The language

Most of the books I’ve read in the past three years I last read long ago.  Four Quartets is an exception: I started rereading it a decade ago.  But it’s typical – even a fugleman – of these books in another respect: I didn’t understand it when I read it in college, but I loved it anyway.

I wrote some pretty insightful notes in its margins back then, but I think that came from a professor’s lecture.  Anyway, none of that stayed with me.  What I remember is the language.  I loved it.  It’s what my younger self and I can share when we read it now.

Four Quartet’s thought helped save me from a dark time around age forty.  I never would have picked it back up then, though, if I hadn’t remembered it then like young love.

Milton paints purple trees.  Avery.
And Wolf Kahn too.
I’ve liked their landscapes,
Nightdreams and daymares,
pastures and woods that burn our eyes.
Otherwise, why would we look?
Otherwise, why would we stretch our hands out and gather them in?

(The first stanza of Charles Wright’s “Thinking of Winter at the Beginning of Summer,” the poem I rememorized this year for class when I couldn’t master Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth.”)

Eliot burned my ears.

Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to ornate language.  I mean, look at whom I’ve been rereading: Faulkner, Dostoevsky, Fielding.  Wallace is almost baroque.  Stevens. And Lawrence Sterne, too.  All stuff from high school or college. It’s the sound of it that made me swallow their seeds and kept them inside me for decades, long enough to germinate, long enough for me to have made some sense of it, or – better – for it to have made some sense out of me.  Sound before insight: the thunder before the lightning, in my case.

All of this stress on short sentences (or at least simple ones) and plain language.  I like plain language; I even believe in it, particularly deceptively plain language.  How could I not, given the present age?  But plain words don’t impact me like the winding-road sentences of, say, Tristram Shandy.  I dream recurring dreams of paths leading to bright lands of purple trees and orange sky.  I fall asleep listening to Peter Barker’s reading of Sterne as if to the swoosh-swoosh and universe of my mother’s womb.

The Program Era, Mark McGurl’s delightful, 2009 romp through the last century of American fiction, points out two major approaches to literature, one epitomized by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the other by Thomas Wolfe in an exchange of letters McGurl summarizes:

Taken up by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and subsequently by a great many of the writers who would be associated with writing programs after the Second World War, the poetics of “show don’t tell” would gradually evolve into a more general understanding of good fiction as founded on discipline, restraint, and the impersonal exercise of hard-won technique.  Thus we find Fitzgerald, in an avuncular letter to his fellow Max Perkins protégé, encouraging Wolfe to cultivate “a more conscious artist” in himself, and to consider the aesthetic benefits of subtraction, as in the example of Flaubert, whose greatness is measured as much by what he left out as by what he put in.  Wolfe’s response to Fitzgerald was both churlish and impressively learned; he invoked a parallel tradition in the novel, including works like Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy, produced not by “taker-outers” like Flaubert but by “putter-inners” like himself.  All he could take from Fitzgerald’s advice, he wrote, circling back as always to the primacy of authorial selfhood, was that “you think I’d be a good writer if I were an altogether different writer than I am.” (99)

(The passage’s main point, for you kids using this post to prep for SAT’s, is how another Max Perkins is as unlikely to show up as another Shakespeare.)

Wolfe is always out of favor; he almost was from the start.  But as I’m looking homeward, myself, I might reread him, too.  (My grandmother gave me Look Homeward, Angel to help me cope with my adolescence, and maybe I’m coping with it still.)  I like Fitzgerald, but I’m a howling Wolfe man.

But don’t get George Steiner started!  Unlike McGurl, he takes sides.  He sees Hemingway as “a brilliant response to the diminution of linguistic possibility”:

Sparse, laconic, highly artificial in its conventions of brevity and understatement, that style sought to reduce the ideal of Flaubert – le mot juste – to a scale of basic language.  One may admire it or not.  But, undeniably, it is based on a most narrow conception of the resources of literacy. . . . By retrenching language to a kind of powerful, lyric shorthand, Hemingway narrows the compass of observed and rendered life.  He is often charged with his monotonous adherence to hunters, fisherman, bullfighters, or alcoholic soldiers.  But this constancy is a necessary result of the available medium.  How could Hemingway’s language convey the inward life of more manifold or articulate characters?  Imagine trying to translate the consciousness of Raskolnikov into the vocabulary of “The Killers.”  Which is not to deny the perfection of this grim snapshot.  But Crime and Punishment gathers into itself a sum of life entirely beyond Hemingway’s thin medium.

(From “The Retreat from the Word,” a 1961 essay republished in Steiner’s Language & Silence, pages 30 and 31.)

