In his book Campus Versus Classroom (1946), academic innovator, long-time Manhattan publisher and—between 1915 and 1926—member of the Vassar faculty, Burges Johnson offered a mocking example of the “sounds of education machinery” and of inaccessible and detached “pedagogs”:
Education is that process by which accretions to the efferent speech patterns and the contentual and potential mentality of preadolescence are developed by attention to the howness and whichness and whyness of objective experiences, as they are correlated to concomitants in establishing with satisfyingness the fixitivity of the norm and the preponderant responses of the neurones, assuming maximum feasible self-direction with accrescent maturization; and when that is attended to, let us hope they will not fall on the buttered side.
During his time at Vassar, Johnson worked enthusiastically to advance education, encouraging student autonomy and initiative, founding the college’s Bureau of Publication and continuously challenging and seeking to improve the effectiveness of higher education.
Born in Rutland, Vermont, on November 19, 1877, Burges Johnson was the third of four children of Reverend James Gibson Johnson and his wife Mary, who interested her son in literature at a young age. In his memoir As Much As I Dare (1944), he recalled their nighttime reading sessions. “I wonder how many thousands of pages our mother read aloud to us four youngsters throughout our childhood. Bible stories, fairy tales, thrillers in St. Nicholas, and books without number.… The low rocker in which she sat is today my most treasured bit of furniture; and I can almost regain at times that all-pervading sense of perfect comfort when a light burns bright after I am in bed, and the silence means she might at any moment begin a story.” His early love of literature matured as he attended school in New London and later Chicago before enrolling at Amherst College to study English. In 1899, he graduated from Amherst with a B.A. degree. He was awarded an honorary Litt. D. from the college in 1924.
On June 14, 1904, Johnson married Constance Wheeler, the daughter of the former president of the New York Bar Association, Everett P. Wheeler. The couple had three children, Mary, James and Miriam, and they wrote a number of books together including Yearbook of Humor (1910) and Parodies for Housekeepers (1921).
Johnson began his career in journalism, at The New York Commercial Advertiser and The New York Evening Post. He then entered the publishing world, working at G.P. Putnam’s Sons and Harper & Brothers. He also held positions as assistant editor at Everybody’s Magazine, managing editor at Outdoor Magazine, editor-in-chief at Judge Magazine and president at Thompson Brown & Co. publishers. Although very devoted to his work as a publisher, Johnson recalled in his memoir his growing interest in academia: “Now and then during those Harper days, after I had married and when I visited one college campus or another, I would hear the faint voices of those many Yankee ancestors who had been teachers and preachers hinting that an academic life had many advantages for a family man.”
In 1914 Johnson mentioned this notion to Henry Noble MacCracken, a witnesses for an E.P. Dutton & Co. suit involving its book series Everyman’s Library. An English professor at Smith College, MacCracken had long used Everyman titles for his courses. The two discussed a job offer Johnson had received from Columbia University to work in its new journalism school as a part-time instructor. MacCracken advised Johnson to turn down the instructor position and wait for an opportunity that would grant him a more appropriate position. In December 1914 MacCracken was named to succeed James Monroe Taylor as president of Vassar, and in his first official act after he assumed the office on February 1, 1915, he offered Johnson a teaching position at the college, writing to him: “If you are seriously thinking about the possibility of teaching, why not come up here? We will allow you to go to New York for half of the week, and we will treat you better at Vassar than Columbia would.”
MacCracken was particularly interested in hiring Johnson because of his experience in journalism and, by extension, public relations. In a 1914 Vassar Miscellany article, Elizabeth Hazelton Haight ‘94, the chairman of the newly formed Publicity Committee of the Alumnae Council, had outlined Vassar’s plans to develop a publicity department similar to those at Smith, Mount Holyoke and Wellesley, to include not only the chair of the Publicity Committee but also members of the student Press Board: “The committee hopes that after a year, it may be able to report that more students are writing for papers, that many more newspapers are regularly printing news (and significant news) of Vassar college, that special articles on the educational policies of the college and on its inner life are appearing and that the alumnae at large are cooperating with it in helping to distribute news of the college to the press and in sending back news of themselves to the college.”
