When we first arrived in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York in 1969 to sit out the Vietnam War as reluctant full-time teachers and enthusiastic part-time mystery booksellers, Morris Bishop was already a bit of a legend in the area. A professor of romance literature at Cornell for many years, Bishop was also the university’s provost and as such, we were told, he had once, mace in hand, chased after an unruly student who was threatening to disrupt a processional. Here, we thought, was no stuffy academic (and believe us there were plenty of those at Cornell in those days) but a man who might be worth knowing. We never did meet him in person but did manage to track down a mystery novel he had published in 1942 with Knopf (Dashiell Hammett’s and Raymond Chandler’s publisher) under the pseudonym W. Bolingbroke Johnson. We thought it an absolute delight then and the passage of nearly forty years has not changed our opinion.
Over the years, Bishop stoutly denied authorship of the book, obviously with tongue firmly tucked in cheek, scribbling the following limerick in a copy found in Cornell’s Olin Library:
A cabin in northern Wisconsin
Is what I would be for the nonce in,
To be rid of the pain
Of The Widening Stain
And W. Bolingbroke Johnson
Later, Bishop explained that the W stood for Gladys, the author being Welsh.
Certainly, Bishop could not have been ashamed of this book. It went into several printings in the U.S. and was reprinted in both England and France, earning praise from major reviewers who knew a pseudonym when they saw one. Besides, detective novels were all the rage in academic circles during the 1930s and the 1940s. It was an age when scholar Philip Guedella described the genre as “the normal recreation of noble minds.” The Widening Stain is a good enough detective novel, nicely plotted and brought to a satisfactory conclusion, employing an intelligent female sleuth and embellished with a charming romantic subplot, but it is an even better satire of life in Ivy League academia, written by a man who obviously had been to more liquor-laden faculty parties than he cared to remember. The copy on the dust-jacket flap of the first edition of The Widening Stain suggests that it presents a “picture of university life that will probably cause some Big Red (then perhaps better known as a nickname for Cornell, not Nebraska) faces on at least one large Eastern campus.”
An added attraction are the numerous limericks inflicted by Professor Francis Parry on unsuspecting faculty and staff, usually heralded by a barely perceptible moving of his lips coupled with an unseeing gaze. Parry, probably modeled on the author himself, is, as one colleague observes, “the mysterious figure that the world has been hunting for for years—the man who makes up the limericks.” That first edition jacket copy warns that some of the more suggestive limericks are “just-barely-printable,” but most contemporary readers will find them pretty tame. The only one that might raise some modern eyebrows involves a rhyme that turns on a “colored” man’s plantation talk. Put this one down to a product of the time and pass quickly on.
If academics were Bishop’s profession, light verse was his not-so-guilty passion. His rhymes appeared in The New Yorker, Life and The Saturday Evening Post and were collected in two books, Paramount Poems and Spilt Milk. In an article in the March 1954 issue of Harper’s, he made “The Case for Light Verse.” “The aim of poetry, or Heavy Verse,” he wrote, “is to seek understanding in forms of beauty. The aim of light verse is to promote misunderstanding; it is an analysis, an observation of truth, which sneaks around truth from the rear, which uncovers the lath and plaster of beauty’s hinder parts.”
His verse might have been light but Bishop did not approach the writing of it lightly. He was a noted linguist who once proclaimed: “The words of a living language are like creatures: they are alive. Each word has a physical character, an expectation of life and death, a hope for posterity.” But he also recognized the peculiarities in the English language, as in this poem published in 1947 in The New Yorker:
Once I lost a preposition,
It hid, I thought, beneath my chair,
And angrily, I cried, “Perdition!
Up from out of in under there!”
Correctness is my vade mecum,
And dangling phrases I abhor.
But still I wonder, what should he come
Up from out of in under for?
For all his love of humorous verse, Bishop was a serious academic who wrote biographies of Pascal, Champlain, La Rochefoucauld, Petrarch, and St. Francis. In 1968 he published a history book, The Middle Ages, which remains in print to this day. He also wrote the official history of Cornell University.
He was a perceptive judge of literary talent, bringing the virtually unknown Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov to Cornell to teach in 1948. “Mr. Nabokov considered Professor Bishop as one of his closest friends in the United States and as a sort of spiritual father,” wrote the obituary writer for the New York Times upon Bishop’s death in 1973. “They shared a fondness for exactitude in language and for japery as well as a common commitment to literature.”
That love of literature and language combined with his sense of japery and inside knowledge of academic life is what makes The Widening Stain still a pleasure to read today.
Tom & Enid Schantz