Go to Chapter One Section Go to Book World's Review

Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism
By Mark Royden Winchell

Chapter One: The Road to Nashville

For seventy-five years or more after the Civil War, the rural towns of west Tennessee resembled the cultural desert H. L. Mencken described in "The Sahara of the Bozart." The effects of Reconstruction were still being felt, and high culture remained a largely unattainable luxury for people who had a hard enough time putting food on their tables and clothes on their backs. Although a few fortunate families could listen to music on the Victrola, they could not hear a symphony orchestra. They had no legitimate theater, either--only popular melodramas and, much later, Saturday matinees at the local movie house. Lending libraries were few and their holdings sparse. Public schools were rudimentary and underfunded, while the private academies served only those gifted few with intellectual aspirations. It was in such an environment that the Reverend George Brooks spent almost his entire adult life.

George Kirkby Brooks, the second child of John and Susan Brooks, was born in White Pitts, Swaby Parish, Lincolnshire, England, on July 29, 1837. The son of devout Methodists, he was himself converted some time in early youth at a six o'clock prayer service and joined the church later that day. He was licensed to preach at age sixteen and, the following year, accompanied the Reverend Amos Kendell to America. He arrived in New York in 1854, traveled directly to Memphis, Tennessee, and settled soon thereafter in Hernando, Mississippi. In short order, he became a naturalized American citizen, a Methodist deacon, and finally an elder of the church. In 1860, while he was pastor of the First Church in Jackson, Tennessee, Brooks was responsible for I50 conversions. He seemed destined for a remarkable ministerial career when the Civil War broke out.

Casting his lot with the Confederacy, George Brooks helped to establish a hospital for soldiers. He was stricken with typhoid fever while in Aberdeen, Mississippi. Despite this potentially fatal illness, he continued his service between Corinth, Mississippi, and Memphis. According to his biography in the conference records of the Methodist Church, George Brooks took two leaves of absence during his ministry. One was to recuperate in England from his illness, and the other was to fulfill an unspecified trust imposed upon him by his father-in-law, General J. J. Brooks (who was no blood relation). The conference records note that "on each return, [George] received an appointment that ranked lower than he left" Memphis Conference Yearbook 1919, 105)- The records also indicate that, like so many Methodist clergy of his day, George Brooks was moved by his church every year or two until, at the end of a career that spanned over forty years, he was "superannuated" on November 10, 1899, in Brownsville, Tennessee.

Apparently, George Kirkby Brooks was sustained in his difficult life by deep piety and a stoicism that often made him seem cold and aloof. What sustained his wife is less clear. The helpmeets of Methodist ministers were expected to share the hardships of their husbands' calling, while trying to raise a family in communities they would soon leave and in homes they would never own. It is no wonder that so many of these women died young. George Brooks married his first wife, Lizzie H. Brooks, in Jackson, Tennessee, in 1866 and buried her in Fulton, Kentucky, in 1894. The third of their six children was born on January 11, 1873, in Denmark, Tennessee. At the suggestion of Lizzie's mother, Mrs. J. J. Brooks, the child was named Cleanth. Despite the cultural deprivation of the region, this woman evidently knew of the ancient Athenian poet and philosopher Cleanthes or of Moliere's character Cleante. At the age of twenty-one, and in the same year that his mother died, Cleanth Brooks followed his father into the Methodist ministry.

The institution served so faithfully by George Kirkby Brooks and his son Cleanth traced its roots back to the Wesleyan reform movement in the Church of England. As has often been remarked, John Wesley lived and died an Anglican. He believed in the apostolic succession as it had been preserved within the Anglican Communion and had no intention of forming a separate church. Nevertheless, Anglican worship had become so moribund by the first half of the eighteenth century that some form of revival was necessary. Moreover, the established church was not ministering effectively to the needs of the people. The Industrial Revolution was driving too many of the peasantry away from their local parishes and into developing cities such as Leeds, Birmingham, and Liverpool, where they found themselves without a church. In large part, the Methodist movement was a pastoral response to the needs of such people.

