The English Language in the American University

[When I arrived at Louisiana State University in 1942, the group who had organized the first Southern Review was still on campus.] There were, when I arrived, Robert B. Heilman and Cleanth Brooks in the Department of English, and Robert Penn Warren was still there for a year before he went to Minnesota. I also remember at least one occasion when I met Katherine Anne Porter at a party. This environment outside the Department of Government was of inestimable value, because I now had access to the interesting movement of literary criticism and gained the friendship of men who were authorities in English literature and language.

I especially want to mention the help extended by Robert B. Heilman, who introduced me to certain secrets of the American history of literature and who was kind enough to help me with my difficulties in acquiring an idiomatic English style. I still remember as most important one occasion when he went through a manuscript of mine, of about twenty pages, and marked off every single idiomatic mistake, so that I had a good list of the mistakes that I had to improve generally. Heilman's analysis , I must say, was the turning point in my understanding of English and helped me gradually to acquire a moderate mastery of the language.

The friendship with Brooks and Heilman, furthermore, helped me to acquire some knowledge of the stratification in American English by social groups. When you come as a foreigner to America, you are of course swamped by the language that all sorts of people speak around you, some of them speaking correct English, some of them local idioms, some of them a vulgarian vocabulary with all sorts of mistakes. If you do your best to adapt yourself to your environment without having any critical knowledge of what level that environment belongs to, you can easily end up at the bottom of the vulgarian scale. Heilman and Brooks were of course very much aware of such social stratification of language and helped me confirm my suspicions with regard to language I heard in the environment.

The nature of the problem can be gathered from a conversation with Cleanth Brooks. Once, when crossing the campus, I met him deep in sorrow and thought, and I asked him what worried him. He told me he had to prepare a chapter on typical mistakes for a textbook on English style that he was re-editing with Robert Penn Warren, and that it was quite a chore to find typical mistakes. I was a bit surprised and innocently told him, "Well, it is very simple to find typical mistakes. Just take any education textbook and you will find half a dozen on every page." He then explained to me that he could not use this method because educationists were far below the level of average literacy, and their mistakes could not be considered typical for an average English-speaking person. Instead, he was using sociology textbooks and sometimes had to read twenty pages of that stuff before running into a really good example. But even so, he had to worry because social scientists could not be considered to write typical English either but were below the average, though not as far below as educationists.

This is the type of stratification of which I had gradually to become aware in order to achieve a moderately tolerable English, free of ideological jargon and free of the idiosyncracies of the vulgarian levels in the academic community.

Autobiographical Reflections
CW VOL 34,
Chapter 16, Life in America:
From Harvard to LSU

pp 86-87.