Richard Mitchell on Lucid Writing

Having Decided To Stay, Bryana Johnson, Richard Mitchell, Less Than Words Can SayThe late Richard Mitchell of The Underground Grammarian was a most remarkable man of letters. Mitchell was a champion of literacy who believed in his cause and gave permission for all of his books to be made available online for free. It is disappointing that interest in his writings has waned following his death in 2002. I have admired him highly since I read The Graves of Academe a few years ago.

This fascinating work, Mitchell’s treatise on illiteracy in education administration, is a brilliant collection of wit. Although I didn’t find myself agreeing with all of the ideological framework which serves as a base for his solutions, The Graves of Academe is not really a handbook for future action but a warning that something is dreadfully, horrifically wrong with education in America. Unfortunately, as a glance at our current system makes all too evident, his warnings went unheeded. Mitchell himself grew extremely discouraged by his lack of influence towards the end of his life. Critic John Simon wrote,

There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell’s is such a voice.

However, the reason why Mitchell’s poignant warnings were ignored was because illiteracy and mental laziness had already been allowed to penetrate the furthest reaches of American academia, not because Mitchell lacked the striking eloquence of lucidity and imagination in language. Indeed, the noncommittal jargon of politicians and professionals in our age is a disease that this great man warned against in no uncertain terms. He understood, in the words of Richard Niebuhr, that

we are far more image-making and image-using creatures than we usually think ourselves to be.

He understood that a man, indeed a people, must be shown a thing and not merely told that it is so. Moreover, he was conscious of the fact that to avoid showing something in image-rich language is to refuse to tell it at all. Anyone who has watched a few hours of Congress on c-span knows of what we speak.

For your entertainment, I include a short excerpt from Mitchell’s book, Less Than Words Can Say — a volume he had originally planned to title The Worm In The Brain, until his editors protested that the phrasing was too grisly. I hope that after reading it you will consider taking advantage of his collected body of work which is offered entirely free of charge. You may embrace wholeheartedly or decisively reject this man’s ideals and postulates, but I promise that he will force you to think.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills,” said Churchill. Millions answered, apparently, “By God, so we shall.”

Imagine, however, that Churchill had been an ordinary bureaucrat and had chosen to say instead:

“Consolidated defensive positions and essential preplanned withdrawal facilities are to be provided in order to facilitate maximum potentialization for the repulsion and/or delay of incursive combatants in each of several pre-identified categories of location deemed suitable to the emplacement and/or debarkation of hostile military contingents.”

That would, at least, have spared us the pain of wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can’t seem to read and write English. By now we’d be wondering what to do about the growing multitudes who can’t seem to read and write German.

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