In 1783, Wesley took the fateful step of establishing an American episcopacy when he ordained Francis Asbury and Thomas Coke as joint superintendents of the American Methodist Church. Wesley defended this break with apostolic tradition--which held that only bishops can ordain priests, much less consecrate other bishops--by consulting Scripture. As there was no legal Anglican establishment in America at the time, Wesley undoubtedly believed that the only way his movement could be preserved in the new republic was through a denominational structure all its own. (In the wake of the Revolution, most American Methodists probably saw the Church of England as a Tory institution anyway.) As High Church as Wesley may have been in many of his personal beliefs, the movement he spawned in America was Protestant, evangelical, and fiercely independent.

The southern branch of the Methodist Church took its role as moral teacher quite literally and became a major force in both theological and secular education. In 1854, for example, its quadrennial conference called for a convention of leading Methodist educators. This group, which met in Nashville in April 1856, formed the Educational Institute of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South--a group that met annually to improve textbooks, raise larger college endowments, and provide special training for teachers. It was within this group, according to Paul K. Conkin, that the "dream of a great Methodist university in Nashville" first matured.

As the location of both the publishing house and the missionary board of the Southern Methodist Church, Nashville was the logical site for the denomination's central university--an institution "capable of providing advanced training for the graduates of the thirty or so struggling colleges supported by the annual conferences of the church." Although this dream was deferred by the Civil War, it finally became a reality when, in 1873, Methodist bishop Holland N. McTyeire persuaded Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow the university that would bear his name. (Vanderbilt was neither a southerner nor a Methodist, but his second wife--a distant relative of McTyeire--was both.) The presence of Vanderbilt University in Nashville would continue to shape the educational ethos of the state and region for years to come. In no small part, the gospel of a Vanderbilt education was spread by its alumni, a group that included the Reverend Cleanth Brooks, who attended the university from 1891 to 1894, when its distinction and piety were both beyond question.

After leaving Vanderbilt in 1894 (he would not actually complete the requirements for his degree until 1903), Cleanth Brooks was admitted on trial as a minister of the Memphis Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The region encompassed by this conference (which is the jurisdictional equivalent of a diocese in the Roman Catholic or Episcopal Church) covered west Tennessee and southern Kentucky. In a pattern that would be repeated often during the thirty years he served in the conference, Brooks was appointed to the Buena Vista Mission in Carroll County, Tennessee, in 1894 and transferred the following year to the Station Church in Columbus, Kentucky. After serving what amounted to a two-year apprenticeship, Brooks was admitted into "full connection" with the Memphis Conference at its annual meeting held in Jackson, Tennessee, on November 18 - 23, 1896.

While serving in Columbus, Kentucky, Cleanth Brooks married May Browder, a native of Fulton, Kentucky, on June 12, 1895. (May's distant relative Earl Browder would run for president on the Communist Party ticket in 1948.) The bride was over two months shy of her twentieth birthday. The newlyweds remained one more year in Columbus before being transferred south to the Gleason Circuit in Tennessee in 1897. The following year found them in the First Church of Bolivar, Tennessee, and the year after that, nineteen miles farther south in Grand Junction, near the Mississippi border. After another year in Grand Junction, the Brookses moved forty-four miles north to Henderson, in 1901. Two years later, they were transferred seventeen miles east to the Campbell Street Church in Jackson. Although none of the moves in Tennessee was over a great distance, all involved leaving newly made friends and setting up house in a new environment. During the nine years of their marriage, the Brookses produced four children--Elizabeth, John Kirkby, Mary, and Ruth.

On December 8, 1904, May Brooks died in the Campbell Street parsonage. Her obituary in the Memphis Conference minutes for 1905 does not indicate the cause of death, but it does mention "the devotion of friends and tenderest nursing and most skillful medical treatment and earnest prayers." In addition to her family responsibilities, she had assumed the burdens of a preacher's wife, working in the Sunday school, the Epworth League, and the various women's societies of the church. Her funeral, which was conducted by the Reverend J. W. Blackard, drew an overflow throng of mourners. Approximately two weeks before Christmas 1904, May Browder Brooks was buried in the Hollywood Cemetery in Jackson.

