Glenn. "When language users feel confident in their language ‘use,' they can concentrate on larger issues of style, grace and argument."

The fundamental appeal of Hodges' Harbrace, then, is distinctly tied to its own fundamentals. It may be staid, it may be restrictive, and it may be elitist, but there remains a need in this society for grammar instruction. How else to explain the success of Lynne Truss' 2003 best-seller Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, or why the website Grammar Girl's podcast consistently ranks in the Top 40 on iTunes?

Still, the true legacy of John C. Hodges may just be the education he provided for so many—those who studied his textbook, those who used the library he helped build, and those he taught. David Burns of Knoxville had Hodges for freshman English in 1950 and still has his inscribed copy of the 1946 edition.

"He was an imposing presence," Burns recalls. "He wore tweed jackets most of the time, as you'd expect, and he was a grammarian through and through. I think of him when I read even magazines that have good writers and see one grammatical error after another."

Adds Burns, "He was simply one of the finest gentlemen I ever knew."

SIDEBARS:

The Bawdy Bard

Although today he's best known for his textbook, in his own time John C. Hodges was a leading authority on the 17th-century English playwright William Congreve. The Restoration writer hit big from 1695 to 1700 with five high-brow sexual comedies of manners, which 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." When a wave of conservative mores swept England, Congreve's bawdy style fell out of fashion, and the playwright turned to politics. 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. (B.C.)

The Scandalous Miss Hazen

In 1951, the straight-laced Hodges created a minor scandal when he hired Miss Evelyn Hazen as his administrative assistant. The last family occupant of the antebellum Mabry-Hazen House, Miss Evelyn had made national headlines years before when she sued a former lover in a breach of promise suit (a tale recently recounted by Jane Van Ryan in The Seduction of Evelyn Hazen).

Hazen was most certainly an irascible snob right out of Tennessee Williams. She carried a gun on campus and monitored office supplies like Scrooge. But while the idea of a tweedy Mr. Chips being romantically entangled with a brazen hussy was irresistible to local gossips, there was never any evidence of hanky-panky to go along with the tongue-wagging.

After Hodges' death in 1967, Hazen continued to work at the university for many years. When the English department moved into its new offices at McClung Hall, professor Bain Stewart asked how she liked the new digs. "Cheap and pretentious, like most of the faculty," she sneered. (B.C.)

The Power of the Proper Word

For all its power as a grammar textbook, reading the first edition of the Harbrace Handbook of English makes it clear that John C. Hodges was a man who cared about style and language too. Take, for example, this excerpt from Chapter 20, "Exactness":

20 e (4) Select words with due regard to their connotation (power of suggestion).

Words are feelings, emotions, sensations, ideas. Some words, beside their literal meaning, have the power to suggest varied associations. They are surrounded, as it were, by an aura of feelings. They stir up unexplainable emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, and connect the present situation with something remote in consciousness. They seem to be an intrinsic part of ourselves, and are tied up with all our experiences. For instance, the word hearth, which literally means the floor of a fireplace, suggests in addition the fireside, warmth, safety, good cheer, a family and friends, and the home itself. Stove, on the other hand, is much poorer in suggestive power.

BARREN He sat musing by the stove.

RICHER He sat musing by the hearth.

BARREN Regas sells hot steaks.

RICHER Regas sells sizzling steaks.

BARREN The baby likes to play.

RICHER The baby is as playful as a kitten.

BARREN The man at the door is an unemployed person.

RICHER The man at the door is a tramp.


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