In January, 1941, Chancellor Chase had "the honor and satisfaction" to announce that "William Lyon Phelps, Ph.D., Litt.D., D.D., S.T.D., LL.D." would henceforth direct the Hall of Fame "with all of the enthusiasm and sagacity that have marked so conspicuously his creative devotion to other distinguished pursuits."


After getting an A.M. from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from Yale on the same day, and teaching at the former for one year, he went to Yale and remained there for the next 41 years. It is estimated that by his retirement in 1933 he had the delights of literature to more than 16,000 Yale men. But he refused to teach English composition; English teachers may today wonder how he got away with it. Having put in weary hours of correcting badly written themes, many swore they would never do it again, once tenured. The drudgery of the apprenticeship is essential but dispiriting. Of all the courses in a college English curriculum the one most practicable throughout life -- English composition -- is the course fewest want to teach.


Phelps, a genial, informal man, made English literature a joy not only to New Haven but throughout the polite parts of the United States; he was probably the most sought-after lecturer of a half-century. His writing was thoroughly relaxed, and most of his books were said to be lectures warmed-over. He did a series of causeries ("chats") for Scribners. And later wrote a weekly syndicated newspaper column. But biographer Frederick Pottle sniffed, "his written style did not rise above superior journalism," which may explain why, in the end, Phelps could boast of only nineteen honorary degrees.


He was well over 75 when he accepted the directorship of the Hall of Fame. Americans were aware that we were steadily being drawn into World War II, the most famous men in the world were warriors and warlike statesmen.


The job would not be easy, but Dr. Phelps had no need to be tutored. He knew the Hall of Fame, having been an elector and having in 1930 publicized it in one of his copyrighted columns. He called the Hall a "true shrine for the whole country . . . There can e nothing partisan, nothing sectarian. It is national only." The idea behind those words was more than once questioned for accuracy, as, for example, when still another defeat of Noah Webster was laid to "sectionalism."


"No citizen," Phelps continued in his column, "can look at these portraits without feeling a reverence for his country," and although reverence "is not the most notable characteristics of the twentieth century," the Hall of Fame is "a step in the right direction." Any foreigner, "with a preconceived idea of America as the land of greed will have to revise that opinion." We have no statistics, but few foreigners seem to have done so.




Wartime Blues