One can imagine the grief of a young husband who had to watch an even younger wife die, but such experiences were not uncommon in that age and in that region. Moreover, Cleanth Brooks's duties as both pastor and father left little time for the luxury of mourning. The following year brought him a new ministerial assignment, in Murray, Kentucky, and a new wife in Bessie Lee Witherspoon. Like her husband, the new Mrs. Brooks was a native of Madison County, Tennessee. She had been born on August 5, 1882, the daughter of William and Elizabeth Weir Witherspoon. Like her predecessor, Bessie Lee Witherspoon Brooks accepted the peripatetic life of a Methodist minister's wife. She was apparently a devoted and loving stepmother. She was also the sort of housekeeper who would leave a parsonage cleaner than she had found it. But she was her own woman, as well. Church work was not suited to her, and she resisted becoming an extension of her husband's vocation.

As west Tennesseans, the Brookses lived in a region quite different from the rest of their state. Opening up to the Mississippi River, it was the threshold of the American frontier and part of what used to be called the "Old Southwest." It is significant that when one of America's most legendary folk heroes, Davy Crockett, first became a national figure it was as a politician from west Tennessee. While serving in the state legislature, Crockett had been ridiculed by a lawmaker from east Tennessee because of his backwoods dress and uncouth manner. Seizing the political advantage, Crockett parlayed his rustic image into a seat in Congress and a ghostwritten autobiography. Following martyrdom at the Alamo and apotheosis in song, tall tale, and celluloid myth, this bumpkin from west Tennessee became better known and more revered than all but a handful of American presidents.

At the dawn of our own century, another west Tennessean joined the ranks of the immortals. With Frederick Jackson Turner's announcement of the close of the frontier in 1893, the nation looked for legends more suitable to the modern technological,age. They found one in a railroad engineer from Jackson, named John Luther "Casey" Jones. On the evening of April 29, 1900, Jones pulled his northbound train into Memphis for what should have been the end of his shift. But when the engineer who was supposed to make the southbound run to New Orleans turned up sick, Casey not only volunteered to take the man's place but vowed to make up for or lost time. Thundering into Vaughn, Mississippi, at the incredible speed of severity miles per hour, he spotted some unexpected railroad cars in his path; by staying with his engine to reduce its speed, Jones averted what might have been an even worse disaster. When his body was found, one hand was clutching the throttle and the other the air-brake control. A few years later, Jones's heroism was celebrated in what has become one of our greatest folk songs. For decades thereafter, his widow continued to live in Jackson, Tennessee, which now houses a railroad museum bearing his name.

Davy Crockett and Casey Jones are both figures who loom larger in legend than they ever did in life. Their popularity reflects an American fascination with two seemingly contradictory character traits--an iconoclastic sense of personal independence and an unswerving fidelity to duty. It is also worth noting that Crockett and Jones are better remembered for how they died than for anything they had done earlier in life. An American society that presumably worships success has always found room in its pantheon of heroes for a few magnificent losers. This is particularly true of the South, where the morale of an entire region has been sustained by the myth of a glorious and undeserved defeat. Certainly, southerners would agree with T. S. Eliot that there are no lost causes because there are no gained ones. That philosophy is borne out in the life of a west Tennessean considerably less famous than either Davy Crockett or Casey Jones--Bessie Lee Brooks's father, Confederate Lieutenant William Witherspoon.

Bill Witherspoon was twenty-one years old when the state of South Carolina fired on Fort Sumter. Enlisting in a Madison County company that joined the Seventh Tennessee Cavalry, Witherspoon fought for the autonomy of his home region under the command of General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Himself a native of Madison County, which was then part of the west Tennessee backwoods, Forrest was a unique figure in the Confederate army. Unlike Lee, Stuart, and others, he was neither a patrician nor a professional soldier. Forrest was the eldest son of eleven children and, after his father's death when Nathan was sixteen, the sole support of his mother and siblings. The family lived on a rented farm and subsisted on hard manual labor. Forrest acquired his skill with arms not at West Point but "in what Napoleon termed the best of military schools--that of poverty." Forrest achieved a modicum of economic comfort through horse dealing and slave trading and had become a man of standing in his own community when the War of Secession broke out. Barely literate, he knew no grand military strategy but led by fearless example. His intuition and courage brought him victories denied to more learned and cautious officers.

