Morris Gilbert Bishop (April 15, 1893 - November 20, 1973) was an American scholar, historian, biographer, essayist, translator, anthologist, and versifier.
Bishop was born while his father, Edwin R. Bishop, a Canadian physician, was working at Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in the state of New York; Morris was actually born in the hospital.[n 1] His mother died two years later and Morris and his elder brother Edwin were sent to live with their Canadian grandparents in Brantford, Ontario. His father remarried; and while he was working in Geneva, New York, the boys were sent to live with father and stepmother. Morris was then aged eight. However, both father and stepmother died (from tuberculosis) by the time he was 11; and the brothers were sent to live with relatives in Yonkers, New York.
Bishop attended Cornell University from 1910 to 1913, earning a Bachelor's and a Morrison Poetry Prize in 1913 and then a Master of Arts degree in 1914.[n 2] He then sold textbooks for Ginn & Co, joined the U.S. Cavalry (during which time he unhappily served under Pershing in the "punitive expedition" in Mexico), was a first lieutenant in the U.S. Infantry in World War I, and worked in a New York advertising agency, before returning to Cornell to begin teaching in 1921 and to earn a Ph.D. in 1926; his thesis being on the plays of Jules Lemaître. He was associated for the whole of his adult life with Cornell, as alumnus, Kappa Alpha Professor of Romance Literature, and University Historian. In 1962, he wrote the standard history of the university, A History of Cornell. In 1962, Bishop was presented with a festschrift, Studies in Seventeenth-Century French Literature.[n 3] A review concluded that the book "demonstrates a continuing vitality and . . . an increasing sophistication in the study of French baroque (?) literature".
Bishop served as Cornell's marshal, officiating at graduations. During the 1970 ceremony (when Bishop was 77), he used the university mace to fend off a graduate student who was trying to seize the microphone. "The jab was given in typical Bishop style: with spontaneity, grace and effectiveness," commented the president, Dale R. Corson.
Toward the end of his life, Bishop worked as the curator of the Olin Library's Fiske Petrarch Collection. Reviewing the catalogue of this collection, Joseph G. Fucilla was disappointed that the library had only half-heartedly been acquiring newer publications with which to keep up to date the collection that Willard Fiske had started so grandly.
During World War II Bishop "worked with the psychological warfare division in France".
Bishop wrote biographies of Pascal, Champlain, La Rochefoucauld, Petrarch, and St. Francis, as well as his 1928 book, A Gallery of Eccentrics, which profiled 12 unusual people. His 1955 Survey of French Literature was for many years a standard textbook (revised editions were published in 1965 and, posthumously, in 2005). During the late 1950s and early 1960s his reviews of books on historical topics often appeared in The New York Times. His 1968 history of the Middle Ages is still (2018) in print as The Middle Ages. He was a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur (in France), taught as a visiting professor at the University of Athens and Rice University and was president of the Modern Language Association. He was the author of many books including the pseudonymous comic mystery The Widening Stain. He was also a frequent contributor of historical articles to American Heritage Magazine.
Invited to name the outstanding book of the period 1931 to 1961, Bishop named his own Pascal: The Life of Genius, saying that its preparation had taught him much. "There is a useful lesson here: if you want to find out about something of which you know nothing, write a book about it."
Bishop's autobiography was edited by his daughter, the primatologist Alison Jolly, as I Think I Have Been Here Before; it "includes poems and the text of many letters written by Bishop, as well as a few illustrations and photographs of Bishop and family". As of 2021, it remains unpublished.
Bishop's 1929 edition of Voltaire's Candide and Other Philosophical Tales presented Candide, Le Monde comme il va, L'Histoire d'un bon bramin, and L'Ingénu with a small amount of commentary and notes. A reviewer of the 1957 edition (reissued in 1962) found that the editor's introduction and notes were "enlightening and lively".
The review in The Modern Language Journal of Bishop's edition (1933) of Casanova's L'Evasion des plombs first reassured readers that the book "would pass the most puritanical censorship". It praised "this virile escapade", while pointing out that, even with Bishop's footnotes, the book was for the experienced reader of French.
