THE LEANING TOWER OF BABEL
by Richard Mitchell
INTRODUCTION: Mitchell’s Muse
by Thomas H. Middleton
I’VE been lucky enough to have had THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN sent to me since early in its history, and I have kept all the issues sequestered in a manila folder in one of the bookshelves in my office. On the sound theory that anything as good as Richard Mitchell’s homespun product should be broadcast rather than sequestered, I have on occasion lent my collection to worthy friends, but only after securing the transaction with all their credit cards and all the keys to all their cars.
When I find a new UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN in my mailbox, I welcome it as I suppose some people–devoted fans of different drummers–welcome the latest Field and Stream, Cosmopolitan, or Playboy.
As I recall, THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN began as a local organ whose purpose was to stamp out the rotten writing and bubbleheaded thinking of some of the staff and students at Glassboro State College in Glassboro, New Jersey. The first few issues in my files seem to deal almost exclusively with the problems of Glassboro. Of course, Glassboro State’s problems were a microcosm of the slough that the English language had slid into nationwide; so it was inevitable that these gems would quickly attract notice, first in academic circles, then among all the host who care about language.
The second issue of THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN (volume one, number two, February 1977) states its goals: “THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN does not seek to educate anyone. We intend rather to ridicule, humiliate, and infuriate those who abuse our language not so that they will do better but so that they will stop using language entirely or at least go away. There are callings in which the abuse of English doesn’t matter; ours isn’t one of them.” Clearly, this early edition is addressed to what Mitchell in the title of one of his books has called “The Graves of Academe.”
In this same second issue, he announces the inauguration of the Wind-up Toy Award, which “is presented to those who use advisement in public. Input and interface as well as thrust will also earn Wind-up Toy Awards. These words might be appropriate in private between consenting adults. The award indicates our recognition of those talents best suited to sellers of wind-up toys in the streets.”
I first met Richard Mitchell when he came from the East Coast out here to Los Angeles to appear on the Johnny Carson show. We had had a bit of correspondence, and I’d told him I’d like to meet him if he ever traveled to the West. I planted myself at the bar of his hotel, the Sheraton Universal, and he came in almost immediately. We had a couple of drinks and a very congenial chat, in the course of which I complimented him on his UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN essays. I said that each of them was a masterpiece. He instantly denied authorship of them. “It’s a muse,” he said. “Something out there comes down and guides my hand.”
I laughed, but he insisted that it was so. He said that surely I must have written columns that seemed to write themselves. I owned that on rare occasions I had–usually when I was mad as hell about something–and I admitted that I had frequently written letters to the editor and letters of complaint to offending merchants and manufacturers, and that those letters flowed effortlessly from a hand that almost seemed not my own.
“Exactly,” he said.
So there you are. THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN will have great appeal for anyone who simply loves good writing, for the writing in these articles is superb. Moreover, these pieces, articulate, intelligent, often wildly funny, and frequently dazzling, spring from a splendid mind, tuned to just the right pitch, and fired with an angry passion under the supernatural control of Mitchell’s muse.
I. On The Nature of Language