Bill Witherspoon fought with Forrest at the Battle of Tishomingo Creek (better known as the Battle of Bryce's Cross Roads) in 1864 and published his reminiscences forty-two years later in an attempt to earn enough money to attend Confederate reunions. Although scholarly accounts of that battle have been published before and since, Witherspoon's perspective is that of the ordinary soldier. Through his eyes, we see Forrest ordering his men to throw burning beds off wagons the Yankees have set on fire. When one lieutenant falls to respond on the grounds that he is an officer, Forrest rides at him with his sabre drawn, yelling, "I'll officer you!" Employing brilliant guerilla tactics, Forrest's men carry the day against a much better armed enemy force over four times as large.

In another Civil War memoir, this one published in 1910, Witherspoon recalls that in 1861 he volunteered for a spy mission to Madison County, which was then occupied by Federal troops. After eating dinner at his own home, he and a companion, Allen Shaw, were apprehended by a company of the Second Illinois Cavalry. Knowing that he would be hanged if he were judged a spy, Witherspoon outsmarted his captors with a fiendishly clever job of acting. Playing upon certain Northern stereotypes of the South, he pretended to be an ignorant country boy who had been conscripted into fighting by wealthy slave owners. He claimed that when captured he was fetching a doctor (his companion Shaw) for a sick old woman called "Granny." He asked that he simply be allowed to return home to Pa and Ma with his faithful farm horse Charley. Not only did Witherspoon gain his own release and the return of his horse, but before leaving enemy custody, he even engaged his captors in a card game to win back his pistols. One need not doubt the veracity of this memoir to note how much it reads like humor of the Old Southwest. Once again, the supposed country hayseed has hoodwinked the Northern sophisticate.

If Witherspoon's spy narrative recalls an older tradition in southern literature, one striking passage in it seems to anticipate the later Southern Renascence. Pondering the use to which he would now put guns that formerly had killed squirrels and rabbits, Witherspoon writes:

Now it was for different game, a two-legged biped, who had come down in our Southland, regarding us as barbarians, one type removed from the wild horde of Aborigines that once roamed our country, teaching what constituted a higher civilization, by entering our homes, abusing and insulting those we had left at home, unable by the decree of nature, unable on account of sex and age (our mothers, daughters, sisters, and sweethearts, our fathers decrepid [sic] with age and boys too young) to shoulder the musket to defend what is dear and first in the heart of every true citizen, his home.

In theme and syntax that sentence could very easily have been spoken by Faulkner's Colonel Sartoris.

Witherspoon concludes his Civil War reminiscences with a comparison between himself and his grandfather John Witherspoon, who served under Francis Marion, the great cavalry leader of the Revolutionary War. Like his grandfather, Bill Witherspoon fought to defend his home against what he regarded as aggression from a central government. Like his grandfather, he furnished his own horse and squirrel gun. "My grandfather was proud of the term `Rebel,'" the later Witherspoon writes. "I may have the love for the term `Rebel' by inheritance, yet I love it and will so teach my children. I simply look at it that my grandfather in 1776 and myself in 1861 were standing in the same shoes" . William Witherspoon continued standing in those shoes until his death on November 10, 1923. Well into the twentieth century, this gaunt old man with a bushy white beard could be found at his home in Jackson, Tennessee, telling stories of past glory and playing seemingly endless games of chess.

On October 16, 1906, Cleanth and Bessie Lee Brooks became the parents of a son they named Cleanth, Jr. Although the place of his birth was Murray, Kentucky, the family moved eight more times during his childhood and early adolescence. Over eighty years later, Cleanth, Jr., would recall "a life of genteel poverty in a Methodist parsonage . . . ; the necessary counting of pennies; the worry when mid-autumn arrived and the pastoral appointments were read out and our family found out that we would stay on at least one more year in the town in which we were then living and would not have to move a hundred miles away, with new friends to make and a new school to attend." Cleanth, Jr.'s, later reverence for a sense of place in both literature and life is at least in part a function of the rootlessness of his childhood.

