Monday, October 17, 2016

The Fathers

Long ago, I had heard of Allen Tate's novel The Fathers as very good. Yet though I read a fair bit of Tate's criticism and poetry,  I had never bothered to find and read the novel. This past week,  it turned up at Idle Time Books in Adams-Morgan. After a first reading, it seems to me to justify the reputation.

The Fathers is set in the years 1858 through 1861 in country more or less familiar to me: Fairfax County and Alexandria in Virginia, Georgetown in the District of Columbia. Of course, both sides of the river have changed greatly in the last century and a half, the farms of Fairfax now all suburb, and  Georgetown built up the hill beyond the small town it had been. Anyone trying to follow the path of Lacy Buchan's afternoon walk of May 6, 1861 up from what I take to be M St. would walk through some very expensive yards. The only features of Georgetown I could reasonably identify were the towpath, the college, the Convent of the Visitation, and Holyrood Cemetery. The streets named in Alexandria retain their names; but Georgetown has been assimilated to the Washington system, and my identification of the streets there is conjectural.

The social territory is still more changed, of course, than the physical. Apart from the presence of slavery, there is the society of Virginia, where, in the words of the disruptive Georgetown resident George Posey, "They do nothing but die and marry and think about the honor of Virginia." Some of the older men, like the narrator's father, are unionists and conservative, living in a Virginia that they have imagined:
"Damn it, Lacy, it's just men like your pa who are the glory of the Old Dominion, and the surest proof of her greatness, that are going to ruin us. They can't understand that reason and moderation haven't anything to do with the crisis."
Yet their codes and customs give the Virginians a framework that George Posey lacks; they know what to do in a given situation, be it courting, dueling, or secession. Repeatedly, Tate's narrator, Lacey Buchan points up the difference:
In the sense of today nobody wrote personal letters in our time: letters conveyed the sensibility of of society, the ordered life of families and neighborhoods. George Posey was a man without people or place: he had strong relationships, and he was capable of passionate feeling, but it was all personal...
Posey has for his resources on the one hand mere business and money-making, on the other violent impulse, bringing death to his own family, death and madness to the Buchans. The older generation, Major Lewis Buchan and his cousin John Semmes simply cannot understand Posey: the younger generation look to him for something they are missing. The Posey family of Georgetown is turned in on itself and, George apart, feckless and self-absorbed.

The last word might be left to a Virginian in another novel, John Carrington in Henry Adam's Democracy:
"And would you bring the old society back again if you could?" asked she.

"What for? It could not hold itself up. General Washington himself could not save it. Before he died he had lost his hold on Virginia, and his power was gone."
 (Adams gets a small, off-stage cameo as "a great snob even then" who sometimes attends the "levees" of Charles Buchan's ambitious wife. Well and good; but was it for Virginia to judge the pretensions of Massachusetts?)

I finished the book, Tate's only novel, with something of the feeling I had after reading Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It: I wish I could next read his second novel.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Readings for the Day

The Gospel for today, Friday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time, is Luke 12:1-7. Part of it struck me as curiously apposite:
There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed,
nor secret that will not be known.
Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness
will be heard in the light,
and what you have whispered behind closed doors
will be proclaimed on the housetops.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Plain Prose, or Not

A dozen years ago, overseas, I noticed a couple puzzling over a word in a novel, one of John Irving's. I offered my help--the word was "smitten", and then went on to a number of other words that the man had underlined. Both spoke excellent English, he from graduate and postgraduate studies in California, she from a former marriage to an Englishman. Still, there were words they hadn't encountered. All were familiar to me, but I realized on looking at them that they were words I would not expect to meet outside of novels or essays. I had not thought of John Irving as a writer who reaches for the unusual word--he is no Alexander Theroux or S.J. Perelman--yet here were these words.

More recently I have looked through books for passages that adults learning English might be able to read as class exercises. I have long taken it for granted that the best American writers of the 19th Century wrote a good plain style: think of Dana, Lincoln, Grant, Thoreau,  and Twain. And then I look, and think again.

There is the first paragraph of Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, a book I first read when about 13 years old:
The fourteenth of August was the day fixed upon for the sailing of the
brig Pilgrim on her voyage from Boston round Cape Horn to the western
coast of North America.  As she was to get under weigh early in the
afternoon, I made my appearance on board at twelve o'clock, in full
sea-rig, and with my chest, containing an outfit for a two or three
year voyage, which I had undertaken from a determination to cure, if
possible, by an entire change of life, and by a long absence from books
and study, a weakness of the eyes, which had obliged me to give up my
pursuits, and which no medical aid seemed likely to cure.
Certainly that is plain enough. But I see a number of words or expressions that would require explanation: "brig", "under weigh", "sea-rig", "outfit" (in the sense used), "pursuits."

Lincoln passed for a very plain orator, justly so. Here is the third paragraph of the Second Inaugural Address:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which
it has already attained.  Neither anticipated that the cause of the
conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should
cease.  Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less
fundamental and astounding.  Both read the same Bible, and pray to the
same God; and each invokes his aid against the other.  It may seem
strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in
wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us
judge not, that we be not judged.  The prayers of both could not be
answered--that of neither has been answered fully.
You have "magnitude", "duration", and on through to "wringing their bread".

There is Grant's famous note to Buckner:
SIR:--Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of Commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except an unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.
 World War II popularized the expression "unconditional surrender"--FDR knew his Grant--but how many native speakers of English understand it accurately, or can define "capitulation" or "armistice", or have seen "works" used in this sense?