The New York Times review of Bishop's book Pascal: The Life of Genius (1936) described it as "a solid, comprehensive and valuable addition to the library", with "a heroic attempt to explain the achievements of Pascal as a scientist, philosopher and theologian", and praised Bishop's enthusiasm in writing about Pascal. Arthur Livingston praised the book highly as a literary biography, particularly for the way in which Bishop "follows the motive of the 'child prodigy' through the varied influences of that fact in Pascal's life upon his temperament, his moral outlook and the various episodes of his career" - a viewpoint that leads to perceptiveness and fairness. However, Livingston criticized Bishop's unnecessary dalliance with "a rather timid Freudianism". Livington claimed that Pascal evolved "[from] a prig into a charlatan" and that his learning is obsolete; and "It is in recovering Pascal the poet and artist from the dross of his biography and his thought that Professor Bishop's criticism is perhaps least effective". But Livingston concluded by praising the book as suggestive, comprehensive, and thorough. The reviewer for Isis found that Bishop "succeeds in painting an objective as well as an enthusiastic picture"; for the reviewer for The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, "Dr. Bishop has written a scholarly and a brilliantly written book, one which every admirer of Pascal will read with pleasure. The review in Philosophy called the book an "altogether admirable biography", both critical and sympathetic; the reviewer for The Journal of Philosophy thought it should appeal to philosophers as "a well-organized collection of Pascaliana", concluding by saying that "It is unfortunate that [Bishop's] stylistic exuberance sometimes gets the better of him, but for the most part he keeps it under control."
In a review for The New York Times of Bishop's Ronsard: Prince of Poets (1940), Justin O'Brien pointed out that this book - a combination of a biography and critical study of Ronsard and a collection of translations - "is not . . . a book for specialists. It is written rather for you and me." O'Brien particularly praised Bishop's verse translations of "all of the ten or a dozen deathless lyrics on which Ronsard's fame principally rests, and many other poems as well". He noted how Bishop made Ronsard not merely a historical figure but rather a poet for the mid 20th century. H. W. Lawton wrote that Bishop "has succeeded . . . in enlivening and making real the successive stages of Ronsard's development. As a work of literary criticism, the book is less satisfactory. . . ." He concluded that the book "may help some beginner to look on the right side of Ronsard's poetry and serve as an antidote to too much dead-handed analysis". The reviewer for Thought found the biography one-sided and the book unscholarly as a whole, but had high praise for the translations. The reviewer for Modern Language Notes found various points on which to disagree with Bishop, but nevertheless concluded that this "work of vulgarization" was "an entertaining and useful book".
Bishop's 1951 book The Life and Adventures of La Rochefoucauld got a warm if mixed review from F. W. Dupee, who held that La Rochefoucauld's Maxims are "the essentially impersonal product of a definite method", [which Louis Kronenberger] 'defined as a scientific cynicism . . . which tested vanity in a test-tube'" - and that Bishop, who had little regard for them, misunderstood them. But Dupee nevertheless praised the "engaging detail" of the book, and particularly its portrayal of La Rochefoucauld's final years. Yet two other reviewers praised the book for the inferences it draws from the maxims.
Bishop's two-volume anthology of French texts, A Survey of French Literature (1955), was praised in The French Review for its selection and for the short piece Bishop writes about each author, in which he "displays a great gift for getting at essentials . . . [h]is comments are invariably apt [and designed] as suggestions or challenges" for the student reader. The 1965 revision made changes to the selections and slightly augmented the annotations. Despite quibbles with certain points, the reviewer for The Modern Language Journal wrote that it had recently had only one significant rival but that Bishop's newly revised work was "THE anthology in my opinion". The third edition(2005-2006), revised by Kenneth T. Rivers and in five volumes, again changed the selections and increased the annotations. A review of the new volume on the 18th century found Bishop's original critical commentary "precise, concise, and lively", although in some places old fashioned.
Eight Plays by Molière in Bishop's translation - The Precious Damsels, The School for Wives, The Critique of The School for Wives, The Versailles Impromptu, Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, The Physician in Spite of Himself, The Would-Be Gentleman - appeared as a volume of The Modern Library in 1957. The reviewer for The French Review found the translations of Molière "brilliant", and praised Bishop's short introduction to each play. The reviewer for The Modern Language Journal found "infrequent disappointments" with Bishop's translations, but supposed that the book would be "genuinely useful".
"Le Roman de vrai amour" and "Le Pleur de sainte âme" (1958), edited by Bishop's student Arthur S. Bates, presents a pair of poems, known only from a manuscript Bishop discovered twenty years earlier in Cornell University library, of "late medieval devotional verse in monorimed alexandrine quatrains [that] possess the absurd but delicate charm of decadent piety". In one chapter, Bishop "undertakes the unlikely task of finding sources and analogues for the content of the poems in the literary and mystical currents of the Middle Ages". The reviewer for The Modern Language Review found the chapter "interesting".
