The best-selling textbook of all time, the motivations of an art forger, and the remarkable Mary Somerville:newsletter, June 18, 2021

June 20, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, history, newsletter, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,332) on Friday, June 18, 2021.

The latest controversy to hit Major League Baseball revolves around the “sticky stuff” many pitchers apply to a baseball before they throw it. Applying any foreign substance to a baseball is against the rules. The controversy has been sparked by Sports Illustrated cover article that claims as many as 80 percent of MLB pitchers are doing just that.

One well-regarded pitcher, whom I won’t name, admitted that he had used such a substance a couple of years ago. He said that he stopped because he didn’t like the way it felt while he was pitching. His team manager praised him for his “integrity.”

If that constitutes integrity in our public life these days, then I am left sadly shaking my head. Here I thought integrity I meant doing the right thing because it was the right thing to do.

I hope you have a great weekend.

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Harbrace Handbook: the all-time best-selling textbook

If you were in a college English composition class most anytime between 1955 and the year 2000, chances are that your textbook was a small-sized book that people referred to simply as the Harbrace Handbook.

No one keeps records of these things, unfortunately, but the Harbrace Handbook is thought to be by far the best-selling college textbook ever published. Since it’s life began as a published book in the early 1940s, it has sold millions of copies, gone through several name changes, and it’s been used in courses around the world. There have been more than 20 editions published.

Where did this publishing gold mine spring from?

The answer to that is fairly simple. It came from one English professor, a man named John C. Hodges, who taught at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville from the 1920s into the 1960s.

Like just about every other professor who has attempted to teach writing to his or her students, Hodges struggled to get his students to understand and appreciate the technical aspects of the language. English usage has many rules and customs, and good writers adopt, understand, and use those to their advantage.

But at the time Hodges began teaching, the books that contained those rules were not very interesting or accessible to students faced with writing what was demanded by English composition courses. In 1922, Hodges began keeping a list of the most common mistakes that students made. Later he enlisted graduate students to comb through papers written by students to find even more mistakes.

During the next fifteen years, Hodges compiled not just a list of mistakes but also a list of principles and rules — often with succinct explanations and examples — that students could have by their side as they were writing. This locally published manual became a valuable resource for students.

It was also a valuable tool for teachers because it was organized in a way that made it easy for them to use. When marking papers, they simply had to refer to the chapter or section number in Hodges’ manual rather than write out long explanations for errors that students might have made. That ingenious innovation saved teachers a great deal of time.

In the late 1930s, a traveling salesman for Harcourt Brace publishers came to Knoxville, met Hodges, and became intrigued with the system that Hodges had devised. He contacted his bosses in New York, and after some negotiations, they offered Hodges a publishing contract. The name Harbrace was a combination of Harcourt and Brace. The book did not carry the name of John C Hodges as its author. In fact, Hodges’ name did not appear on the book until the 1960s.

According to an article about Hodges and the book by Brooks Clark on the University of Tennessee website, he just had two objectives in mind when he composed the book:

The first read: “To make correction of written work as clear and easy as possible for the student.” The second was: “To make marking of student papers as easy as possible for the instructor.” The latter point—making teachers’ lives easier — has been the secret to its continuing success.

Hodges, as you can imagine, made a great deal of money as the book gained adoptions through the 1940s and 1950s. Publishers noticed, and imitators soon appeared. That ironically cemented Harbrace’s place as the first, and the best, English composition handbook.

Hodges retired from teaching at UT in 1962, and five years later he died of a heart attack. He made provision in his will to funnel part of the royalties from Harbrace to the University of Tennessee. Those royalties were a major source of funding for UT’s library, which carries the name John C. Hodges Library.

Han van Meegeren: an update on the motives of the 20th century’s most successful art forger

The story of Han van Meegeren, often thought of as the greatest forger in the history of art theft, was the subject of a two-part series of posts that I offered to newsletter readers a couple of years ago. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.

Now, we have new information about this extraordinary, though not very exemplary, individual.

During the 1930s and 1940s in Holland, van Meegeren produced at least six paintings that he claimed were the work of Johannes Vermeer. These paintings fooled the authenticating experts of the time, and they were sold for vast amounts of money.

One of those paintings was bought by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering at the time when Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany. Goering paid more guilders for that painting than anyone had ever paid in the history of art. Owning a Vermeer was one of Goering’s proudest achievements.

Things didn’t go well for Goering after the war. He committed suicide while under a death sentence in a prison in Nuremberg, Germany.

Things didn’t go well for van Meegeren, either. He was arrested by Allied authorities and accused by the Dutch government of collaborating with the Germans. It was a serious charge, one that he could have been executed for.

That story is contained in the previous posts cited above.

What’s new is the information — or at least a very educated opinion — about van Meegeren’s motivations. He consistently claimed he began forging art because of the rough handling that he had received early in his career from art critics. He would show them, he said, by creating works of art just like the Old Masters and by doing so in such a way that critics and experts would think they are real.

A different view of this story is taken by Jonathan Lopez, the author of The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, a biography that makes no claim being sympathetic to its subject. 

Van Meegeren was no wounded artist merely seeking revenge, Lopez says. Instead, he was part of a multinational art forgery and theft network long before he made any claims of merely warning to send up the critics. His chief motivation: greed.

That network “found” lost artworks by the Old Masters, authenticated them in various and sundry ways, and then sold them for a lot of money to rich museums and art patrons. One of their major targets was Andrew Mellon, an American multi-millionaire an art collector, to whom two of the fake Vermeers painted by van Meegeren were sold. Melon later donated his entire collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Lopez’s book serves as the basis for a feature-length movie, The Last Vermeer, that was produced in 2020. I have seen the movie and am now reading the book. Both are fascinating.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

Mary Somerville, the woman who became the first scientist (part 2)

By the time Mary Somerville was 47 years old in 1827, she had lived what might have seemed like to many a full life for a nineteenth-century female. Actually, more than a full life.

