The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 19, 1937
The Professor's Prize
--An Objection, by W. J. Cash
Dr. Richard H. Shryock, of the Duke department of history, winner of the 1937 Mayflower cup as the author of the book judged best by a resident of North Carolina. His book, "The Development of Modern Medicine."
(As originally appearing with article.)
Site ed. note: In this article, Cash takes on the award which ironically would be presented to him posthumously on December 5, 1941 for The Mind of the South. Had he lived long enough to receive it in person, what humorous diatribe might he have spoken or written to reconcile its receipt with this four-year earlier criticism? Or would he have been a latter-day Sinclair Lewis (who declined the Pulitzer for Arrowsmith in 1926)? Or a precursor to George C. Scott? Unlikely--given Cash's sincere life-long dislike for either false pride or false humility or making much of any great to-do about awards in general. Likely, he would have simply sent a warm and sincere note of thanks from Mexico. Undoubtedly, however, the award would have caused him to cackle a bit--at least at himself.
And as to whether the selection committee was "re-shaped" in the four-year interval between this article and the award to Cash, it is unknown.
(See a photograph of the Mayflower Cup presented to Cash, a programme of the event, and an article by Nell Battle Lewis applauding the presentation to Cash in Gallery of Pictures and Memorabilia - 1941 - Page 3 - "Trip, Mexico City, and 'Noche Triste' ", at this site.)
For a subsequent Cash poke at "what is a book?", in reverse, see "Sinclair vs. Tribune" - January 23, 1938.
I'M none to clear by this time as to who it actually was who won that Mayflower cup in Raleigh the other day. Maybe it was Dr. Richard H. Shryock with his "Development of Modern Medicine." I'm pretty sure it wasn't Don Hubert Royster. But it might have been Grant L. Donnelly with "Alcohol and Habit-Forming Drugs." Or Frank Howard Richardson with "Feeding our Children." Or Alfred Rives Shand, Jr., with "A Handbook of Orthopaedic Surgery."
Anyhow, I remember that the winner was a medical person with some preposterous titles for his showing. Preposterous I said, and meant it. Not necessarily preposterous in itself, no. Maybe entirely fitting in itself, as a description of a dull but more or less useful work. But as the winner of the Mayflower Cup--yes, preposterous. For, as I understand it, this cup is supposed to go to the man or woman residing in North Carolina who has published "the best book" during the preceding twelve months.
Now, Just What Is A Book?
And when we set out to pick a "best book," we obviously ought to start understanding what a "book" is. Well, but a "book"--why every idiot knows that a "book" is something running from, say, a hundred pages on up, bound between covers, preferably leather or cloth, and adorned with a title page. That's a book, isn't it? But it isn't, of course, as many men, and notably old Arthur Schopenhauer, have pointed out. A "book" in the strictest sense is a very rare thing. For it must have superlative literary quality and be capable of appealing to very large numbers of men through long periods of time. But that standard, admittedly, is a little too high in the present connection, else there just couldn't be any Mayflower Cup. Nevertheless, it seems to me to be plain that we can and ought to apply some part of it--that any book to be eligible for consideration at all ought to have some measure of literary quality and be capable of appealing to the public at large. And certainly, so much ought to be true of the book picked as the "best book."
Looking over the list of books actually considered, I can find but four which seem to me to have any title to consideration for this award. I mean Paul Green's "Johnny Johnson"; Judge Robert W. Winston's "A Far Cry"; Phillip Russell's "The Glittering Century"; and LeGette Blythe's "Marshal Ney." There are three or four novels listed that I haven't read, and some poetry, and so I'll suspend judgment on them. But for the rest--the titles automatically weed them out of consideration in a competition for the "best book," it seems to me.
Only the four I list have any claim to literary quality and to general appeal. And as for the book which actually won the cup, the selection committee might just as well have given it to Josiah Cox Russell for his "Dictionary of Writers in the Thirteenth Century!" Mind, I am not laughing at Mr. Russell's volume or at any of the rest of the pedestrian tomes I cast aside. I am merely saying that, however useful and desirable they may be in their proper place, they are not, in their nature, possible "best books" or even in any true sense "books" at all.
This is not the first year this has happened. It has happened, indeed, almost ever since the Mayflower Cup was first set up. And the only genuinely literary person who ever got that cup was James Boyd, and he apparently got it because he was simply too loud a noise in the world to be further ignored.
Why has this been so? Why have the awards been pretty uniformly preposterous? I think the answer is not difficult. Cast your eyes over the names of the selection committee, and you will discover that most of them belong to college professors. And of all possible persons to pass on a "best book," college professors are probably the world's worst. In my time, I have seen a good many specimens of that genus. Once, in truth, I was well on my way to being one of them myself. But heaven was kind and I escaped. Still, I speak as a kind of expert on them when I report that most of them are a pedestrian sort.
Stupid? I said nothing so stupid and so gratuitously offensive. I have seen few of them who were not in some fashion acute men. But of creative imagination and capacity they ordinarily have nothing. And even though they may sit on the faculty of literature, they are a good deal more often than not devoid of any actual feeling for literary quality when they encounter it in some fresh incarnation. The best that most of them can do is laboriously to unearth and catalog facts in language that falls a good deal short of distinction. And--like most of us, they naturally value most those qualities they find in themselves which give them importance in the world, and tend to denigrate those which they lack. More than that, they have the most highly developed guild spirit to be found in any American group short of the politicians.
And the result? The result is that when they sit in judgment to select a "best book" they almost invariably give it either to a member of their own Bund or to somebody who has worked in their manner.
Before the Mayflower Cup comes to have any significance as a literary award, I think the selection committee is going to have to be re-shaped.
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