The one constant factor during these childhood years was the family unit itself. In addition to his father and mother, there were three half-siblings (Ruth, a daughter from Cleanth, Sr.'s, first marriage, had died in a fire before Cleanth, Jr., was born) and a brother named William, who was born in February 1908. Although the communities in which the family lived were the sort that H. L. Mencken disdained, the Brooks family itself was well-read by anyone's measure. Brother Brooks (as Cleanth, Sr., was known to his parishioners) loved books and delivered extraordinarily literate sermons. His son remembers that by the time he was five his father was reading to him from such tales as Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and The Iliad. In fact, the first book he ever owned was a prose translation of The iliad.

If Cleanth, Jr.'s, love of literature came early, his critical sensibility was a later acquisition. As a child reading, he looked not for paradox, irony, and metaphor but for plot, excitement, and adventure in his reading. His boyhood favorites included tales of military valor from King Arthur to the Civil War. (He enjoyed visiting Grandfather Witherspoon in Jackson and hearing the old man recall the battles he had fought with Forrest.) Although there was plenty of poetry in his father's library, young Cleanth found it dry and dull. When he tried his own hand at creative writing, he produced a story set in England. Upon proudly showing it to his Grandfather Brooks, the lad was informed that some of the terms he used gave him away as not being British. This was Cleanth Brooks's first encounter with literary criticism.

One of young Cleanth's favorite childhood books was Alfred Ollivant's classic Bob, Son of Battle. Ollivant was a British soldier who had been thrown by his horse in 1893 and so badly injured that he remained a cripple for many years. During his long and painful convalescence, he turned to writing, drawing on childhood memories of the sheep land of north England. Bob, Son of Battle is the story of two sheepmen, each with a famous collie. Adam M'Adam is an arrogant and scheming little Scotsman, whose dog Red Wull is called "Tailless Tyke" because its tall has been cut off. James Moore of Kenmuir owns Owd Bob, a collie of very distinguished ancestry. When sheep are killed throughout the region except on land owned by M'Adam and Moore, suspicion begins to settle on Bob and Tyke. As one might imagine, Bob weathers the false accusations and eventually helps to expose the actual rogue dog.

Although Cleanth, Jr., was too young to remember Murray, Kentucky, or Milan, Tennessee (where the family lived in 1907 and 1908), he does recall spending 1909 and 1910 in Collierville, Tennessee. In 1911 his father became pastor of the Mississippi Boulevard Church in Memphis, where young Cleanth saw streetcars for the first time. The following year brought the family to Lexington, Tennessee, where Cleanth, Sr., was presiding elder of the district. Cleanth, Jr., remembers returning with his brother William and their father one afternoon to their home in Lexington. Although they could sense their father's apprehension and his eagerness to see his wife and house, they did not realize at the time that a tornado had done considerable damage on the other side of town. Brother Brooks was visibly relieved to find his wife safe and his parsonage unharmed.

In many respects, Mayfield, Kentucky, was the first real home that Cleanth, Jr., knew. He was seven when his family first moved there in 1913, and they remained there for three years. Mayfield was where the family acquired its first car (a Dodge) and where young Cleanth learned how to play baseball and football. (As he later told me, a boy with thick glasses and a name such as Cleanth had to play sports just to avoid merciless teasing.) The childhood games would sometimes include boys of both races. Although blacks were viewed as social inferiors, there was no racial hatred in the Brooks household. Blacks were called "niggruhs" (not "neegrows," as in the North) instead of "niggers," and the Brooks children were taught to treat them with paternalistic regard. Cleanth, Jr., recalls his father's belief that in the black race America had been blessed with the best peasantry of any land.

The virtues of religious tolerance were also taught in the Brooks household. Cleanth, Sr., was firm enough in his own faith not to need to reinforce it by condemning those who believed differently. In fact, in 1913, he headed a committee in the Memphis Conference that vigorously censured the persecution of jews in Russia. In its report, the committee declared "that as men and Christians we are indignant that any government in this humanitarian age, or any church which claims the name of Jesus, Son of Mary, and Son of God, should abase itself by giving support to such a race bitterness and persecution especially against that great family from which, in His earthly lineage, came Jesus, our Lord" (Memphis Conference Minutes 1913, 68).

