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· The Underground Grammarian — Richard Mitchell ·

I've been working on what's called my site's digital backend. If you're unfamiliar with the term, I've been attending to quotidian things, installing Movable Type 3.14, quite an improvement over MT 2.61. It offers comment moderation, dynamic/static web-page building, and other good features I am not quite ready to use. It's also provided me some deeper thoughts, thoughts of a much wider, larger character. I thought to step forward today and share them — call them frontend thoughts, not just about You Got Style but about Mov(e)able Type itself.

This old photo suggests what I have in mind.

 · The Underground Grammarian — Richard Mitchell ·

It's of Richard Mitchell, taken July 6, 1982. Mitchell was then known for a quaint journal of modest circulation called The Underground Grammarian. Published from his basement in Pitman, New Jersey — where you see him attending to his printing press — it was always brilliant, both stylistically and substantively. I still recall Mitchell's remarking to me: "You know the right definition of a free press? It's the right of everyone to have a printing press in the basement." Since I had had some printing experience, we hit it off well.

So I thought to include part of the interview I taped that July afternoon, its now-quite-resonant conclusion. (My transcript I found in my own cluttered basement, next to my small press — an old Multilith 80.) Of the things we talked about, Ludwig Wittgenstein's most famous saying quite naturally arose:

Worüber man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.

What one can't speak of at all, one must pass over in silence.

Our interview aptly ended when, in discussing a passage from the bible, Mitchell mentioned the difficulty of teaching students to know metaphor rightly. Here is our exchange:

Mitchell: I asked [them] a very simple question, "What, exactly, is the House of Mirth?" ["The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecclesiastes 7:4).] Complete silence in the class. "Is it a house?" Baffled silence continues. Finally someone said, "Well, probably not." Probably not: get that — probably not! Well, this engendered quite a long discussion and finally someone suggested, "It's not really a house at all. It's just a way of talking about something else, and the heart isn't a heart at all." And it took a whole class to get at the metaphor, a very simple metaphor. . . .

Styles: Perhaps they'd have had even more difficulty understanding what Heidegger means by language being our House of Being.

Mitchell: Oh, yes, . . . because the word "being," you see, is entirely a metaphor, and it has no meaning whatsoever for them. They understand about living. They know they're alive, they're pretty sure of that, but if one would ask them to distinguish between their living and their being, I don't know where they would go.

Styles: Would they go to language?

Mitchell: Well, no, they wouldn't; they would go to silence. Isn't that interesting. I never thought of it that way, but that's where my class went in the face of the House of Mirth . . . silence.

Two years ago today, you should know, Richard Mitchell died. His being still speaks, stylishly if silently, at The Underground Grammarian.

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I love that you knew and interviewed Mitchell, Styles. I have a copy of his book given me by a colleague. Mitchell revered language and seemed to enjoy his own crochets.

I did not realize that he actually enacted my long-time retirement fantasy: to develop a small print shop in the garage, and then write broadsides railing at the city council and other local authorities, which I would distribute on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. I still like this idea, but now with blogs, I'm not sure I need the print shop.

Rather, my fantasizing has turned toward getting my own server and starting a few different blogs for my different crochets. I suppose I could still make little cards with the URL on them and hand them out on the street.

Thanks for that remembrance of Richard Mitchell.

Posted by
John on December 28, 2004 10:54 PM

Thanks, too, for joining Wittgenstein's quote with Ecclesiastes. That's some small consolation as even we academics — we mercenary Wise Men, we professional Magi of Western civilization — mourn dumbstruck through this season of Epiphany the terrible disaster in the Far East. You, Styles, along with John (above) and the late Richard Mitchell do well to follow the early advice of Voltaire and the more resent echo of Garrison Keillor: Each of us must cultivate our gardens. To press, then, and onward!

Posted by Mary Lee on January 2, 2005 10:11 PM

Agreed, but charitably, too, sharing a produce imprinted now perhaps best in green.

Posted by Styles on January 5, 2005 08:15 PM

Hey, it's good to see you linking to my Underground Grammarian site. I would love a copy of that tape (or a transcription to post on the website).

It was sad to correspond with him in his final days. There were times he was bordering on despair, but he was cheered knowing that his work would never be forgotten as long as there is an Internet.

I have a blog called WitNit. Stop by sometime. Perhaps I will post how UG came about, and what Mitchell said when he first found out about it.

Posted by Mark Alexander on January 25, 2005 07:07 PM

BTW, do I have your permission to put that Mitchell photo on the Underground Grammarian website?

Posted by Mark Alexander on January 29, 2005 07:19 AM

My thanks, Mark, for your comments and for your kindly preserving Richard Mitchell's work. I'd be happy to see my photo used and share my transcript and tape. Email me your address.

Posted by Styles on January 29, 2005 09:43 AM

As a big Richard Mitchell fan, I'd sure appreciate a copy of your interview transcript as well (I didn't see it posted yet at sourcetext).

Thanks, Van Harvey

Posted by Van Harvey on February 4, 2005 10:08 AM

My thanks for your comment. Mark's not yet responded, and since it requires digitalization and editing, my transcript should best appear at sourcetext. Do stay tuned.

By the way, being a Mitchell fan is a sign of good judgment.

Posted by Styles on February 4, 2005 11:22 PM

I've started posting the transcript of the interview. I think it will have eight parts. Go here.

Posted by Mark Alexander on March 5, 2005 05:37 PM

"Was man nicht sprechen kann, darum muss man schweigen."

That sounds like pseudo-German.

LW's quote should read:

"Worüber man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen."

Posted by instructivist on March 6, 2005 02:26 PM

My thanks. I'm instructed and my post corrected!

Posted by Styles on March 6, 2005 04:45 PM

I am also a big fan of Richard Mitchell, having discovered his work about a year ago. I wrote to Mrs. Mitchell last year, but never got a reply. Just wondered about something. Nowhere in any of his writings did Mitchell deal with Allan Bloom and the whole "Closing of the American Mind" issue. This is hard to believe since Mitchell dealt with education and Bloom and his book caused such a stir. He did deal with E.D. Hirsch and the "Cultural Literacy" question. Does anyone know why? I'm assuming that he deliberately avoided mentioning Bloom for some reason.

Posted by M. Keeler on December 2, 2006 07:08 PM

Sorry for just getting around to this. I've been too long incommunicado, attending here to my teaching duties.

I've no definitive, authoritative answer, though I do have a reasoned hunch.

Bloom seems given more, as a philosopher, to predicate logic than Hirsch — who seems more given in English to predication. Bloom's aims may have been less grammatically offensive than those of a competing "authority" in cultural literacy.

Though perhaps too fanciful — an "adjectival" take on his seeming attachment to Bloom — this view may explain Mitchell's "nominal" attack on Hirsch.

Posted by Styles on March 1, 2007 08:13 PM


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