The review in Italica of Petrarch and His World (1963) praised it as "a scholarly work cleverly concealed behind a sophisticated, witty, and often ironic prose", and for providing "a complete picture of Petrarch's long life, the many aspects of his character, and a scholarly analysis of the wide range of his writings". The review in The Historian noted that half of the book was derived from a series of lectures ("the Patten Lectures at Indiana University during the Spring of 1962"), resulting in a style more conversational than would normally be expected: in general a plus, but occasionally to jarring effect. M. C. Bradbrook found the biography "engaging". The reviewer for the Canadian Journal of History described the book as "a gracefully written, very readable biography". In places its inferences are arguable he added, but "some of Bishop's judgements are devastatingly perceptive". He concluded, "In Bishop's hands, Petrarch should come alive for all readers." The review in Renaissance News praised Bishop for "[having] managed to find a human being at the heart of [the superabundance of Petrarch's life] and to treat him kindly as well as sanely", and praised the book for its informative and interest and the gracefulness of its translations. Writing for a more general readership, Orville Prescott described the book as "scholarly and yet lively", with "many smoothly flowing translations", yet suggested that the book might be found too long to be read cover to cover. The reviewer for Speculum conceded that the book had some brilliant ingredients, but compared it unfavourably with a book by the Petrarch specialist Ernest H. Wilkins,[n 4] which was more painstaking, "equally vivid and even more so", and "emerges with something solid"; whereas Bishop failed to provide a coherent picture of Petrarch or even to give the impression that he possessed one.
Bishop translated Petrarch's letters (selected from both the Familiares and the Seniles, and elsewhere) from Latin for Letters from Petrarch (1966). The review for Renaissance Quarterly, whose author estimated that the letters represented "about one tenth" of Petrarch's surviving letters, started:
This is a book for students of comparative literature who do not read Latin (if there are any). It is also for the undergraduate member of Renaissance literature or Renaissance history courses. It is most definitely for the general reader, who will probably not read it.
The writer thought it complemented James Harvey Robinson and Henry Winchester Rolfe's Petrarch the First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters (1898), the latter remaining "most valuable" despite its stilted translations. The review for The Modern Language Journal, expressed regrets for abridgements and liberties with the translations, but concluded by praising the book as "a worthy effort to bring material not easily accessible to the attention of the cultured laymen for whom it is intended. The translation is eminently readable and is distinguished by the elegance which we have come to expect of Professor Bishop. . . " Both reviews noted that the letters seemed to have been selected to fit Bishop's interests, or those of the educated lay reader, rather than to represent a more rounded picture of Petrarch's concerns.
Of Bishop's posthumously published Saint Francis of Assisi, the anonymous reviewer for Kirkus Reviews wrote that:
It is not the saint that interests him but the paradoxical and eminently human man. Bishop suggests that much of Francis' celebrated asceticism derived less from his piety than from his irrepressible sense of theatrics. . . . Not the last word in scholarship, this is nonetheless a psychologically convincing portrait . . . . endearing and empathetic.
Bishop's book The Odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca (1933), on the Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c1490 - c1558), was praised in North American Review. The review in The New York Times concluded: "Despite an overwhelming mass of detail and despite the fact that most of his characters are unknown to the general reader, [Bishop] has made de Vaca live; and one feels admiration and indignation, as though the issues involved were things of yesterday." Comparing the book with John Eoghan Kelly's Pedro de Alvarado Conquistator, Theodore Maynard wrote that "[Bishop's] style is not distinguished, but is at least vivacious", praising the book as entertaining but regretting that Bishop "indulges his propensity for fanciful speculation". The reviewer for The Journal of Modern History found it a "highly entertaining and instructive narrative". The reviews in both The Hispanic American Historical Review and The Journal of Negro History pointed out various problems (starting with the protagonist's name); yet the former concluded that the book was largely accurate as well as "delightfully written", and the latter that the book was nevertheless "a brilliant piece of historical research".
Since publication, however, the book has been criticized. The authors of a larger biography published in 1999 give their predecessors "low marks for shoddy research and implausible or plainly erroneous readings and interpretations. . . . But they are hardest on the errors, obfuscations, and lacunae of biographer Morris Bishop and Enrique Pupo-Walker. . . ."
