Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

A Note on Style*


 

In a recent number of the Chap-Book I find a note on the rarity of the literary essay in contemporary American letters, and our need of competent critics. I suppose all thoughtful persons have felt that need, the need of any careful adequate criticism of art and letters in America, but then we have a vicious habit of stifling all our complaints, and deluding ourselves with self-gratulation, a habit quite a vicious as the honorable English privilege of growling. The Englishman in a born growler, and he gets what he wants, the American is a child of cheap optimism, and he takes what he can get. So that it is quite unusual to find a writer actually complaining that we need anything, or admitting that we can be a hair's breadth short of perfection. And I mark particularly one sentence in this note. "Style," says the Chap-Book, "is exactly what young America has not."

Now that is a bold thing to say. It will not be pleasing to many. It does not flatter our vanity. It has not the touch of florid Americanism which so pleases Colonel Higginson. Still it is true and very wholesome. Having given Hawthorne and Emerson to English literature, America can well afford to let her reputation in letters take care of itself. And for the future we would do better to be severely critical of our faults and shortcomings and to keep them constantly in mind, than to be forever pluming ourselves, assuring ourselves, patting one another on the back. This is the cheap, loud and false manner of the daily press-the manner which literary criticism must always guard against if it would not become utterly vulgarized. So that it is a great treat to read an unflattering truth stated so honestly; for the young gentleman, whoever he may be, who has ventured to say that "style is exactly what young America has not," has laid his finger on a palpable flaw in the craftsmanship of the day. And I dare say he will be roundly taken to task for refusing to pander to our enormous egotism and self-complacency. Yet is seems to me that what he says is quite true; he could hardly have put it better; "Style is exactly what young America has not."

When you think over the goodly list of writers who fill our magazines and bookstalls with stories of South and North and East and West; who write with so much vivacity, so much color, so much faithfulness to the fact, so much sympathy and humor, often with so much insight, and at times indeed with imagination as well, do you think of them as stylists, or even as students of style? Do you not rather smile to yourself at the incongruity of the word stylist, when applied to one of them? It would be insidious to test that incongruity by such a series of specific applications. That would be an ordeal to which we would shrink to bring our favorites-those young writers of the day in whom we like to see great promise. Yet call up any half-dozen in your own mind; do you not instinctively hesitate before you dare to ask yourself if they are stylists? I do.

But then what does one mean by stylist and style? I suppose we would all agree in calling Newman and Matthew Arnold and Walter Pater and Robert Louis Stevenson stylists. But when it comes to adding a fourth name to the list, whose shall it be? Mr. Meredith's? I do not think I should choose him myself. Incomparable as he is-that grand inquisitor of the human soul-could you call him at once and without a second consideration a great stylish? A great mannerist he is, but far too tolerant of the whimsical, the eccentric and the outlandish in himself to be called a stylist.

But consider the word style as it is used in another sphere where it is more commonly understood. What do we mean when we say of a man in the street that he has style; or of a woman in society that she has style? We mean, I think, first of all, that they have a striking and indefinable power of arresting attention,-more than that, a power of arousing instant admiration. So that style primarily implies distinction. Then, too, of a person who is recognized as having style, disagreeable things are seldom found to say. So that style, even if it be lacking in perfect grace, in perfect graciousness, yet always has charm as well as distinction. And again, I find that when I think of persons as having style, I think of them as having a latent force of character, half-hinted in the nobleness of bearing and in the intuitive sincerity of demeanor. That they have self-possession and breeding goes unsaid. So that to distinction and charm, I should add power as an element of style. Neither will style, I take it, be found expressing itself in vagaries of dress, nor in solecisms of manner, nor in conspicuous deportment. It will be revealed in spite of itself, and with no wish to be remarked. It will rather seek immunity in the strongest convention, even in the fashion of the hour, wishing to move unnoticed in the world,-to be rather a beholder than a sharer of the pageant, yet adding to the reserve and humor of a bystander the dignity of command. One having style, then, I should say, will invariably be possessed of distinction, charm, power and serenity, in addition to that good breeding inseparable from culture. And style will never be commonplace or strained or mannered, for so it would be lacking in distinction; it will never be careless or slipshod, for so it would be lacking in charm; it will never be hurried, for so it would be lacking in power, and lastly it will never be turgid, and so lacking in serenity.

