Keeping Up with the Jones

Faculty Profile

Backed by almost four decades of teaching, a fistful of academic honors, and two-and-one-fourth inches of Widener catalogue cards, Howard Mumford Jones, professor of English, is a man who feels that he has arrived. This bracing assurance leads him to describe his past in terms of a pleasant uphill stroll, while leading him at present to be a booming, aggressive lecturer who, "in sheer despair," cordons off a special section of the room for the late-comers to his nine o'clock Fogg lectures.

As a scholar, Jones' knowledge of his field, the nineteenth century, is uniquely comprehensive. Although he teaches American culture in this period, he is equally well versed in Italian, German or French literary history. His memory is prodigious and his interests have ranged from literary criticism and poetry writing to General Education. He has been both the President of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Dean of the Graduate School. But more important, perhaps, than the range of his interests, is the vitality and freshness with which he approaches each of the writers he has explained so often.

His deep knowledge of his period coupled with a naturally flashing temper has somewhat limited Jones' patience with undergraduates. He is under the impression that the academic duds migrate to his course, looking for a gut. If this be so, they are generally rudely awakened, for Jones has little patience with students like the one who wrote in his blue book that he wished to discuss the nineteenth-century poet "Omer Chiam." But Jones thinks that both the hour and the lecture system itself are fine. "Nine o'clock is a sybaritic hour," he says. "The trouble is that I can't persuade anyone else of this fact. I think the current attacks on lecturing are unfair. The display of mature intellectual activity is the justification of the lecture system." Most of his English students, however, probably best remember his course machinery for its little three-by-five cards.

So far, in his mild running-battle against divided undergraduate opinion, Jones has come out well ahead. Two years ago, after writing a magazine article condemning the modern generation for avoiding conflicts, he was picketed by outraged Radcliffe girls. They paraded vainly for several hours in front of his house only to find out that he was out of town. And last year, he unconsciously out finessed the Lampoon in the last lecture of English 170 in Sanders Theatre. As he turned to leave the platform, two punsters, clothed in black capes, threw out a smoking balloon-bomb which missed him and only managed to smoke out I. A. Richards, the next lecturer. Today, although well acclimated to Cambridge, Jones admits that, "there are still things about the undergraduate world at Harvard that I don't understand."

Jones was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in April of 1892. "I recognized my error and at the age of two persuaded my parents to move to Wisconsin . . . which in the days of the elder LaFollette was not the way it is now." He graduated from the University of Wisconsin, got his Master's degree at the University of Chicago and took his first teaching post in the University of Texas as "The Adjunct Professor of English and Literature." From this post, Jones moved around, teaching at the Universities of Texas, Montana, and North Carolina, and finally winding up back in Michigan in 1930. In 1936, his scholarly reputation established, but still a somewhat bewildered Midwesterner, he came to Harvard. "I kept looking for the Brahmin Caste," he recalls. "Come to think of it, I still am."

Jones, at sixty-one, remembers himself as the savior of both Springfield, Illinois, and the American theatre. He "saved" Springfield before World War I by joining the First Illinois Cavalry despite his "violent opposition to any form of exercise." He rescued the American theatre when "it was on its last legs in 1912. I was in the Wisconsin Players and we came forward and pulled it through."

A vivid talker, he is perhaps better in a seminar than on the lecture platform. His conversations roams rapidly among his diverse interests. "My wife says I don't know how to dress . . . I love opera and follow the rising school of painters and writers around Boston . . . You know, the people who get exhibited on Newbury Street . . . I have a farm in Vermont. What else? Well," and then Howard Mumford Jones leans back in his chair and unconsciously sums up his influence in American letters, "Well," he says, "I have a clear, loud voice."