Thoreau, I have always thought, writes plainly enough. Here are a few sentences from the chapter "Reading" in Walden:
I think that having learned our letters we should read the best that is in literature, and not be forever repeating our a-b-abs, and words of one syllable, in the fourth or fifth classes, sitting on the lowest and foremost form all our lives. Most men are satisfied if they read or hear read, and perchance have been convicted by the wisdom of one good book, the Bible, and for the rest of their lives vegetate and dissipate their faculties in what is called easy reading. There is a work in several volumes in our Circulating Library entitled "Little Reading," which I thought referred to a town of that name which I had not been to. There are those who, like cormorants and ostriches, can digest all sorts of provender, for they suffer nothing to be wasted. If others are the machines to provide it, they are the machines to read it.
The words "form" and "convict" are not often used in these senses now, and I don't often see "provender" or "cormorant".

 Here is the first paragraph of Mark Twain's  Life on the Mississippi:
THE Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

I think that excellent clear prose. Yet is it for beginners? How many of us us have a sense of 45 degrees of longitude, for one thing? And barges have long superseded "flats and keels". (At the moment, I can't think how Twain could have imagined that Delaware was in the Mississippi watershed.)

A couple of weeks ago, another teacher brought in a piece from the Wall Street Journal for the students to read. A look through showed words and idioms that I would not expect a new student to know. At the end of every paragraph we explained three or four expressions: "trumpeted", "touted", "playing offense", and so on. I was wary from the start, having tried out the The Washington Post Express on students a couple of years ago without it yielding a return proportionate to the time spent.

The experiment with the Express made me realize what I had more or less known, that newspapers are written in a particular subset of English. It is one that I began learning more than fifty years ago now and hardly notice. It is not one I'd advise students to model their own writing on, not that I have ever been able to get students to write much of anything. It is worth learning in the long run, but it is of limited use in instruction.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Magnolia and Monkshood

Last week, while walking near the Ellipse, I was surprised to see a magnolia tree with a couple of flowers on it, of which one was low enough to photograph with decent resolution:

I knew that there are magnolias that keep blooming after the spring, but early October seemed late; and though I walk past this tree about once a week, I don't remember recent flowers.

This weekend my wife showed me that the monkshood in the garden is blooming:

We planted it with great care, for monkshood is poisonous, and apparently an English gardener died from the effects of mere skin contact with it. I am shy of it, without being good at spotting it by its foliage; I just know that there is something in that corner of the garden to avoid. But it does have lovely flowers. I will post another picture or two once more of the blooms are out.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Command and Assertion

I have started reading Newman's An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. It is clearly written, as one would expect. It is also closely written, to be read slowly and carefully.

I am still in the early pages, where Newman lays out the forms of propositions, interrogative, conditional, and categorical, corresponding to the ways or modes of holding them: doubt, inference, and assent. On the second page appears the paragraph
No one is likely to deny that a question is distinct both from a conclusion and from an assertion; and an assertion will be found to be equally distinct from a conclusion. For, if we rest our affirmation on arguments, this shows that we are not asserting; and when we assert, we do not argue. An assertion is a distinct from a conclusion, as a word of command is from a persuasion or recommendation. Command and assertion, as such, both of them, in their different ways, dispense with, discard, ignore antecedents of any kind, though antecedents may have been a sine qua non condition of their being elicited. They both carry with them the pretension of being personal acts.
The passage recalled a paragraph from Herbert Simon's memoirs, Models of My Life, from his early years teaching at Carnegie Tech (as it then was):
Once when I was auditing [Elliot Dunlap Smith's] class (for a time he hoped that I would understudy him, but ultimately let me go my own way), he made a particularly sweeping statement, then turned to me and asked, "Isn't that so, Professor Simon?" My father had carefully taught me, "Never sign in the presence of the salesman," and I had learned that valuable lesson well, to the point of reflexive response. Recovering from my momentary shock, I quickly replied, "On the whole, it seems reasonable." Smith turned to the class and, his voice dripping with sarcasm, said, "Professor Simon says on the whole it seems reasonable. I tell you it's so."
 There I think is a good illustration of the difference between the categorical and conditional proposition, and of the personal nature both of assertion and command.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Incidental Reading

At the last or second last meeting of the neighborhood book club, a neighbor and friend gave back to me a copy of Peter Schneider's The German Comedy: Scenes of Life After the Wall. I had forgotten not only that I had lent it to her, but also that I had ever owned a copy, and indeed that there was such a book. At the moment, it seemed to me that I must have read one of the essays included when it appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine; I find that it must have been "The Deep-Freeze Theory and Other Hypotheses".

Last night, being too tired to read the book I had in mind, I picked up The German Comedy, and shortly found that I had certainly read it; most of the essays were familiar. And I found reading matter that I hadn't known the volume comprised, not Schneider's: receipts from a vacation that we took in the fall of 2013. I don't know how they got there. I'm fairly confident that I didn't take the book along to the eastern Baltic.

I am always interested to read matter left in books, though I hope I would have the strength not to read matter left by someone I knew. There would have been nothing of much interest between the pages of The German Comedy, just receipts from restaurants, shops, and bars. None of it, I think, would have held any surprises for an observant person who had sat across many dinner tables from us over the years. And really, I don't think our neighbor read it, though I may ask at the next book club meeting. Still, the next book that I lend, I'll look into first.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Punch and Politics

Noticed Sunday night in Lichtenberg's The Waste Books, while looking for something else, Notebook L, entry 47:
When negro servants in the West Indies mix a punch the first ask, for drunk or for dry? We might ask something of the sort before political disputes: shall we dispute with feeling or reason, for drunk or for dry?