The growing interest with the public image of the college was one of MacCracken’s own concerns. Like the Alumnae Council, he wanted to publicize the college community’s belief in “woman’s powers, possibilities, and future of freedom and usefulness” as Haight put it, in April 1915 in the Vassar Miscellany. They also sought more media exposure for the college in national newspapers. In offering a position to Burges Johnson, MacCracken hoped to hire not only a professor but also someone with useful connections in journalism who could help develop the college’s publicity department and realize its goals as outlined by the Publicity Committee. Johnson accepted MacCracken’s offer in October 1915, becoming an assistant professor of English and the head of Vassar’s new Bureau of Publication.
Burges Johnson, assistant professor of English and head of the Bureau of Publication
Besides directing the publication bureau and teaching English composition courses, Johnson worked as the faculty news editor for The Miscellany News, acted as secretary of the Poughkeepsie Y.M.C.A. and regularly published poetry, articles and books. He was also very involved in the Vassar community, assuming campus tasks that ranged from his chairmanship of the Founder’s Day Committee in 1917 to serving in 1921 as the comically sincere Father Time at the annual ceremony in which officers of student organizations gave way to their successors. The Miscellany News described the moment: “Five big baskets on Students’ porch roused wild curiosity…. Soon a drum rumbled and from the central door stepped Father Time followed by the ‘old’ presidents somber in their black gowns and grieving expressions…. When Father Time asked who would take the place of the old presidents, they retired behind the baskets and out popped the heads of the new presidents, smiling gleefully under their white baby bonnets.”
When the United States entered World War I, in early April 1917, Professor Johnson’s classes had already some exposure to the realities of the war, having interviewed Miss Kathleen Burke, a representative of the Scottish Hospital Services who was traveling across the country raising funds for her organization’s war work. Decorated for duty in Serbia, Belgium and France, she told the students during a February visit to Vassar, “Get used to being under fire? No, you never really do—you always dodge the shells.” Johnson’s students also promoted household economy during wartime through articles such as “Cheese-Parings and Candle-Ends” and “Serve by Saving,” commissioned by the Household Economics Department of the National Food Administration and printed in theater programs and handbills nationwide. Herbert Hoover, head of the United States Food Administration, wrote a letter to Johnson, thanking him and “this intelligent and influential group of Vassar students” which Johnson published in an October 1917 issue of The Miscellany News. The following year, Johnson addressed a critical question in an article, “Is the Woman’s College Essential in War Time?” that appeared in the April 10, 1918, issue of The Outlook. “The everyday routine business of Vassar,” he said, “fitting young women for participation in the world’s affairs, organizing their faculties and making them more efficient, is a work of immediate necessity. The assembled data that follow, showing more specific wartime usefulness [of the college facilities], are all subordinate in importance to this.”
In the summer of 1918, Johnson’s work with the Y. M. C. A took him on a two month tour of Y. M. C. A. canteens in France, about which he gave, on November 3, what The Miscellany News headlined as “That Anticipated Lecture,” “Men and Women Workers on the Western Front,” in the Students’ Building. The following morning, he “entertained the class in Contemporary History and a few visitors” when he spoke on “The Moving and Housing of an Army on Foreign Soil.” Johnson also wrote about his time in France in “The Y. M. C. A. and the Army,” an article that appeared in The New York Times in January 1919. “I was not a Secretary assigned to a canteen or unit,” he wrote, “but went from point to point, seeing the “Y” men at work, helping if I could in the short time I was with each one, and so getting an insight into their activities…. I went from Pont-à-Mousson to Alsace, from division to division, and then joined a field hospital in the Second Division for the St. Mihiel drive: then up to a point near Chalons, preliminary to the final drive of the war.”
Johnson’s greatest impact on the college was undoubtedly his establishment of the Bureau of Publication, which oversaw the printing of the college catalogue and other publications, monitored the college’s publicity in various newspapers including The New York Times and The Poughkeepsie Eagle and helped faculty members publish their academic work. A panel of students interested in pursuing journalism or considering other literary careers assisted him, and it was ultimately his goal that students would come to run the department with the help of a faculty advisor.
