- Why the CEA?Vol. 1, No. 2, October 1939
My first preference may seem to put the cart before the horse. I suggest this: let us first organize and collect dues, and then discuss and formulate major aims and objectives. Much time can be wasted talking about aims when, instead, we are really united by our love of Literature and by the ideas, values and purposes it teaches.
I doubt whether there has been a more propitious moment in the history of Civilization than the present for propagating that value of Literature which Emerson called "the upbuilding of the dignity of Man." Sometimes it seems that all of us are too prone to forget the great good likely to ensue when two or three are gathered together out of loyalty to great causes. When critics told Cobden his ideas of Free Trade were visionary and impossible, he replied "Then if that is the only objection, let us begin at once."
At the same time I would not care to join an association that stands for dilettantism. For dilettantism, by reason of its very spinelessness, cannot stand long. On the other hand, there is another extreme to be avoided. Recently there has been much activity in behalf of the Teachers Union. "Such an organization," the argument has been run, "has teeth in it." The increasing regimentary spirit of these days, of which I had my experience during the last War, perplexes and bothers me to no end.
The major aims of this Association would necessarily have to be couched in general terms. Thus, in these bad days I should think a very desirable aim, however phrased, would be: To Foster and promote the cause of humane letters. For my part, I would consider that aim sufficient inducement for joining such an association…
One phase of propaganda (there are two kinds: one that is relatively true and that which is absolutely false) which this Association might well undertake is the promulgation of American humane letters. Let me first explain that I am a naturalized citizen, English-born. Now because native-born teachers seem to prefer the teaching of European culture, I have had many opportunities of studying and teaching American History and Literature. To me, therefore, has been vouchsafed the richest experience of a man's life—what the foreign language teacher calls the acquiring of another soul. I think I begin to see and appreciate the broad highway of this Democracy and its hinterland,—I sometimes stand amazed at the [End Page 121] neglect of its Cavalcade of sweet human endeavor. Rarely have I met a student, Upper or Lower Division, who had conned and understood the theory of history in Emerson's "History"; the two verses which proceed it would alone give an American a decent respect for himself and his fellows. Our students know much these days, as indeed they must, of sound and fury supermen, but next to nothing of American Pioneers such as Francis Parkman's Thomas Bickford and Madeline de Vercheres. When a definition of "transcendentalism" is wanted, it is a little disconcerting to find they do not know "The Chambered Nautilus." The moral of it all is in "The Bluebird"….
In my judgment, it would be a fatal mistake to organize for mercenary reasons. Nor can I see much value in organizing for the purpose of "talking shop." After all there are innumerable books on that topic. There is more validity, I think, to the "fraternal" purpose; that, however, should arise naturally out of the mutual adventure which a common purpose holds. Nor, so far as my experience goes, is organization necessary in order to protect the teacher of Literature in his freedom to teach; that bridge could be crossed if come too. It would be a mistake, I feel, to affiliate with any political, social, religious or economic group, but equal a mistake to put a taboo on discussions arising out of such values inasmuch as the issues come within the domain of letters.
In order to function we must first organize. The question of formulating aims and objectives, of whether we shall have a periodical, of its nature, etc., must attend...