Steiner is more concerned in this essay with the extent of our functioning vocabulary than he is with sentence length or structure, strictly speaking.  But it’s all of a piece these days.  I heart Steiner’s précis of my man Faulkner, who loved big, fun-sounding words and vine-like syntax more than he loved merely long sentences:

Within a syntax whose convolutions are themselves expressive of Faulkner’s landscape, ornate, regional language makes a constant assault upon our feelings.  Often the words seem to grown cancerous, engendering other words in ungoverned foison.  At times, the sense is diluted as in a swamp-mist.  But nearly always, this idiosyncratic, Victorian night-parlance is a style.  Faulkner is not afraid of words even where they submerge him.  And where he is in control of them, Faulkner’s language has a thrust and vital sensuousness that carry all before them.  Much in Faulkner is overwritten or even badly written.  But the novel is always written through and through.  The act of eloquence, which is the very definition of a writer, is not let go by default. (32)

Steiner, who wrote this around age thirty, is an old soul, and, while I find that he often rushes too quickly to judgment for my taste, he is not afraid to say things that sound strange to me but I suspect were held true by most serious writers before McGurl’s “program era.”  So the act of eloquence is “the very definition of a writer.”  Who says that anymore?


  1. Might I suggest you give the Australian writer Gerald Murnane a go then? He combines your love of plain words and long, beautifully-crafted sentences. You should be able to pick up a fairly inexpensive copy of the The Plains. I’ve read four works of fiction by him now and I’ve just been sent as a present a book of essays by him. You can read my review of the book on my blog which should be enough to help you decide if he might be for you.

    1. Thanks, Jim. I’m always looking for a read, though it sometimes takes me years to read them. (I like your non-review reviews, by the way.)

  2. I suspect that the muddling up of writing teachers and literary people accounts for the baleful vogue of plain. Because of course the worst thing most of your students do is try to punch above their literary weight, and the quickest way to make their prose less painful is to tell them: stop trying to be fancy, stop using words you don’t really know, don’t try to be cleverer than you are: say it in sturdy little sentences that are completely under your control. Which is good advice to your average kid whose high-stakes writing adventures are going to be writing application letters to vocational schools. But generalizing it to literary fiction and poetry overvalued plain and devalued ornate. Sir Thomas Browne does things that Hemingway — as Steiner says — can’t even attempt.

    Great post!

    1. And part of it may have been trying to get the writer out of the writing. That’s the most tragic part of a lot of twentieth century fiction for me. (Though, of course, most of the fiction I like is from the twentieth century.) New Criticism, which I still love, is my first object of blame, though I guess it was happening before then.

      I sometimes think the kids who will become writers aren’t the ones with the most writing talent but the ones who love the idea of being a writer. What Steiner says of Faulkner I can say of them: much is overwritten or even badly written. But that thirst for eloquence! I used to do the same thing. In fact, I still do the same thing. I’m like Thomas Wolfe inside. He never grew up, either.

      I don’t correct that kid’s work like I correct the one who adopts a stultifying academic style that he picks up from me or past teachers somehow.

  3. Okay, so now I want to read Four Quartets. I almost just purchased one for $.37 on Amazon but thought Sarah might have it.

    Thanks for your thoughts on writing, your students, and yourself.

    1. You might like the philosophical and mystical elements Eliot works into the poem. Somehow it comes out poetic. I think he enlarged poetry’s capacity through the poem to hold twentieth century thought.

  4. Satisfying post, indeed.

    Plain speech devolves to toddler syntax and vocabulary, and thus impoverished thought and resonance, mighty damned fast. Such writing is not de facto lyric: no writing is. Lyricism rather requires careful choices. Yet so many contemporary writers eschew the very reading that would inculcate a substantial vocabulary and construction styles. I refuse to kvell over a woodburned lanyard when the artist is ignorant of Biedermeier.

    A “promising” first-novel author just visited my book club. A first-novel should be a feast, perhaps even painfully more than you can eat. Her work, however, struck me as gruel-thin novella, devoid of even a token crouton. Yet she herself views the book as rich, despite the number of “details” excised in editing.

    Her main character remarries at age 78 to a rich man, only to immediately develop (and obsess over) a facial blotch. As she is corrupted by his wealth, the disfigurement spreads: I was so hopeful! But no, the blotch then disappears without elaboration. The author was mystified when I suggested an echo of Hawthorne. The kicker? She earned a PhD. in literature (NYU), and has taught university courses for several years.
    The line about your grandmother makes me yearn for a family memoir.

    1. You remind me that it’s possible to give attention to craft and still be Wolfe’s “putter-inner.” The idea of craft may be different than what’s been taught in the writers’ workshops this past fifty years, though. (Of course, I’m perpetuating the “one size fits all” notion of craft by inculcating “show, don’t tell” to new generations of ninth graders.)

      Julie, for you as well as Faulkner, writing is “the act of eloquence.” I’m glad you liked the post.

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