Arthur C. Parker praised Bishop's 1948 biography of Samuel de Champlain, Champlain: The Life of Fortitude, as "a good and straightforward account of a mighty hero [that is nevertheless] as exciting as a bit of romance literature", and for making Champlain understandable without running to excessive length. In The New York Times, the book was praised highly both by Orville Prescott ("a lively and scholarly biography", "excellent biography") and by John A. Krout ("spirited biography", "Mr. Bishop's spirited imagination evokes from the record a man whose motives are understandable and whose character shines through both failure and success"). The review in the Canadian journal Queen's Quarterly started by saying that the book "might equally well have been entitled Champlain Taken Down off His Monument and Made Human"; regretting that Canadian historians approached figures such as Champlain with humility, even servility; whereas Bishop was able to do so with "good-humoured intimacy" - the result was a "charming book". Though faulting the book for fabricated conversations and minor errors, the review in The William and Mary Quarterly praised it as a work "that can be perused with constant interest and pleasure". Milo M. Quaife also criticized Bishop's exercise of his imagination, but nevertheless said that the book "will be a worthy and entertaining addition to the bookshelf of anyone who cares to read about the American past". The review in The American Historical Review called it an "unpretentious but thoroughly informed and judicious book"; that in Pennsylvania History called it "a rare blend of psychological acumen and careful scholarship". The reviewer for The Mississippi Valley Historical Review was less appreciative: "no one should be mislead into believing that this is a scholarly or definitive life of the great explorer, or that it adds anything of note to our knowledge of Champlain's life and achievements." She also found its written style monotonous.
Cornell's President, Deane Malott, named Bishop the university's historian and relieved him of teaching duties for a year in order that he could produce a history in time for the university's hundredth anniversary. Bishop completed the research and writing of the two-volume work A History of Cornell (1962) within three or four months.
The review of the work in The Historian started by saying that: "Seldom in the writing of college and university history have responsible scholarship, felicitous writing, and the warmth and wisdom that come from knowing one's subject been so happily combined"; it continued with similarly glowing commentary.
The review in The Journal of Higher Education said that: "Although written in a style to interest the general reader, the concentration inward - on the physical and educational development of the University, omitting any extended treatment of the larger social and academic context - makes it a book primarily for Cornellians." The writer regretted this omission, but observed that the hundredth anniversaries of a number of the land-grant universities would soon arrive and that this might prompt a number of similar, single-institution histories, on the bases of which more general histories could be written.
The review in History of Education Quarterly had high praise for Bishop's portrayal of the founders, Ezra Cornell and Andrew D. White, and indeed for the book as a whole, not least for its "substantial sketches of the wider social, intellectual, and cultural contexts within which [the university's] leaders dreamed and worked".
The first part of the work was reissued in 1967 as Early Cornell, 1865-1900. It was reviewed in British Journal of Educational Studies together with Carl L. Becker's Cornell University: Founders and the Founding (1967, a set of lectures delivered in 1943). The reviewer said that Becker's work was more likely to appeal to the general reader, Bishop's book being "more reverent"; but that both constituted "a fitting tribute to a prestige institution".
Bishop had a high regard for light verse:
The aim of poetry, or Heavy Verse, is to seek understanding in forms of beauty. The aim of light verse is to promote misunderstanding in beauty's cast-off clothes. But even misunderstanding is a kind of understanding; 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.
Bishop's obituary in The New York Times describes him as "an extraordinarily gifted writer" of light verse, publishing "about fifteen poems and casuals a year in the New Yorker over a period of over thirty years.[n 5] Bishop also published verse in Saturday Evening Post, Poetry, The Colonnade, The Measure, The Smart Set, Judge, Saturday Review of Literature and the earlier Life.
The obituary in The New York Times goes on to mention that Bishop was an "authority" on limericks, and a very facile composer of them.
Bishop's comic poems were collected in three volumes during his lifetime: Paramount Poems (whose title page reads " 'If it isn't a PARAMOUNT, it isn't a poem.' — Morris Bishop"), Spilt Milk and A Bowl of Bishop.
"How to Treat Elves",[n 6] probably his best-known poem, describes a conversation with "The wee-est little elf." When asked what he does, the elf tells the narrator "'I dance 'n fwolic about . . . 'n scuttle about and play.'" A few stanzas describe his activities surprising butterflies, "fwightening" Mr. Mole by jumping out and saying "Boo," and swinging on cobwebs. He asks the narrator "what do you think of that?" The narrator replies:
"It gives me sharp and shooting pains
To listen to such drool."
I lifted up my foot and squashed
The God damn little fool.
Taking up R. C. Trevelyan's challenge (in Thamyris, or Is There a Future for Poetry?) to write on a modern subject "and dispute Virgil's supremacy in this field", Bishop produced "Gas and Hot Air".[n 7] It describes the operation of a car engine; "Vacuum pulls me; and I come! I come!" cries the gasoline, which reaches
[T]he secret bridal chamber where
The earth-born gas first comes to kiss its bride,
The heaven-born and yet inviolate air
Which is, on this year's models, purified.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Also the names of Emory P. Gray,
Mr. and Mrs. Dukes, and Oscar Baer
Of 17 West 4th St., Oyster Bay.
