Sentences — May 13, 2008, 12:03 pm

Inherently Subversive

Josiah Mitchell Morse was blessed, by birth, with a beautiful American name, but such luck hasn’t been enough to ensure him and his work a place in the cultural memory. As of this morning, for example, a Wikipedia search assures us of Morse’s insignificance, offering only a grim ‘there is no page titled…’ alert. Using an earlier measure of a culture’s indifference to the strenuous exertions of its members, we might gauge Morse’s irrelevance, thus: none of his serious, funny, learned, angry, angering books has remained in print.

“So?” a non-reader in our nation’s capital might retort. For, of course, print now runs a distant panting second place behind swifter means of messaging. Naming an author whose archaic pagebound undertakings are underknown is lately easy sport—how many of us, to save our lives, could extemporize even on the work of Dario Fo, Elfriede Jelinek and Kenzaburo Oe? The particular loss, though, of Morse—he died Christmas day, 2004, at 92—as a reasoned voice in our recent past offers, at least, to a culture that does delighted little backflips at every latest irony, the further irony that Morse was a dedicated protector, in his work, against a particular kind of cultural loss: the ability to communicate, clearly and lastingly and memorably, in words.

Consider the beginning of my favorite of Morse’s books, Prejudice and Literature (1979):

In my first year of teaching English my freshmen wrote one of their themes in response to a story entitled “The Petrified Giant,” which had to do with a large rock formation so named and its psychological effects on the people who lived near it. One girl wrote, “This story doesn’t make sense because a giant is bigger and stronger than anybody so why would he be petrified.” When we went over her paper in my office I asked her, “What does ‘petrified’ mean?” “‘Scared,’ “ she said. “You know—petrified. Like when you’re petrified.” That was my first experience of a person who knew the metaphorical meaning of a word but not the literal meaning.


Morse’s two most delightfully enraged books, the above and The Irrelevant English Teacher (1972), are unusual artifacts, not merely of the fraught academic climate of the 1970s that engendered them. Rather, they are the fiery remains of a debate that has passed away, or now sleeps so deeply as to seem buried, with only the rarest little bell on its coffin. “To the extent that the establishment depends on the inarticulacy of the governed,” Morse wrote in 1972, “good writing is inherently subversive.” Morse’s books are themselves subversive, the fulminations of a literate man hell-bent on good usage and not unwilling to offend while making his campaign. His books are not genteel, are not what we would call, surely to his ire, ‘work safe’. Rather, they are radical in their insistence on a mode of argument that is conversational and anecdotal and yet rarely less than rigorous. They insist that style, true style, “is a matter of intellectual self-respect. To write well, a certain moral courage is essential.”

Evidence of Morse’s squandered courage may still be salvaged, though, for a buck or two. My latest copy, for example, of Prejudice and Literature (I give them away to the susceptible) came last week. An inscribed copy, no less, though of course not to me, and one that the undersigned—call them our culture—didn’t even crack.

Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Sentences April 29, 2009, 4:12 pm

A Certain, Wandering Light

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • Louise

    Morse was condescending and a racist. He doesn’t deserve to be remembered.

  • Tim

    He wasn’t a racist, Louise, he was a conflicted liberal, which, by definition, means he was a closet conservative. And true conservatives could care less about race and ethnicity. The only thing we care about is intellectual curiosity and intellectual honesty. It’s getting to the point where calling someone a racist is a backhanded compliment. Try something else, Louise, but burn your race card.



September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Arab artists take up — and look past — regional politics
“When everyday life regularly throws up images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
“Qalandia 2087, 2009,” by Wafa Hourani
“There was torture by the previous regime and by the current Iraqi regime,” Dr. Amin said. “Torture by our Kurdish government, torture by Syrians, torture by the U.S.”
Visiting His Own Grave © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
The Tale of the Tape·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Heroin isn’t the weakness Art Pepper submits to; it’s the passion he revels in.”
Photograph (detail) © Laurie Pepper
The Soft-Kill Solution·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Policymakers, recognizing the growing influence of civil disobedience and riots on the direction of the nation, had already begun turning to science for a response."
Illustration by Richard Mia
New Books
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Almond insists that watching football does more than feed an appetite for violence. It’s a kind of modern-day human sacrifice, and it makes us more likely to go to war.”
Photograph by Harold Edgerton

Chance that a movie script copyrighted in the U.S. before 1925 was written by a woman:

1 in 2

Engineers funded by the United States military were working on electrical brain implants that will enable the creation of remote-controlled sharks.

Malaysian police were seeking fifteen people who appeared in an online video of the Malaysia-International Nude Sports Games 2014 Extravaganza, and Spanish police fined six Swiss tourists conducting an orgy in the back of a moving van for not wearing their seatbelts.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


In Praise of Idleness


I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today