The Underground Grammarian
Dr. Richard Mitchell (April 26, 1929 – December 27, 2002) was a professor, first of English and later of classics, at Glassboro State College in Glassboro, New Jersey. He gained fame in the late 1970s as the founder and publisher of The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter of opinion and criticism that ran until 1992, and wrote four books expounding his views on the relationships among language, education, and ethics.
Richard Mitchell was born in Brooklyn and spent his early life in Scarsdale, New York. He attended the University of Chicago briefly, where he met his wife, Francis, and spent the balance of his undergraduate years at the University of the South, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his Ph.D. at Syracuse University; sources conflict as to whether the subject of his doctorate was classical and Western Literature or American literature.
After teaching college English in Defiance, Ohio, Mitchell became a professor to Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) in 1963. Again, sources conflict as to Mitchell’s subject at Glassboro; though he is more often listed as a professor of English, a few sources refer to him as a professor of classics. Those listing English, which include the dust jackets of his first three books, all occur before 1985, while those listing classics, including the dust jacket of his final book, all occur in or after 1985, suggesting that his position changed during late 1984 or early 1985; however, no source provides clear details.
In addition to his reputation as a masterful lecturer and extraordinary teacher, Mitchell was a prolific and well-known author. He first gained prominence as the writer, publisher, and printer of The Underground Grammarian, a newsletter that offered lively, witty, satiric, and often derisive essays on the misuse of the English language, particularly the misuse of written English on college campuses. He privately published the journal from 1977 to 1992. Although its circulation was limited, The Underground Grammarian was highly regarded, and, in addition to its academic audience, had a following outside academia that included George Will, Edwin Newman, and Johnny Carson, on whose The Tonight Show Mitchell appeared many times.
Mitchell went on to publish four books: Less Than Words Can Say (1979), The Graves of Academe (1981), The Leaning Tower of Babel (1984), and The Gift of Fire (1987). Virtually all of his writings, including these books and The Underground Grammarian, are available online for free. Mitchell gave his permission that all of these works be made available on the Internet and be disseminated freely, without charge, especially to teachers for use in their classrooms.
Mitchell’s final book, The Psyche Papers, was left uncompleted. Mitchell published the four chapters he had completed in the final four issues of The Underground Grammarian (see below). Mitchell said in 2001 that he had “lost his faith.” Although he appreciated that his works would live beyond him, he could not help but note how little impact they had on changing education in America.
John Simon said of Mitchell, “There exists in every age, in every society, a small, still choir of reason emanating from a few scattered thinkers ignored by the mainstream. Their collective voices, when duly discovered a century or so too late, reveal what was wrong with that society and age, and how it could have been corrected if only people had listened and acted accordingly. Richard Mitchell’s is such a voice.”
Mitchell retired in 1991, but continued to teach part-time until the fall of 2002. He died in his home of diabetes complications on December 27, 2002 at the age of 73, and was survived by his wife, Francis, daughters Amanda Merritt, Felicity Myers, Sonia Armstrong and Daphne Keller, and well as five grandchildren.