- Two Views of Stanford’s Teaching Legends:Margery Bailey and Edith Mirrielees and Their Effect on John Steinbeck and Irma Hannibal
Two small-town students, John Steinbeck and Irma Jean Hannibal, arrived at Stanford ten years apart. John left the university in 1928 and Irma Jean arrived in the fall of 1938. John came from Salinas, a small farm town, and Irma came from Everett, Washington, a small mill town. Stanford, at the time of Irma’s entry, was comprised of 3,000 men and 1,000 women, so it was still a small campus.
As we read John’s biographies, we realize that he came to Stanford as a somewhat indifferent student who was there basically to please his parents. Almost from the beginning, John found himself at odds with the rigorous demands of a prescribed curriculum. Webster Street recalls his first impression of John as a “gangling, awkward farm boy.”
Irma, on the other hand, started her long trip to Stanford dressed in her best, wearing a corsage, and enjoying every minute of her journey. Accompanied by her friend Adelaide Hayes, she boarded the train from Seattle to Oakland. In Oakland they took the ferry to San Francisco and another train to Stanford. Here is Hannibal’s first impression of Stanford: “I smelled the eucalyptus on the beautiful campus and felt that I was home. I loved every minute of my time there.”
Despite their many differences, these two students had one thing in common—they planned to be English majors and to take every English class that the university offered. For both of them, their most memorable English classes were taught by two special teachers: Edith Mirrielees and Margery Bailey. For both, Miss Mirrielees was their favorite and most memorable teacher. After delivering a lecture on Steinbeck for the Foothill Club in Saratoga, California, I met Irma Hannibal, who came up to me and told me, with tears in her eyes, “Miss Mirrielees was brilliant but most of all she was so kind to her students. I can still see her serving punch and cookies to us. We all loved her.”
While at Stanford, John wrote to Carl Wilhelmson and described Miss Mirrielees as “very kind and she hates to hurt feelings. She said that she thinks my stuff ought to be published but she doesn’t know where. Don’t [End Page 63] get the idea that I am swimming against an incoming tide of approbation. I’m not. For every bit of favorable criticism, I get four knocks on the head” (Benson 58).
Not only were Irma and John both attracted to the warmth and kindness of Miss Mirrielees, they also admired her perceptiveness about what constitutes good writing. “In a creative writing class,” Irma recalled, “she gave us an exercise to test our five senses. She told us to go and find a field where no one else is around. Lie down in it and see how it affects all of your five senses. That’s how you learn to write.” [End Page 64]
Unlike John, Irma was more interested in literature than writing, since she planned to become a teacher. She remembers in particular Miss Mirrielees’s treatment of the Brownings. Whatever the subject, Irma remembers the overwhelming aura of kindness around her beloved teacher. “Years later,” she recalls, “I was taking a workshop with Wallace Stegner, and he told us about meeting Miss Mirrielees at a conference and how helpful she had been to him. It’s funny, because she was such a delicate, gentle maiden lady, but inside she was a powerhouse.”
In John’s case, Miss Mirrielees was the most influential and helpful of all his teachers. He disliked revision and had a tendency toward florid, wordy prose, and she attacked these problems in his writing in a forthright manner. In a letter to his friend Robert Cathcart, Steinbeck wrote, “She does one thing for...