Pop bottles pop-bottles
In pop shops;
The pop-bottles Pop bottles
Poor Pop drops.
Come little lad; come little lass;
Your docile creed recite:
"We know that Energy equals Mass
by the Square of the Speed of Light!"
On receiving advance notice from the Dial Press about publication of A Bowl of Bishop, Harvey Breit was most impressed by "A Critical Appreciation of Morris Bishop" written (tongue in cheek, by Bishop himself) for the book, and wondered: "Is this the jacket copy to end all (non-factual) jacket copy?" The review of the book in The New York Times quoted Bishop on the aim of light verse (see above), and commented: "at that kind of understood misunderstanding, Mr. Bishop is one of the pre-eminentest".
The Best of Bishop, a posthumous (1980) anthology by Charlotte Putnam Reppert, received a short and dismissive review in the Virginia Quarterly Review, the anonymous reviewer saying that Ogden Nash's poetry was "kinder" than Bishop's, James Thurber's was "droller", and "that of both - better".
Under the pseudonym W. Bolingbroke Johnson, Bishop had a mystery novel, The Widening Stain, published in 1942. Bishop put it together quickly, and when halfway done wrote that "The mystery itself would not deceive an intelligent chimpanzee, but I think I can make it more obscure on second writing." Much of it is set in a university library that, according to his daughter Alison Jolly, borrowed from those of Yale and Cornell. The review in The New York Times concluded, "We do not know who W. Bolingbroke Johnson is, but he writes a good story with an academic atmosphere that is not so highly rarefied as we have been led to believe it should be in university circles." Writing in The Spectator, John Fairfield described the book (and Percival Wilde's novel Tinsley's Bones) as "good American detective stories, and as bright and cheerful as it is possible to be about murder"; however, "there is just something missing that places the story below the first class". Ralph Partridge congratulated the newcomer Bolingbroke Johnson for devising a new murder motive, but found the novel uneven and amateurish. Bishop expressed some regret about the book, inscribing a copy within Cornell's 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
Bishop's authorship was discreetly acknowledged in a 1976 reprint of the book.
In the same year, Bishop published the anthology A Treasury of British Humor. A review of this in Queen's Quarterly questioned some of the selections but observed that:
Here we have an American who not only appreciates British humour, but has a subtle appreciation of it, so subtle an appreciation that we are almost afraid that neither he nor his subtlety will be fully appreciated by less subtle readers. But that will be their fault, not his.
Orville Prescott was also surprised by the selection, "only [registering] pained astonishment" when Bishop finds certain works funny. However, he concluded that, despite certain regrets, "This is a good book, a fat and rich and crisp and juicy book".
The unsigned Kirkus review of The Exotics: Being a Collection of Unique Personalities and Remarkable Characters (1969) described it as "A pride of little lions - many of them from Revolutionary times - in amiable when not admiring profiles which run about ten pages. . . . Mr. Bishop's style is elderly . . . and given to moralistic ruminations. . . ."
Bishop "[spoke] fluent German, French, Spanish, Swedish and Greek (he could also sight-read Latin)".
During the 1940s, Vladimir Nabokov's minor renown in the US was largely based on his short stories in Atlantic Monthly. Bishop was a great admirer of these, and on learning in 1947 that Nabokov was teaching at Wellesley College, invited him to apply for the recently vacated Cornell professorship of Russian literature, for which post Bishop chaired the personnel committee. Nabokov, who knew and enjoyed Bishop's verse, charmed the committee, and the Bishops and the Nabokovs "took an immediate instinctive liking to each other". While Nabokov and his wife Véra were at Cornell, "their only close companions" were the Bishops, at whose house in Cayuga Heights they frequently dined. Bishop and Nabokov would exchange limericks by mail.
Warren Benson wrote A Song of Joy, for Mixed Voices with words by Bishop, publishing it in 1965. He adapted Bishop's "Song of the Pop-Bottlers" for three-part chorus, "I lately lost a preposition" for mixed chorus, and "An Englishman with an atlas; or, America the unpronounceable" for mixed chorus.
Ludwig Audrieth and G. L. Coleman adapted Bishop's "Tales of Old Cornell" for the unaccompanied choral work Tales of Old Cornell (published together with Lingering, with words by Albert W. Smith).
Edgar Newton Kierulff wrote a play, Moving day in Shakspere's England, "[a]dapted from an original piece by Morris Bishop", and published in 1964 in a small edition for friends.