Bliss Perry was a minor figure in American literary history. A professor of English literature and language, he taught at Williams and Princeton for roughly ten years each at the end of the nineteenth century, edited the Atlantic Monthly for ten years, then taught at Harvard for twenty years. He wrote dozens of books, mostly collections, essays, and biographies of American writers such as Emerson and Whitman.
Perry’s memoir, And Gladly Teach, is a book of muted tones and little drama. As he admits in the book,
… I suppose that even at home I have had, more than most men, what would be considered a sheltered life. There has been no feverish anxiety about money, for there has always been a modest salary and no fear of losing the job; always a roof over our heads; always food and fire and libraries and friends, to say nothing of a household happiness so perfect that I cannot attempt to describe it here.
This is an excursion back to another world, to the orderly and reasoned life of an academic and scholar at a time when the entire faculty of a college could sit around one not very large conference table and when reading and thinking were considered priorities to which a professor was expected to devote much of his working day:
I choose for illustration four English authors on whom I happened to be lecturing at Williams in the eighteen-eighties, at Princeton in the eighteen-nineties, and at Harvard in the nineteen-twenties. It is clear that the lecturer, at the outset, should have read the entire work of each author. Then comes the task of thinking, for, as W. C. Brownell used to say: “To produce vital and useful criticism it is necessary to think, think, think and then, when tired of thinking, to think more.” The third stage is the selection and arrangement of such significant facts, conclusions, queries, as can be presented to a class in fifty minutes….
“All this,” Perry writes, “is preparatory to the actual delivery of the lecture.” The son of a Williams College professor, Perry grew up in Williamstown, Massachussetts, graduated from Williams, then stayed on to teach introductory classes in English. As a boy, he and his father often wandered in the hills and forests around the town, and when not studying, teaching, or writing, Perry was usually out somewhere in the New England countryside, walking or fishing. And Gladly Teach is, therefore, a quiet and pastoral book, and comes to a modern reader as an escape from the world of 24-hour interactivity.
It is also very much a book from the time when power and social status in America lay in the hands of a small number of white men, mostly from the Northeast. “My day’s work, for more than half a century, has been with gentlemen,” Perry writes, and by “gentlemen”, it is quite clear that he means men much like him. He is not, however, quite so narrow in his definition as his Harvard neighbor, who offers the following classic assessment of the world as seen from Cambridge in 1900:
The men, while taking their coffee, mentioned a then newly published book, Who’s Who in America I remarked that I was finding it useful in the Atlantic office, inasmuch as it gave biographical information about most of the men who had achieved national prominence. Whereupon our host asked, with entire seriousness, “Wouldn’t the Harvard Quinquennial Catalogue answer every purpose?”
The relative inertia of the social class structure of Perry’s world extended to the relations between faculty and students as well. Perry writes unashamedly that,
Likewise I was too ignorant of the personal history of the men whom I was trying to teach. One could place the graduate students roughly, for one knew the colleges from which they came and something about their records and plans. But I never knew even the names of the majority of students in the big undergraduate courses, nor their preparatory schools nor their Harvard groupings and social affiliations. I had to leave all that to my assistants who read the blue-books and conferred personally with the men.
On this point, though, I suspect that the only thing that’s changed between Perry and many of today’s university faculty members is the willingness to admit this.
And Gladly Teach is not a major work of autobiography. “I am aware that I have not portrayed a whole life, but only such aspects of a teacher’s career as may conceivably prove interesting,” Perry writes near the end. It is, though, a sterling example of a life devoted to, and illuminated by, a deep love of the humanities, and a thoroughly pleasant place in which to spend a few hours.
- Percy Hutchison, New York Times, 13 October 1935
- A rare book, rare in the sense that it has individuality of flavor. One the whole, Bliss Perry lived a quiet, even uneventful life. But he lived a life of the mind, of the spirit, and the will, which three together, plus friendliness toward one’s fellow-men, make personality. For this writer, who was one of Mr. Perry’s first assistants at Harvard, he lives anew in these pages, so unconsciously does Bliss Perry reproduce himself.
- G. M. Janes, Churchman, 1 November 1935
- In reading the various chapters of this interesting volume of reminiscences, one has the same feeling as in biting into a juicy apple and finding it neither too tart nor too sweet, but altogether enjoyable.
- C. M. Fuess, Atlantic, November 1935
- One notable feature of this book is the author’s skill in characterization, shown in little sketches…. No one can spend an hour with this book without respecting Bliss Perry’s balanced, tolerant spirit, his astonishing fund of literary knowledge, his keen intelligence, his urbanity, his blessed common sense.
- Christian Science Monitor, 30 September 1935
- When the subject is worthy and workmanship good, only in the reader’s own taste lie any impediments to enjoyment of a book. The subject of Bliss Perry’s reminiscences is worthy because it is a record of life as it affect and was affected by a cultivated, idealistic, and modest man; the workmanship is as good as that of one who spent his working hours with the masterpieces of literature ought to be.
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