Nearly thirty years ago when I first came to college, the cult of Copey was already firmly established. It is more vigorous today than it ever was, and to the devotees now scattered throughout all the communities of Harvard men, his seventy-fifth birthday provides a most convenient excuse for a celebration.
What the uproar will seem like to those who have never come within the circle I do not know. To convey to them the quality of the devotion which his pupils feel is like trying to explain to one who never heard him the spell which Garrick cast upon his audience. For the Copey of his pupils is not to be found in works of art, in books that anyone may read, in contributions to knowledge which all can share. He is a teacher who has drawn out of a long succession of pupils whatever native gifts they had for writing in the English language and of appreciating what has been written in English. That is his magic. The conviction that but for their luck in having known him, they would be more deaf and more dumb than they are, that in truth he has helped them to live, is the reason why he is the object of a cult in which there is such fervor, such affection and such gratitude.
The method of his teaching, as it lives in my own memory, seems to me to have been more like a catch-as-catch-can wrestling match than like ordinary instruction. What happened was that you were summoned to his chambers in Hollis and told to bring with you your manuscript. You were told how to read what you had written. Soon you began to feel that out of the darkness all around you long fingers were searching through the layers of fat and fluff to find your bones and muscles underneath. You could fight back but eventually he stripped you to your essential self. Then he cuffed the battered remains and challenged them and shocked them into their own authentic activity.
If this description of Copey's teaching sounds a little mad, all I can says is that by the conventional rules it was mad, as genius is so often mad. But in these personal bouts, which were his substitute for pedagogy, miracles were occasionally performed that have placed him among the very great teachers of our time.
He is inimitable. And yet, if I understand the new system which has revolutionized the method of instruction since I was at Harvard, Copey was one of its pioneers. Thirty years ago he was already acting on the assumption that teaching is not the handing down of knowledge from a platform to an anonymous mass of note-takers, but that it is the personal encounter of two individuals. Those appalling clinches in Hollis, those dreaded exposures in the class room, the searching intimacy from which all protection was removed, were in fact a continuing demonstration against mass instruction and the regimentation of learning. Copey was not a professor teaching a crowd in a class room. He was a very distinct person in a unique relationship with each individual who interested him.
And so his reputation grows continually greater, nourished by the gratitude of his pupils and the admiring recognition of his peers. He was already a legendary figure when he was young. He will be a legendary figure when he is old. For the legend expresses a realization by Harvard men that they have among them an incomparable teacher