Monday, January 23, 2017

Sitting on the Offense

Since you were in effect turned out into the streets after your graduation from high school and told in specificity and generality that you'd passed the first milestone of intellectual accomplishment, you've been at various, contradictory efforts to simplify and complicate yourself.

Now, at this stage of your game, when the world is, as Wordsworth put it in his plangent sonnet, "too much with us," or when you find yourself, as Ishmael--Melville's, not the biblical Ishmael--did in Moby-Dick, with a cold, gray November in your soul, you reckon it time to consult your two favorite sources for revitalizing experience.

Both are essays of considerable length and specificity, demonstrating to you for the hundreds of times you've reread and otherwise dealt with them the nuance inherent in simplicity and the degree of control necessary should you chose to venture into complexity.

The first of these essays came to you in your late teens, say sixteen. Mr. Mark Twain was already your default hero in residence, had been so for the better part of ten years. In service of that hero worship, you were embarked on a goal of reading every one of his published words.

One of your parents' friends, a person you'd not thought to have been any sort of reader, accosted you one evening at one of your parents' many buffet-style entertainments. The person you have in mind knew of your literary aspirations.  "How many," he pressed, "of Fenimore Cooper's literary offenses have you committed?"

Smart ass though you were, egocentric and rebellious though you may have been, you were still your parents' son, subject at the very least to basic rules of politeness.  Accordingly, you recall yourself responding, "Excuse me?"  You may well have been thinking you had no fucking idea what this person was talking about, nevertheless you said, "Excuse me?"

At that moment, you learned of a major presence in your life, that excellent combination of critical probity, understated ironic humor, and muscle memory, to all of which you aspired with the aching sincerity only a sixteen-year-old boy can achieve.  Thus you met Twain's essay, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," many parts of which you have committed to memory.  On many occasions, you distributed photocopies of this essay to your students. You've referenced in in a writing technique book, and you ask questions related to it whenever you read with some sense of critical purpose the draft of a composition in the works.

Each time you write a review for publication or a reader's report for a client,"Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses" haunts the battlements of your critical spirit much the way the spirit of the recently murdered King Hamlet stalked Elsinore Castle.  

When you begin to reread the results of a day's work on some piece of fiction, you hear Twain's voice from this essay, asking you if the reader will be able to distinguish between the live personages and the dead ones. Somewhere within the notebook you've begun relative to the revised edition of your Fiction Writer's Handbook, your handwritten question to yourself: "Will this revised edition be your extended tribute to Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses ?"

The second essay also has relevance for you as an aspiring writer, as a teacher, and as an editor. Its title suggests--and then goes on to argue in favor of--less is more.  "Charles Dickens."  What wonderful economy, promising, then delivering, such a bountiful cornucopia. The subject of the essay, Charles Dickens, the English author, is not one of your favored writers; perhaps he'd come in within the first twenty or so. But of his time and place, Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, and William M. Thackeray hold higher places in your esteem.

You read this essay in the first place because of its author, Eric Blair, writing as George Orwell. You read it with the confidence Orwell brings you each time you read something of his that by doing so, you will learn not only something about the subject at hand, say the provocative "Shooting an Elephant," but about the process of composition and the means by which you may convey images that will resonate within as many readers as possible.

"Dickens is one of those writers who are well worth stealing," Orwell writes in his opening sentence. Who knows how long he labored over his array of information and opinions related to Dickens in order to see this potent intrigue, to be followed by the only other sentence in the paragraph, itself intriguing and, in combination, a knockout punch.  Who could resist the entire essay after reading these two? Not you.  "Even the burial of his body in Westminster Abby was a species of theft, if you come to think of it?"

If ever you were motivated by the use of a rhetorical device to read all the way through, this was a sterling example.

In the bargain, you get Orwell's discussion on Dickens' plots, his characters, his politics, and how he puts his personal experiences and attitudes to use in his stories, ranging from the more or less free-form Pickwick Papers the exquisitely narrated and plotted Great Expectations.

In recent years, you've noticed how sentimental journeys to the past often end in disappointment, in large measure because they remind you of how small you were then and how complete and magical persons, places, and things seemed then.  Returning to these essays does indeed diminish your stature, but only for the better sense of helping you to see how you've got a good start, but still have a way to go.

Tomorrow, or soon, the essays of two contemporary writers, quite alive and quite able to help you cover some ground in your wish to learn. 


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