“A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on. Ideas have endurance without death.”
–John F. Kennedy
Whoever said that opportunity knocks but once doesn’t know the opportunities in the Virginia Community College System (VCCS): opportunities that give our students and our faculty not only fresh new starts but sometimes second chances, second opportunities.
The VCCS gave me a fresh start when I left the federal sector in 1998 to pursue my childhood dream of becoming a college English Professor. And this year, the VCCS gave me a second chance—a second opportunity—to complete a research project that I didn’t complete nearly four decades ago.
I’m still pinching myself in disbelief, but I really do have a second chance to get it right this time around. Let me explain.
One of an educator’s greatest joys comes when we realize that we are discovering far more ideas within our discipline that need to be researched and developed than we can possibly achieve in our own lifetime. The ideas, too numerous. Our lifetime, too short. When we make that discovery, we take heart in knowing that our ideas can come to fruition through our students. We start sharing the ideas—the projects—with our students, challenging them to run with the ideas, to take ownership, to complete them not only for their own benefit but, also—and, perhaps, more important—for the greater good of scholarship and learning.
As an educator, I have shared lots of original project ideas with my students, and I know that more than one student has accepted one or more of my challenges and has enjoyed success. Others, I like to think, will run with one of my ideas one day. If not today, then tomorrow or further down the road when the time is right.
I was once such a student, some years ago. In 1973, Calhoun Winton (Professor of English at the University of South Carolina) tossed an idea my way when I was a student in his class. He pointed me in the direction of a book by J. A. Leo Lemay (du Pont Winterthur Professor of English at the University of Delaware) that mentioned some pseudonymous Colonial American essays that were of such high caliber they needed to be edited, to be published, and to have the author identified. Dr. Winton thought it would be a wonderful project for me to tackle.
The essays appeared originally in a southern newspaper, the South Carolina Gazette. Only one complete run of the newspaper exists, and it’s housed in the Charleston Library Society (Charleston, SC). I traveled there, I read and studied the essays, and I agreed with the professors who had inspired me: these were some of the best Colonial American essays that I had ever read. In fact, these were some of the best that anyone could ever read.
I used the essays as the foundation for a graduate paper in Dr. Winton’s class, but I didn’t do anything further with them, except to file the idea away in my mental storehouse of “one-day, some-day” ideas to be tackled further down the road when the time was right.
Now, decades later, I have discovered to my surprise—and, candidly, to my joy—that no one else has accepted Professor Lemay’s challenge. The essays that he lauded remain unedited, unpublished, and the author remains unidentified.
Through the Chancellor’s Commonwealth Professors Program, the Virginia Community College System has given me the chance to be the student who takes Professor Lemay’s idea—who takes Professor Winton’s idea—and runs with it. As a result, I have a second chance to bring these essays to full light. I have a second chance to be the student who sees to it that these essays take their rightful place in the American literary canon. I have a second chance to be the student who solves the mystery: who wrote those essays?
If not me, who? If not now, when?
Sometimes, opportunity does knock twice.
Oooh, I love a good mystery! I am so proud to call you my Uncle! I look forward to watching you unravel this centuries old mystery.
And thank you for leveraging 21st century technology to allow us to derive vicarious pleasure from your 18th century research.
One more mystery: who lost the ‘u’ in Humourist?
Who lost the “u” in Humourist? What a fascinating question. Thank you!
My immediate response as to when the “U’ was dropped might be to say that it is really a difference between British and American spellings. The British spelling is “humourist.”
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives a similar response, as you will note in the definition below:
“For the spelling compare honour n.; humour is now usual in Great Britain, humor in U.S. The English formations, humoured, humourless, humoursome, are here spelt like the n. and vb.; but the derivatives formed on a Latin type, as humoral, humorist, humorous, are spelt humor- as in Latin humōrōsus, etc. (This agrees with Johnson’s use.) The pronunciation of the initial h is only of recent date, and is sometimes omitted, especially in the senses under II: see H (the letter).”
At the same time, the OED gives the following examples of how “humourist” was first used. Notice that the early 1596 usage was spelled without the “u.” It was not until 1718 that the “u” appeared in the British spelling of the word.
So the question might really be, “When did the ‘u’ get added to “Humorist”? Again, fascinating question. Thanks for asking.
†1. A person subject to ‘humours’ or fancies (see humour n. 6); a fantastical or whimsical person; a faddist. Obs.
1596 C. Fitz-Geffrey Sir Francis Drake sig. C2, Some base humorists.
1640 Bp. J. Hall Episcopacie iii. v. 242 Our late humorists give power of excommunication..to every Parish-Presbytery.
1661 O. Felltham Resolves (new ed.) 264 Turbulent and contentious humorists.
1712 J. Addison Spectator No. 477. ¶1, I am..looked upon as an Humorist in Gardening. I have several Acres about my House, which I call my Garden, and which a Skilful Gardener would not know what to call.
1718 S. Ockley Hist. Saracens II. Introd. p. vii, All Humourists, Bigots, and Enthusiasts.
1741 I. Watts Improvem. Mind i. i. 22 The Notion of a Humourist is one that is greatly pleased or greatly displeased with little Things, who sets his Heart much upon Matters of very small Importance.
1830 J. Mackintosh Diss. Progress Ethical Philos. 121 Indulging his own tastes and fancies..he became..a sort of humourist.
Love the story behind the story!
The story behind the story. Ah, yes! Aren’t they splendid? When I teach Creative Writing, I often ask my students to write “the story” behind one of their literary works. Quite often, the story is more intriguing than the literary work! While I won’t say that the story behind “The Humourist” will outdistance his essays—Oops! Did I just drop a clue?—I will say that solving the mystery of who wrote these centuries old essays will be a story worth reading!
Superb, superb (knock twice upon entering!) project and I can’t wait to see it!
I’m looking forward to traveling with you as you solve the mystery! Thanks for taking the time to set up an active blog so that I can feel as if I am a part of the project too.
Thank YOU for joining me on my journey!
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