Johnson in his office, modeled after the printing office of a sixteenth century printer.
Burges Johnson wrote to MacCracken in a 1921-22 report of the bureau: “I have urged upon the students the point of view that the most successful student self-government is not that which ignores the presence of faculty experts in various fields, but seeks out and utilizes their advice and assistance to the full, while still retaining student authority and initiative.” Student initiative was the crux of education for Johnson and something he encouraged throughout his time at Vassar. A year earlier he had released figures indicating the success of the bureau’s largely student team; 454 articles about the college had appeared in newspapers in the United States during May of 1921. “This is probably far from a complete record,” noted The Miscellany News, “because these clippings were assembled by a single clipping office in New York City…. The bulk of these items are creditable to Vassar. They include the visit of Mme. Curie, news of Field Day records, comments on Vice-President Coolidge’s article…very little is the cheaper type of newspaper gossip.”
The ground floor office in Main Building that housed the Bureau of Publication was most probably unlike any faculty or administrative space before or after, in both function and design. Shortly after he arrived at the college, The Miscellany News announced a “permanent exhibit of the processes of book manufacture,” where a “small wall exhibit…shows the development of a completed book, beginning with a fragment of original manuscript by Selma Lagerlof and continuing to the colored jacket for the bound book.” A similar exhibit, traced “all stages of the production” of If You Touch Them, They Vanish, by the popular author Gouverneur Morris. “The exhibit,” wrote “E.D.M. ‘20’” in The Misc., “is especially interesting because it brings out the work of the publisher whose importance in the making of a good book is generally underrated until one has seen all the processes and detail necessary in publishing.” Similar exhibits and occasional publications—such as the “scroll illustrating pictorially the first book of Livy reproduced in the form of a Roman book” offered in 1917 for 35 cents—were presented to the college community from time to time.
A printer himself, Ben Franklin presided over Johnson's 'printing shop.'
When Johnson heard, in 1922, that his former employer, Harper & Brothers, were vacating their Franklin Square building and planning to leave behind the celebrated statue of Benjamin Franklin, under which such literary figures as Twain, Dickens, Howells, Thackeray and Mrs. Humphrey Ward had famously passed, he jumped at the chance to relocate the statue to Vassar. After appealing directly to J. P. Morgan, Franklin Square’s new owner, Johnson transported the statue to his Vassar office in Main Building, where Ben Franklin presided over an old-fashioned pressroom. A 1925 Miscellany News article described the office:
“This room, which is Mr. Burges Johnson’s office, is modeled after the printing office of a sixteenth century printer. It was partially furnished by a small fund given Mr. Johnson by several graduates, his former students. The ceiling was beamed, leaded panes were put into the windows, and the iron poles boxed. The benches were taken out of the old Main chapel when it burned some years ago. The brick oven is such as was once used for casting type. There are two old black iron presses in the room; friends gave the old hand-press which was one of the early properties of the Plympton Press in Massachusetts. The other is one of the first made by Robert Hoe and is loaned by the Albany Argus Company.”
After Johnson left Vassar in 1926, his Gutenberg-inspired pressroom was dismantled and Benjamin Franklin was relocated to the front of the physics building where he remains today.
In February 1926, after an extended private correspondence with President MacCracken, Burges Johnson announced his resignation after eleven years of teaching at Vassar. In his resignation letter, he said: “I shall not here attempt a detailed restatement of the circumstances and the reasoning that lead to the step. Considerations of health have a part in it, as you know. In addition I am sure that in my own case a continued connection with Vassar would not mean steadily increasing usefulness.” His health “considerations” referred to the resurfacing of his childhood asthma. In an interview with The Sidney News many years later, Johnson related that though his asthma was cured by a boyhood trip to visit his uncle in New Mexico, it left him with a permanent hand tremor. When he was again having bronchial health troubles in the 1920s, he resolved to move west to a drier climate in hopes of eradicating his returning asthma. Several schools showed interest in hiring him, including Amherst, his alma mater, Syracuse and schools further west like the University of Denver, all of which were particularly interested in his work for Vassar’s Bureau of Publication.
