Harbrace Handbook: the all-time best-selling textbook

June 22, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

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. https://volumes.lib.utk.edu/news/grammar-book-built-the-library/

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.

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