Cleanth, Jr., was over two months shy of his eighth birthday and bedridden with diphtheria when world war broke out in Europe. Because of his youth and the remoteness of rural Tennessee from the European front, he was largely unaffected by the conflict. He remembers only that his father was staunchly pro-british and opposed to the prolonged neutrality of the Wilson administration. Because of his illness, young Cleanth had considerable time to follow the war (including the "Rape of Belgium") in the local newspapers. It was not until years later, when he would read revisionist accounts of the conflict, that he would begin to question his youthful jingoism. By then, he had abandoned his childhood desire to become a soldier like Grandfather Witherspoon.

The Brookses returned to Collierville, Tennessee, in 1917. Some of the boys from Memphis, only fourteen miles away, regarded the people of Collierville as little more than hicks. This big city condescension proved somewhat embarrassing when the Boy Scouts held a competition that included troops from Memphis and the outlying regions. The skills being judged included flag signaling, knot tying, and other scouting lore. When the points were totaled, the boys from Collierville had a higher overall score than any of the troops from Memphis. Their cause was aided by Cleanth Brooks, Jr., who had spent weeks learning how to tie every knot in the Boy Scout manual. He was chided, however, for being too bashful to shout out his name when he finished tying a knot and for almost having his efforts overlooked.

In 1914, while still living in Mayfield, Kentucky, Brother Brooks was appointed Secretary of Education for the Memphis Conference. During the next five years, he held no pastorate but traveled the conference in an effort to advance the cause of education. Because of his scholarly predilections, he was well suited for the job. At the same time, he couldn't help being concerned about the quality of education his own children were receiving. Because conference assignments were made in November of each year, he had seen his children continually uprooted from public schools they had just entered in September. Under the circumstances, it was remarkable that Cleanth, Jr., did as well as he did. By the time the boy was thirteen, his father was encouraging him to think about eventually applying for a Rhodes Scholarship. In order to compete for such an honor, however, young Cleanth would need better training than he could get in the public high schools. Consequently, in the fall of 1920, he was sent to the McTyeire School in McKenzie, Tennessee.

The institution that would become the McTyeire School began as Caledonia College in 1858. Established in the town of Caledonia in Henry County, Tennessee, it was chartered in 1860 but soon closed when its faculty and students went to war. With its buildings burned during the war, the school was moved in 1867 to McKenzie, a railroad crossing in Carroll County. There it was supported by the local Methodist church and was known for the next twelve years as McKenzie College. In 1879 its president, Edwin B. Chappell, persuaded the school's board of trustees to stop awarding "college" degrees, to make the school preparatory to Vanderbilt and similar universities, and to change its name to McTyeire Institute.

In 1899 James A. Robins and R. Grier Peoples (both of whom were graduates of Vanderbilt) assumed the joint principalship of the institute--now called "McTyeire School." After the departure of Peoples in 1902, Robins became sole principal, a position he held until the school closed in 1931. According to William O. Batts: "At the close of the First World War, when Robins returned after a year's absence with the YMCA in France, he found an aroused constituency with plans for equipping a new McTyeire on a more permanent basis. A more widely distributed board of trustees, composed largely of alumni of the school, was duly elected; and plans were made for ample grounds and buildings beautifully located on the outskirts of the town."

In addition to intellectual attainments, schools such as McTyeire stressed the development of character. This was effected not only through a strict code of discipline but through the example of teachers who took the doctrine of in loco parentis very much to heart. The dominant presence at the McTyeire School during the years of Cleanth Brooks's attendance (and, indeed, for the last thirty years of the school's existence) was James Robins--known to generations of students simply as "Mr. Jim." In a brief sketch published more than fifty years after his own graduation from McTyeire, former Vanderbilt football coach Ray Morrison recalled some of Mr. Jim's methods of discipline. If a boy were late for school without a sound excuse, he would be required to be at Robins's home each morning for up to a week to accompany the headmaster to class and everywhere else he went.