On June 1, 1926, Johnson was appointed to a dual position at Syracuse University as Director of Public Relations and Professor of English. MacCracken wrote on his behalf to Syracuse’s chancellor, Charles W. Flint, and H.W. Herrington of Syracuse’s English department. In a letter to Herrington, he wrote: “[Burges Johnson] is something of a genius in journalism, very much of a humorist, a thorough gentleman, respectful of scholarship, scrupulous in his own standards. He is a little easy-going, but not in marks or in judgments—rather, in action. He would not greatly aid your department as chairman of committees; he is not much interested in curriculum studies. He is, however, a real force in the community.” Having taught over 400 hundred students, roughly 200 of whom entered literary fields, Johnson was granted a leave of absence until he would assume his post at Syracuse in early 1927,.
Between June 1926 and his official start at Syracuse in February 1927, Johnson and his family temporarily relocated out West in the hopes of improving his health. The Miscellany News printed a personal letter Johnson wrote to MacCracken about his experiences:
“Mrs. Johnson and Miriam and I are settled for three months’ stay on the outskirts of Durango. We live in a log cabin near some warm mineral springs where we can swim in the cold weather. Later we may have to move into town if the snows come. I have classes of adults on Friday and Saturday — extension work for the University of Colorado. That, and a text-book on essay writing which I must finish, keep me from getting most horribly sick of loafing…. But I have run that old car of ours over the roads that send the shivers down my spine. We negotiated one of the passes of the Continental Divide in the rain 9600 feet up and I skidded on the down grade, hitting the rock wall on the inside. The outside fell off into Gehenna, and I have dreamt of it since.”
He often explored the West in various poems and his 1944 memoir. His nostalgic accounts lament: “the old West has almost disappeared—that West of my boyish picturing, where fact and fantasy were indistinguishably merged; and traveling rodeo shows and dude ranches cannot galvanize it into life.” He would return to the West for extensive periods after his retirement from academia. He and Constance also maintained a home in Stamford, VT, where she died on June 28, 1955, at the age of 75.
Johnson remained at Syracuse until 1935 when he accepted a post at his father’s alma mater, Union College, as chairman of the English Department. He retired from teaching in 1944 but continued writing poems, essays, and novels. He wrote about the use of swear words in America in The Lost Art of Profanity (1948) in which he advocated for the creation of a new class of more gripping, original swear words to replace those long-standing expletives overused and drained of meaning. Johnson’s interests also touched on the literary value of nonsense. In a 1956 New York Times article called “For Our Schools — A Sense of Nonsense,” he wrote: “nonsense is the breath of life” and advocated the introduction of parody into American reading lists that traditionally followed a strict literary canon, arguing that “To know America intimately, one should glimpse its early humorists who provided raucous laughter to counteract the grim drudgery of frontier living.” He himself wrote nonsense poetry in compilations such as Bashful Ballads (1911) and A Little Book of Necessary Nonsense (1929).
Advocacy of nonsense and parodies was part of a larger criticism of education that started early in his academic career and intensified after his retirement. After delivering a lecture at the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism in August 1919, Johnson said in an interview with The Miscellany News: “I have distrusted so-called schools of journalism … and I think that most of them do not produce as satisfactory results in the very profession they aim to serve as do ‘liberal arts’ courses in undergraduate colleges of high standard.” His admiration of the wide scope of liberal arts education was tempered with a more pronounced cynicism about American education and its deficiencies in “For Our Schools,” in his 1944 memoir and in his examination of the American college, Campus Versus Classroom (1946).
In As Much As I Dare, he wrote with cynical good humor: “we who went to college all share this secret which perhaps I should not divulge—that it is possible for a young man to spend four years at college and never receive anything at all worth receiving. Education is something gotten, not given.” Though he here put the responsibility on the student to make the most of his educational opportunities, Campus Versus Classroom challenged the structure of American classrooms, arguing that they had declined, inadequately fostering individual thought and intellectual curiosity. He criticized colleges for being shaped over time to fit the whims of disinterested young “Yankee” men who “resented intellectual discipline” and thus devolved into institutions that thrust “half-educated” men into the world. Johnson also emphasized the importance of individual initiative at institutions that mechanically turned out graduates, ready or not for the real world. “America contains too many universities and colleges which emit the sounds of educational machinery at work but without producing the substance.… Yet even from the shoddiest of them all a young American may wrest something of an education for himself if he has discernment, and courage, and persistence, and an emergency supply of common sense.”
