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by building up the point on the end. First I call the thing by one name, or noun, and then I call it by an added something, an adjective.
For the purpose of clearness the added something, the adjective, is more important than the noun. The older grammar did not tell me so; it let me think that where both noun and adjective are needed, or verb and adverb, the nouns and verbs are the very backbone of speech, and adjectives and adverbs are mere decorations or frills. Yet in our natural talk the noun is the more general sound, having the same relation to the adjective that the pronoun has to the noun; it is the setting for an image which without the adjective would not be defined.
This principle of noun and adjective controls the structure of the sentence. My old grammar told me that the main clause was the one which contained the main idea: it was the independent clause; it could stand alone. The subordinate clause contained the subordinate statement, which could not stand alone because it depended on the main clause. Writers have to find out for themselves that the main clause is the noun, and the subordinate clause is the essential adjective; in other words, that the less important idea must go into the main clause. "We'll come to-morrow, if it doesn't rain." The promise to come is too general, and nothing is further from the intention of the speaker than to let it stand alone, as statements in main. clauses are said to do. "If it doesn't rain" is the heart of the matter. In conversation such clauses are independent. "Will you come?" you
say, and all I need to answer is, "If it doesn't rain."
Inexperienced writers gather from the old grammar that the great use of subordinate clauses is to vary the sentence form; every now and then one should sprinkle in a "when," an "if," an "although," for contrast with simple statements. This happy-go-lucky method leads to indifference as to what goes into the subordinate clause; the cheerful scribe will not care whether he writes, "When the sun rose, I got up," or, "When I got up, the sun rose. Such a writer and the grammarians
If grammar dealt with the problems of speaker and writer, it would tell us where to take hold of the first idea, and in what order to add the other ideas. In ordinary talk most of us have had the ghastly experience of beginning in the middle, and realizing that we must go back and fill in. We have probably read more than one novel which got us nicely started in the first pages, and then doubled on itself to give the life of the hero's grandfather. Something must be wrong with any method of discourse which involves this contortion. If we happened to join a
group of people, strangers to us, the conversation would be fairly intelligible from the moment we arrived, and it would become more so as we talked on. But it would occur to nobody to stop for a biographical sketch of all the characters present, nor for a summary of previous remarks. In a story well told, one suspects, there should be no slipping back; the incidents should march as they do in life.
The old grammar had something to say of the structure known as "apposition"; a noun is in apposition to another noun, we learned, when it is placed next to it to explain it. "John Smith, grocer," would be the illustration. But this is in no respect different from the noun-adjective structure we have just been describing; it is that building up to a point which characterizes all well defined thought. When we say, "John Smith, grocer," grocer is the added noun, the important name which distinguishes this John Smith from others of the same family.
The natural structure, then, is apposition. When we talk well we add new names to those already uttered, and if our discourse grows to a final point, without hesitation and without temporary retreat, it is because we are willing to let verbal bygones be bygones; if we have come so far, we can probably go on. No small amount of practice is needed for a fluent use of this organic style, but the method itself is simple. We have only to sort out the ideas into such an order that they can be stated in sequence, added to each other without a break.
This structure is the key to good paragraph writing, and to good essay
writing in the large. The first sentence in the paragraph is simply the preliminary noun to which other sentences are added, until that first noun is completely sharpened to a point. We are then ready for another paragraph. And the essay as a whole ought to begin with the title as its first noun, and each paragraph should serve as a more vital adjective sharpening the title to its conclusion. Other structural devices are suggested by the grammars, but this principle underlies any coherent discourse. In spite of much talk of relative clauses and grammatical agreements, the closest relation is between the ideas which fall nearest. Proximity and succession are the secret of structure. If we bring together harmonious ideas, the effect is clarity; if incongruous ideas, the effect is humor. When the unfortunate merchant put out his sign, "Don't go elsewhere to be cheated, come in here," his grammar in the old sense was perfect, but from the point of view of human discourse it was humorously incorrect, since he had got the idea of cheating too close to his own premises.
The only other serious problem of the writer, once he has solved the question of order, is to know when to stop-not simply at what point to stop his essay or story, but when to stop each sentence and phrase. I assume that he has some dramatic sense of his audience, that he is the sort of person who, when he sees in his listener's face that his point is made, feels some compunction about adding unnecessary words. In ordinary talk he would stop the moment he saw he was understood; let the rest of the sentence take care
of itself. On the page, if he had a crude sort of courage, he might be willing to end his sentences with this same abruptness, punctuating with a dash. But the written page tyrannizes over us with formal ghosts, grammatical obligations. The writer therefore experiments in rearranging his sentence so that the key to it, the illumination which will show in the reader's face, is postponed till the end; hence the periodic structure, much praised in old grammars, and very little practised by competent writers. The objection to this device is that though it keeps the reader guessing up to the last moment, it does so, not because the discourse is of interest, but because it is, up to that point, comparatively unintelligible. The desire to make a striking effect in the last phrase or word sadly interferes with the natural sequence, the method of apposition, one essential noun added to another. A finer kind of technique states in their order those ideas which seem most important, and stops modestly whenever the point of illumination is reached. How shall we recognize that point? A shrewd writer discovers it by trying his manuscript on others. For some reason, though he knows his own ideas in advance, he probably has thought more words necessary than his friends are willing to attend to. As he reads, something in their silence makes him wish he had left out this or that.
