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Josiah S. Carberry: The Invented Professor

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Josiah S. Carberry? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Josiah S. Carberry? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Josiah Stinkney Carberry was a figment of the imagination of Brown University Professor John William Spaeth, Jr in 1929. As an expert in the little-known field of psychoceramics (the study of cracked pots) Prof. Carberry has been a part of the university’s folklore ever since.

Professor Carberry’s field of study.

Professor Carberry’s field of study.

Professor Carberry’s First Lecture

Brown University is a top-tier seat of learning in Providence, Rhode Island. In 1929, a notice appeared that the renowned Professor Josiah S. Carberry would deliver a lecture on “Archaic Greek Architectural Revetments in Connection with Ionian Philology.”

The more astute students on campus would have been puzzled by the suggestion of a link between an ancient language and the building of retaining walls. If they had attended the lecture, they would have been none the wiser. The celebrated Prof. Carberry never showed up, as he has failed to do on numerous occasions since.

But such is the mystique of this ethereal scholar that some sources say the lecture was to refer to Ionian phonology not philology. Phonology, as we all know, is “the system of contrastive relationships among the speech sounds that constitute the fundamental components of a language” (Dictionary.com). Or, it might have been philately; who can tell?

Subsequent lectures have been scheduled for every Friday 13th and February 29th in leap years. They are usually poorly attended.

Professor Carberry's inaugural lecture captured on film and colourized.

Professor Carberry's inaugural lecture captured on film and colourized.

Carberry’s Life Is Fleshed Out

When challenged to provide proof of Carberry’s existence, Professor John William Spaeth, Jr. was up to the task. According to Martha L. Mitchell (Brown University Library), Spaeth drew attention to “Carberry’s ungrammatical wife Laura, his poetical daughter Patricia, his puffin-hunting daughter Lois, and his accident-prone assistant Truman Grayson, who was always being bitten by things that begin with A.”

A son, Zedidiah, grew up completely unnoticed by his parents because they were completely preoccupied with raising their daughters.

Dulce et decorum est desipere in loco.”

Professor Josiah Carberry’s teaching philosophy. Translation: It is sweet and fitting to be foolish once in a while.

The legend of Professor Carberry developed a life of its own. People started sending postcards and letters to local newspapers from all corners of the world detailing the travels of the Carberries. It reached the point where The Providence Journal banned Carberry stories from its pages.

However, in 1934, a footnote in an article in the America Scientist made reference to the great man’s book Psychoceramics (Brown University Press, 1945, 1313p.). Was the American Scientist in on the joke or were its editors duped? Nobody is talking, and students continue to try to prank academic journals with fake Carberry citations.

Josiah Carberry Traditions

According to research, “It was 18°C, windy and cloudy in Providence on 13 May 1955,” but a donation to Brown University cheered things up. A cheque from Prof. Carberry in the amount of $101.01 arrived as a remembrance of his “future late wife.”

There were a few conditions attached to the gift.

The palindromic amount was to start a Josiah S. Carberry Fund with which to buy “such books as Professor Carberry might or might not approve of.” There was also a stipulation to establish each Friday 13th and February 29th as “Carberry Days.”

On such days, brown pots, some of them cracked, appear on campus for people to toss their loose change into.

Another fund-raising tradition to come out of the Carberry experience is an annual faculty club buffet. Held in September, the food is based on themes from The Carberry Cookbook: From Nuts to Soup. Succulent delicacies from the book such as antelope in sauce, and puffinburgers may be on offer or, perhaps, not. Some of the ingredients listed in recipes would seem to be difficult to source. For example: the aforementioned puffins, or one whole camel (medium sized).

The cookbook contains 262 recipes from various contributors and is sold to raise money for the Josiah S. Carberry Fund.

Boiled water is a Carberry spécialité de la maison.

Boiled water is a Carberry spécialité de la maison.

The Feinberg Feud

Professor Joel Feinberg was a legal and political philosopher. He had a two-year spell of teaching at Brown University and crossed swords with Carberry over several decades.

Feinberg wrote a four-volume work entitled The Moral Limits of the Criminal Law. In the acknowledgements section of his books, the philosopher carried on a fight with Carberry.

In one volume, he thanked his contributors and noted that “My former colleague Josiah S. Carberry will claim to be among their numbers. He may even go so far as to sue me for plagiarism. Let him sue; he won’t have a chance.”

At another time, he wrote that “On this particular volume I received no help from Josiah S. Carberry. For that too I am grateful.”

Apparently tiring of the spat, Feinberg announced Carberry’s death in his 1988 publication Harmless Wrongdoing.

However, in his 1992 collection of essays, Freedom and Fulfillment, Feinberg was obliged to write: “I have recently received a letter from Carberry in which he argues with his usual fanatic stubbornness that he is not dead! His argument, in my opinion, is weak and contrary to all the known evidence. It combines a misapplication of the Cartesian cogito with the kind of self-deception that characterized Carberry’s long life. Some people simply cannot bear to accept the truth about themselves.”

It seems that the mortal Professor Joel Feinberg (1926-2004) had tangled unsuccessfully with the immortal Professor Josiah S. Carberry.

The great man’s campus, where he is called Brown University’s “best known and least seen” professor.

The great man’s campus, where he is called Brown University’s “best known and least seen” professor.

Bonus Factoids

  • In late 1970s, American Express ran an advertisement enticing customers to enjoy the delights of the Caribbean with the headline “Bravo! New affordable charter vacations from American Express.” The quotation was attributed to “Josiah S. Carberry, the world’s most traveled man.” The ad carried the tag “Hurry to your travel agent―tell ‘em Carberry sent you.”
  • The satirical Ig Nobel Prizes have been handed out every year since 1991. They are meant to honor achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think.” One of the earliest winners was Professor Josiah S. Carberry for Interdisciplinary Research. He was praised as a “bold explorer and eclectic seeker of knowledge, for his pioneering work in the field of psychoceramics, the study of cracked pots.”

Sources

  • “Who Is Josiah Carberry?” Martha L. Mitchell, Brown University Library, undated.
  • “Just Leaving.” Charlotte Bruce Harvey, Brown Alumni Magazine, September/October 2013.
  • “Brown Traditions: Josiah S. Carberry.” Brunonia, undated.
  • “Made not Born: The Wife and Dimes of Josiah S. Carberry.” Michael Udris, David Udris, Amedia Production, 2001.
  • “Quarrelsomeness.” Jacob Levy, The Volokh Conspiracy, April 4, 2004.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 04, 2020:

Rupert, actually, the professor is a figment of unimaginary persons. Did they ever know or see him in person? It may be that he was a standalone teacher. Whatever the case, he was made not born.

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