The Gift of Writing

Cover of Harbrace EssentialsToday’s era of dismal book sales and shuttered newspapers is also one in which, paradoxically, people are writing more than ever before. The omnipresence of e-mail in the workplace requires office workers to produce a high volume of professional written communication every day, and the accessibility of the Web means that every unorganized essay or error-filled letter can be seen by people around the world. To stave off whatever professional failure or personal humiliation awaits the author of such missteps, Cengage Learning has published the first edition of Harbrace Essentials, a writing guidebook with roots in the UT Department of English.

“When people are writing and they have an audience and a message, they want to say it right, and they want to be correct. They don’t want to have misspellings, and they don’t want to look stupid, because they’re taking pride in what they’re writing,” says Cheryl Glenn, liberal arts research professor of English and women’s studies at Penn State and the co-author of Harbrace Essentials and the Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook.

A writing and grammar guide first produced in 1941 by the late UT English professor John C. Hodges, who died in 1967, the Hodges’ Harbrace Handbook is one of the most widely used grammar reference books at colleges and universities in the United States, as well as one of the oldest. Now in its 18th edition, the handbook has been published consistently since 1941.

More recently, last January saw the publication of Harbrace Essentials, a slim new book that highlights the most important elements of the Handbook. Glenn says the appeal of the Harbrace books lies in their accessibility and their ability to convey the fundamentals of writing well to a very broad audience.

“Every successful handbook in America has copied the Harbrace Handbook. It may not have been the first English grammar handbook, but it became the first continuously published one. Hodges examined all the disorganized handbooks being published, and he taxonomized this world of language use in a very simple way,” Glenn comments.

Even in this digital age, writing has persisted, with technology, language variation, access to higher education, and many other factors changing the landscape of language instruction. The entire family of Harbrace handbooks has evolved to reflect these important cultural developments.

Rhetoric, added four editions ago, is especially important for understanding composition that ranges from essays and speeches to the professional meetings and PowerPoint presentations that form the backbone of many professionals’ schedules after college. Social media and Web-based content have brought fresh attention to the skill of brevity, and globalization has brought with it the need to address language issues relevant to non-native English speakers.

Although Hodges’ language expertise lives on through the Harbrace series, his legacy goes far beyond the books themselves: from the first handbook’s publication through today, royalties from the Harbrace books go to the University of Tennessee to fund writing- and literature-related programs for the university community.

Most of the revenue goes to the John C. Hodges Better English Endowment, which funds graduate student fellowships, research assistantships, library acquisitions, lectures, and community outreach, among other efforts. The endowment is overseen by the Hodges Trustees—the full professors and emeritus professors of the Department of English.

Linda Davidson, vice chancellor for development and alumni affairs, explains that handbook revenues also have helped fund a number of other humanities initiatives, such as the Marco Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

“Being the foundation for the Marco program is most significant because it really shows how a strong English department and a strong library collection are so fundamental to so many things in the humanities. The wonderful programs we have in the humanities have really been based on these building blocks the faculty have constructed over the years,” Davidson says.

Davidson adds that Hodges’ philanthropy was not limited to book sales—he was a generous private donor to UT during his life, and his wife, Cornelia, continued to give to the school after his death (Mrs. Hodges died in 2010). One of Dr. Hodges’ fundraising strategies, Davidson explains, was to go around at parties and ask for donations for the UT library, noting that an “anonymous donor” would match the proffered donation. The unnamed donor, naturally, was Dr. Hodges.

“I really wish I could have met him, because he must have been an incredible man. Professor Hodges has a legacy that lives on,” Davidson concludes.

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Cindy Rutherford Thomsen April 12, 2011 - 11:00 am

As a UTK alumna and professional writer, I was disappointed to read the following sentence in a story about the art and craft of writing:

The omnipresence of e-mail in the workplace requires office workers to produce a high volume of professional written communication every day, and the accessibility of the Web means that every unorganized essay or error-filled letter can be seen by people around the world.

Eleanor McCleary Sellstrom '52 April 12, 2011 - 11:18 am

My mother, Louise Wiley McCleary ’13, MA, a few years later, was great friends witth John Hodges and his first wife, Lillian, and then Cornelia. She taught with him, using The Harbrace Handbook, and it was he who brought her back from retirement after WWII brought the influx of so many veterans back to campus. I knew the Hodges, too, wonderful people, and a big part of the life of all the McCleart family.

Frank Thornburg April 12, 2011 - 10:29 pm

I was privileged to use John Hodges Harbrace Handbook both as a student at UT 1946-48 and later as a colleague of Professor Hodges. He was a fine person. I am glad to have shared some of his life.

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