The schedule of classes at McTyeire was determined not by the ringing of Pavlovian bells but by the eccentric rhythms of Mr. Jim's own day. He simply kept his boys until he was done with them. Class might end at three o'clock in the afternoon, but if the assignment was difficult, or Mr. Jim had been delayed by sighting a species of warbler not often seen in Tennessee, it could drag on until six in the evening. As Cleanth reminisced seven decades later:

The members of the senior class of the McTyeire School would be sitting--if it was a mild October--out in the open in our split bottom chairs, perhaps discussing a difficult passage in the Virgil assignment, or more likely, speculating on how we were going to come out of the football game with our old rival, McFerrin, next Saturday. Then someone would sight Mr. "Jim" walking up the hill, his bird glasses in hand, a little late today, but not hurrying to take charge of our Latin class: the headmaster never hurried. Someone would sing out, "Fourth year Latin is up; Fourth year Latin's up."

Robins believed in the character building power of athletics and required every boy to take part in some team sport. During the later years of his life, he made his home on the Vanderbilt campus (where years before he had been an undergraduate at the same time as Cleanth Brooks, Sr. and became something of a fixture at campus athletic events. He sat on the bench at home football games, often accompanied the team to away games, and rarely missed a practice. Ray Morrison recalls that "one day in the football dressing room at the stadium a player remarked that he was having trouble understanding his college algebra. `Mr. Jim' heard him and took him in the coaches' room and there on the blackboard instructed him for half an hour. The boy later told the coach he learned more algebra in that thirty minutes than he had in the fall term" (Morrison, 21).

In addition to being a learned man, Mr. Jim was the sort of mild eccentric who is most easily tolerated in a regional culture. Along with bird watching and athletics, he was fascinated by the lore of calendars. At one time or another, his charges learned everything there was to know "about the Roman calendar and its connection with our own." Mr. Jim took great delight in telling his students on February 22, 1922., that they "should all write letters home with a date composed of the same digit five times repeated: thus, 2/22/22." This would be the last time in the century that they could do so, as March had only thirty-one days, not thirty-three.

Beneath the mirth and eccentricity, there was a Victorian earnestness about Mr. Jim's approach to life and learning. Cleanth was not at all surprised that "Rugby Chapel," Matthew Arnold's tribute to his father, Thomas, was the headmaster's favorite poem, because Mr. Jim's character was so much like that of Thomas Arnold. Matthew may have made a religion of poetry, but his father remained a staunch defender of the Protestant faith. By the same token, Jim Robins was a quiet but committed Methodist, whose belief was too deep to require evangelical histrionics. "I see him now as a saint," Cleanth writes, "one of that not inconceivable band of provincial saints that the South produced around the turn of the last century, the kind that often impress only a small group of people in a small community and who are soon forgotten, because they left no permanent work. They did not publish a book nor build a building. They worked in a more fragile and impermanent material, for they worked to build men." Cleanth later discovered that the instruction he received at McTyeire had been comparable to what he would have had in a British "public school." The curriculum consisted of four years each of English, mathematics, and Latin, three of Greek, and one of United States history. (Because there were no laboratories, there was no instruction in science, and the study of modern languages was still a thing of the future.) In a typical language class, the seats made up a numbered row (the numbers were drawn from a bowl). The students were then called upon to translate passages. Those who did so successfully moved up in the hierarchy; those who did not fell back. The object was to see how many "firsts" one could accumulate during the course of a term. This meant moving literally to the head of the class. If one could remain at the head during an entire class session, he would earn a "distinction" next to his name. He would begin at the foot of the class the next day and try to work his way to the top again. in less than thirty years, that tiny rural school produced three Rhodes Scholars. Many colleges using more "advanced" pedagogical methods have not done nearly so well.

Ironically, the subject that Cleanth recalls as being the most poorly taught at McTyeire was English. The native speaking writers generally paled in comparison to the noble pagans read in Greek and Latin class. The British and American scribes favored by Mr. Jim and company were mostly Victorians taught for moral instruction. But there were some surprising exceptions. Cleanth and his classmates "listened to `The Fall of the House of Usher,' but . . . also heard such amusing skits as John Kendrick Bangs's `Houseboat on the Styx' or Thomas Bailey Aldrich's `Marjorie Daw.'" They also read verse by the black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar.