If some old writers, like Milton, or even recent ones like Walter Pater or Hawthorne, seem elaborate to us now, rather slow and over-weighted, the reason perhaps is that with the
modern quickening of our nervous system we become more alert to the general meaning of discourse, and less patient with what seem purely grammatical elaborations. In such a speeding-up process, something, of course, is lost. There are those who say our present alertness is, after all, crude that we miss the subtleties of the old lengthy and involuted style. I do not hold with this opinion myself, but I do think we miss something else which has nothing to do with grammar. Speech has two uses: we can employ words to express definite meanings, or meanings as definite as we can make them; we can also enjoy words for their sound and texture, for the pleasure they give us aside from the intellectual meaning. Much of the older writing gave this pleasure and was intended to do so. I doubt if in our brisk and staccato modern style there is much opportunity for the musical overtones, the harmony and balance of phrase, the long rhythms, which distinguished the prose of such writers as I have here named. But I hasten to say also that this beauty of style was never acquired by a study of grammar, and in no essential does it contradict the principles of writers' grammar which I have here tried to suggest. Speech is still a maneuvering between speaker and hearer, an emotional and intellectual drama acted out in their imaginations, whether the purpose of the sounds be to tell us what time the train leaves, or whether the sentences we build have as their chief use to cast upon us a glamour and a spell.
WE'LL GO NO MORE A-ROVING:Any book-reviewer toughened to his trade has to marvel at the bright faces and lifted foreheads with which apprentices take it up. I have talked with those among them who were almost desperate with willingness to try the job. They seemed to regard book-reviewing as the natural spring-board into literature. Perhaps it is, but it is a spring-board which comes in time to lose most of its elasticity under accustomed feet and to become water-logged and lifeless. Therefrom results that curse of the trade, the formal review, with stereotyped structure and language and opinions, and, worse than all, without the eager vitality which marks the few good reviews that are ever written. Everybody who knows a reviewer has heard him talk excitedly about some book or other, and then has found that the man's review sounded as if he had lost his voice and had to let a machine do his talking for him. This is the case with the best reviewers. And the honest ones know it. Sooner or later, they all stop reviewing; at least, stop reviewing books in general. The advantage is, of course, that new writers are thus admitted to the trade. The disadvantage is that some of the older reviewers do
not notice what has happened to them and go on pouring chloroform into print. Every one of them who has a chance should take a whiff of his own medicine and allow it to have its way with him. I have the chance. I therefore now adjust the mask to my willing face and announce that the Roving Critic is only history, and very little of that.
During my final gasps, however, so strong are my habits, I want to speak of three American books which have made my spring a cheerful
SO THIS IS AMERICA:-First, there is "The Rise of American Civilization" (Macmillan), by Charles A. and Mary R. Beard. Ever since I heard of this book, some months ago, and saw the proofs of the opening chapter, I have looked forward to its appearance with an enthusiasm tempered only by respect for the task which the authors had set themselves. That was, anybody who knew anything about the Beards could be sure, to hunt out and explain the motives among Americans which have driven them to take the various courses which have resulted in their special civilization; and also to exhibit American civilization, with
all its thunder and verve, in a way which would show that life in America has always been more varied than its few primary motives would make it if they stood alone. There were, indeed, persons with whom I talked who were afraid that this new work would interpret the history of the United States too narrowly. They remembered that Mr. Beard had looked up the economic interests of the men who made the Constitution and had hinted that, if those men were men at all, they had probably not altogether forgotten their own interests in safeguarding those of the country. I had never been shocked by those earlier studies of Mr. Beard, but I did remember that there had been a certain dryness in the method which I thought would not go well with a general history of a nation which cannot be written about truthfully unless there is something fullbodied in the history.
A glance at the two volumes when they reached me showed that this was as full-bodied a history as anybody could want unless he wanted mythology as well. Though bulky, it is rapid. My guess is that Mr. Beard himself did the actual writing of most, if not all, of the narrative. It is, however, a new Beard who writes; a Beard who, having written argumentative documentary history and historical text-books, has put all such pedestrianism behind him and has let himself out, as he has occasionally done in his less formal writings. Still better, the book suggests, on nearly every page, the sound of Mr. Beard's voice, speaking with the knowledge and energy and leaping irony which made him one of the great teachers of his time, and make
him, in any company, the fear of fools and the delight of intelligent persons. Yet the new book is not at all a mere series of explosions. It is a chronicle superbly organized, admirably proportioned, and scrupulously written. Its heresies are magnanimous. And unlike many heretical books, it takes account of a great diversity of human attitudes. Much consultation has gone into it. This is the only general history of the United States known to me which seems to be aware at every step that Americans have been women as well as men. Furthermore, while emphasizing the realistic motives which have guided Americans in general, it finds time to analyze, with an abundance of sympathy, the romantic aspirations which have given American civilization its color as the realistic ones have given it its shape. Nothing that has actually happened in America is neglected, only the things which are merely pretended to have happened.
I have never been able quite to make out why the writing of history so often falls into the hands of those who insist that the record must be melodramatic to be interesting. At one time or another I have thought different things. But the Beards have put into my head the thought that perhaps there is no greater mystery about the matter than this: that the people with the best gift for reality are absorbed in making history, not in writing it, and that consequently history is ordinarily written by people who, having made little of it, marvel at it rather than explain it. This is where literature, particularly the dramatic element in literature, comes in. Events are