Johnson further argued that professors or “pedagogs” played a role in perpetuating these mechanized educational systems, devoting all their energies to achieving “averages, and norms, and quotients, and fractions of pupils, and job lots” and abhorring simplicity. As a proposed solution to this pervasive educational problem, he suggested that professors attempt to relate their courses to campus life and the outside world rather than just lecturing on overcomplicated facts and figures in order to better engage students and maintain the “spiritual, mental, and physical well-being of the college community.” In this way, he argued, graduates would leave being not only “college-bred” in the traditional sense but “educated” as well.
Burges Johnson continued exploring ways to improve education and experimenting with nonsense, parodies, poetry, and profanity until his death on February 23, 1963, at a nursing home in Schenectady, New York. He had an indelible impact not only on the literary world and the trajectory of college publicity departments but on the atmosphere of Vassar College itself. His successor as head of the Bureau of Publications, Cornelia Raymond ‘83, summarized his legacy at the college in a 1926 interview in The Miscellany News. “No one at Vassar,” said the woman who came to the college at the age of four when it opened with her father as president, “I least of all, expects anyone to fill the place of one who not only did a unique work for the college but by delicious and delicate humor, warm heart and kindly nature made us all think of him not as a professor but as one of our best friends.”
Biographical File. Burges Johnson. “83-Year-Old Former Professor At Vassar Reminisces On His Career.” The Sidney Daily News, 16 Dec. 1960. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC).
Biographical File. Burges Johnson. “Is the Woman’s College Essential in War-Time?” Published in Outlook Magazine, Apr. 1918. (VCSC).
Biographical File. Burges Johnson. “Mrs. Johnson Dies At Vermont Home.” 29 June 1955. (VCSC).
Biographical File. Burges Johnson. “Noted Author-Teacher Dr. Burges Johnson Dies at Age of 85.” Schenectady Union-Star, 23 Sept. 1963. (VCSC).
Officers — English. Henry Noble MacCracken Papers 30.28. Letter from Henry Noble MacCracken to Professor H.W. Herrington, 4 March 1926. (VCSC).
Burges Johnson. As Much As I Dare. New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1944.
Burges Johnson. Campus Versus Classroom. New York: Ives Washburn, Inc., 1946.
Burges Johnson. “For Our Schools — A Sense of Nonsense.” The New York Times, 16 Sept. 1956.
“Constance Johnson, an Author, 75,Dies,” The New York Times, 29 June, 1955.
“Burges Johnson Skids in Familiar Car.” The Miscellany News, 2 Oct. 1926.
“Column Advance.” The Miscellany News, 10 Oct. 1917.
Elizabeth Hazelton Haight. “The Report of the Publicity Committee of the Alumnae Council.” The Vassar Miscellany, 1 Jul. 1914.
Elizabeth Hazelton Haight. “Vassar’s Torch.” The Vassar Miscellany, 23 Apr. 1915.
“Printer’s Tools Furnish Office.” The Miscellany News, 7 Mar. 1925.
“Miss Raymond Will Run Bureau of Publication.” The Miscellany News, 25 Sept. 1926.
“Mr. Johnson Back from the West.” The Miscellany News, 8 Oct. 1919.
“Professor Burges Johnson Resigns.” The Miscellany News, 17 Feb. 1926.
Publicity Mr. Johnson 79.39. Burges Johnson. “Report of the Bureau of Publication 1921-22.” (VCSC).
“Public Life of Ben Franklin Statue Is Traced by Donor, Formerly VC Teacher.” The Miscellany News, 10 May 1939.
“The New Regime Ushered in.” The Miscellany News, 30 Apr. 1921.