During Cleanth's years at McTyeire the school had between fifty and sixty students. Most of these were boys, and about half were boarders. As one of the boarders, Cleanth was living away from home for the first time returning home during the school year only for the Christmas holidays). The adjustment proved difficult. When his father visited him after he had been at the school for only a few weeks, he appeared so dejected and homesick that the elder Brooks offered to take him home. Tempted as he might have been to accept his father's offer, young Cleanth persevered, even though he was hot yet committed to the life of the mind. Perhaps in part because of the popularity of debate at McTyeire, he thought that he probably would become a lawyer.

Where he would go to pursue his education after prep school was still an open question. Although he had family and regional ties to Vanderbilt, Emory and Trinity (which would later become Duke) were also excellent southern universities with a Methodist tradition. What finally caused Cleanth to choose his father's alma mater was the visit of a deputation team of Vanderbilt undergraduates recruiting able secondary school students who had not yet made their college choice. One member of this team, a junior named Saville Clark, who would later become a career Marine officer stationed for a time at Hiroshima, so impressed Cleanth that he decided not only to go to Vanderbilt but to room with Clark his freshman year.

As studious as he was, Cleanth Brooks maintained normal interests outside the classroom during his years at McTyeire. In addition to debate, his favorite extracurricular activity was football. Although the boys were incredibly light by today's standards, they played hard and were devoted students of the game. During Cleanth's junior year the most experienced player was not the quarterback but the left tackle. So, the coach confounded the opposition by having the tackle call every play from the line of scrimmage. During a game against Grove High School of Paris, Tennessee, the McTyeire coach sent his team out with four set plays. They were to run these four plays in succession (the huddle had yet to be invented), provided they continued to gain yardage. This strategy so unnerved Grove High that McTyeire won the game, 92-0.

McTyeire's football coach, "Puss" Puryear, was also a Latin teacher. As committed as he was to victory on the playing field, Puryear was even more demanding in the classroom (a sort of combination Bear Bryant and Mr. Chips). When he discovered that his third-year Latin class couldn't handle its assignments very well, he lengthened the morning class. When that didn't work, Puryear kept them in late in the afternoon-day after day. Cleanth recalls that the rest of the team would be out on the field, passing and punting, waiting for their coach and remaining teammates to show up. "But when 45 minutes had passed and still no coach and no junior players, we fell back on our own resources. We ran signals and formations with what of the squad were present. Even if next Saturday's game loomed up, the coach was adamant. No practice for the delinquents until they could do their assignment."

Although he weighed only 135-140 pounds and suffered from poor eyesight, Cleanth was an important member of the football squad. He was a substitute as a sophomore, a starter as a junior, and captain of the team his senior year. As this was before the two-platoon system, he played left end on defense and fullback on offense. Despite being primarily a blocking back, he scored three touchdowns in his career--one after catching a forward pass. To the end of his days, Cleanth kept the letter he earned in football among his most prized possessions. Joseph Epstein has written that "in the neighborhoods in which I grew up, being a good athlete was the crowning achievement; not being good at sports was permitted, though not caring at all about sports, for a boy, was a certain road to unpopularity" (Epstein, 143). Although Epstein is talking about Chicago, what he says is equally true of the South, where football has long run a close race with evangelical Christianity as the dominant religion of the region.

During the 1920s, Vanderbilt University was an ideal environment for any southern boy who cared about football. Under coach Dan McGugin, Vanderbilt had had the most formidable team in the South from 1904 tO 1913 and, after a few years of mediocrity, was again achieving regional dominance. In comparison to the gridiron excitement and general party atmosphere on campus, the after-hours literary activity of a few young English professors and students must have paled to insignificance. Cleanth Brooks recalls that when he left prep school for college in 1924, Vanderbilt seemed one of the least intellectual places imaginable.

© 1996 Rector and Visitors

University Press of Virginia

Back to the top