She had grown up the daughter of a British Naval captain, and as a child the circumstances of her family were financially stretched. Mary had not done well with her formal education, but she had managed to teach herself far beyond what any of her headmasters could have accomplished. Mary’s interests included biology, geology, Latin, astronomy, and physics. But she was particularly keen on various forms of mathematics.

She had taught herself algebra and geometry and it made in-depth explorations in many other areas of mathematics.

But domestic obligations had intruded heavily into Mary’s life, and in 1804 she was married to a distant cousin. She moved from her native Scotland to London, where the couple began a family. They had two sons, but in 1807 her husband died, and that tragedy was followed shortly thereafter by the death of her son.

Her husband’s death had left her financially independent, and she and her surviving son then moved back to Scotland. There, she continued with her intellectual explorations. She had become somewhat famous in the small world of mathematicians by solving problems posted by mathematics journals.

In 1811, she married for the second time, again to a distant cousin named William Somerville. William was a physician, and unlike Mary’s first husband, he encouraged her varied intellectual pursuits. The couple moved back to London in 1819. There, they began social and professional contacts with many of the great intellects of the day.

In Mary’s vast and varied reading, she had become familiar with the work of Pierre-Simon LaPlace, a giant in mathematics of the previous generation. Mary had been asked to produce an English translation of LaPlace’s work, something she initially felt unqualified to do. But she was persuaded otherwise and believed, when she started, that the translation would take only a few months. Instead, it took about three years.

The translation wasn’t the hard part of the work, Mary found. What she realized, however, was that she had much to add to what LaPlace had done. Consequently in 1831, Mary’s “translation,” The Mechanisms of the Heavens, was published. It was an astonishing work, and it made her instantly famous.

The high praise that she received for this book — plus the £200 royal stipend that she was awarded — undoubtedly gave her the confidence to carry on with her groundbreaking work. Her second book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences , was even more ambitious than the first in that it drew together many of the scientific principles that have been developed for individual fields such as botany and astronomy.

In reviewing the book, William Whewell bestowed upon her the title of “scientist”, the first time that term has ever been used. The book sold 15,000 copies, made her a lot of money, and cemented her reputation as one of the few leading intellectuals the day.

Nothing published in the scientific world and as much impact as that book until 1859 when Charles Darwin published his The Origin of the Species.

Her book Physical Geography was published in 1848, and it too was both groundbreaking and profitable. The book was beautifully illustrated by Mary, an accomplished artist in addition to her intellectual feats. It was used as a textbook in British schools until well into the 20th century. A fourth book, Molecular and Microscopic Science, was published in 1869 and was a compendium of the latest discoveries made using a microscope. That book took her nearly a decade to write, but it was beautifully Illustrated and well-received.

Mary had lived much of the last 40 years of her life in Naples, Italy, because of the ill health of her husband. She died in Naples in 1872 at the age of 91, the most celebrated female intellect of her time. She was so well thought of that after her death, Somerville College in Oxford was named in her honor.

More from The Devil’s Dictionary

A few weeks ago, we took a look at The Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce, a book you should know more about. Bierce was a Civil War combat veteran who became one of the nation’s foremost writers and cynics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here are some more of the dictionary’s entries:

PATRIOT, n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable—omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. (The word is Aristocratese, and has no exact equivalent in our tongue, but means, as nearly as may be, “soaring swine.”)

SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.

TELEPHONE, n. An invention of the devil which abrogates some of the advantages of making a disagreeable person keep his distance.

You can get a free copy of The Devil’s Dictionary in a variety of formats through Project Gutenberg.



Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Constantinople chess match

Best quote of the week:

One day I was speeding along at the typewriter, and my daughter — who was a child at the time — asked me, “Daddy, why are you writing so fast?” And I replied, “Because I want to see how the story turns out!” Louis L’Amour, novelist (1908-1988)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, freezing weather in Texas, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: The first ‘scientist,’ Forsyth’s enjoyment of silence, and the Irish gun plot: newsletter, June 11, 2021

Verse and Vision: Poems and painting from a couple of years ago

(I shared this list last month in a newsletter but later found out that none of the links in the original version of the newsletter work. I have tried to correct that with the list below.)

A couple of years ago a colleague at the Blount County Public Library asked me to record a poem because April is National Poetry Month. One thing led to another, and by September, I had made about 20 video recordings of poems recited as voiceovers for watercolor paintings that had some relationship to the poem or the poet.

Before April 2021 gets away from us, I thought it might be a good idea to reprise that list in honor of this year’s National Poetry Month, and I hereby invite you to revisit any of those videos with the links below:

Lines Written a Few Miles above Tintern Abby by William Wordsworth

The Village Blacksmith by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ulysses by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

1492 and The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus

To Althea, from Prison by Richard Lovelace

The Charge of the Light Brigade by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

The House of Rest by Julia Ward Howe

Lochinvar by Sir Walter Scott

Ole Bert: In His Own Words by Bert Garner

In the Highlands and Consolation by Robert Louis Stevenson

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

Casey at the Bat by Ernest Lawrence Thayer

The Old Clock on the Stairs by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Evening Star and Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray

My Heart and I by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

The Raven by Edgar Allan Poe

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Most of these videos were recorded out of doors on a small porch at the side of my house. I did that because the natural light is better than anything I can set up inside. Now that the weather is turning warmer, I may revive this Verse and Vision series. Any suggestions about poems or paintings would be greatly appreciated.

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