In the sphere of letters it is common to say that the style is the man; but in that aphorism, the word style is used somewhat indulgently as an equivalent of manner. For the quality of style, as I have used it just now, and as the writer in the Chap-Book used it, is a very rare one indeed, just as it is in life: whereas nearly every writer of any worth has a certain manner of his own, more or less marked and individual. To have distinction and charm and power and serenity is no common gift; and it is the presence of these unusual and admirable qualities in conjunction that I am thinking of when I say that Arnold and Newman and Pater and Stevenson are stylists.

Of course, all this sounds very precise and dogmatic. But I have only tried to think what I mean when I use the words style and stylist. Then, too, it is to be remembered that while it is the highest praise to call a writer a master of style, or even a careful stylist, a writer may be very great indeed and yet have no style. Carlyle was no stylist, for all his fiery eloquence. He was lacking in charm, lacking in serenity, lacking often in distinction. He had power too greatly in excess of his other qualities to be a stylist. The burden of prophecy strained his note, as it strained the note of Shelley in his earlier writings. Wordsworth, too, is a writer without a style, for all his inspired psalmistry. He had power and charm and serenity at his best; but he hardly had distinction; he was too homely for that, too parochial and native. And again, Byron had no style; he had not the least conception of style.

Among the great writers of America, I should say, for instance, that Whitman had no style. And if the Whitman Fellowship should rise up as one man, ready to hew me in pieces as a heretic and a detractor of greatness, I would meekly admit, for the sake of argument, the preŽminence of their idol, but I should still feel very doubtful of his style. I should feel that his splendid heroism in the cause of freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of expression, often betrayed him into executing his work with too much violence. I should feel that his note had been too strained, just as Carlyle's and Shelley's had been, by an overburden of intensity, to allow him to achieve a perfect style. Emerson doubtless had charm, he had perennial charm, and power and divine serenity. He made, I believe, as Matthew Arnold said of him, the greatest contribution of the century to English literature. He had, too, a manner entirely unique and unaffected, not wanting in simplicity, not wanting in interest and vitality, yet after all lacking in distinction, a manner therefore that cannot be called style. Like Wordsworth, he was too homely, too near nature, to be a stylist. Hawthorne, I should say, was the one American writer who had style.

I find, by the way, that I have chosen prose writers rather than poets as examples of what I mean, and what I fancy others mean, when speaking of stylists. If there is any significance in this, it is in the possible truth, that style is more apparent in prose than in verse. For the very use of verse lends of itself a distinction and charm to writing; yes, and a power and feeling of serenity as well. So that it is much harder to say of this or that poet that he has style, than it is to say of several prose writers, one has style and another has not.

And then, we come to thinking of living authors. The writer in The Chap-Book goes on to say that he would like someone to furnish him a list of American writers who might properly be called stylists. "If half a dozen can be found," he says, "five of them will belong to the generation that is passing away."

Now I have no intention of trying to furnish him with the desired tally of American writers who may properly be called stylists; indeed, his demand of half a dozen strikes me as appalling. But when I read his paragraph, I began, more for idle amusement than for anything else, to count how many American writers there actually are, whom I should call stylists. I found myself naming three without hesitation, and then faltering vacantly for a fourth. The first of these, Mr. Henry James is so famous for his style that I suppose everyone in making such a list would inevitable put him at the head. He has a style as slow as Walter Pater's, and almost as curious, but more pellucid; not equal to Stevenson's in vigor and freshness, nor equal to Arnold's in logical simplicity, yet perhaps the finest style among writers of English living today. That one should admit Mr. Meredith to be a greater novelist, and Mr. Kipling to be a more enthralling storyteller does not preclude the claim that Mr. James is a far more eminent stylist than either. Mr. Kipling, by the way, whose Jungle Book seems to me by far the most important addition to our literature made by one of the younger men, is another good instance of what one means by saying a writer may be admirable and yet have no style.

Mr. Henry James, then, is our first American stylist. The two others of my own choice are Mr. Lafcadio Hearn and Mr. James Lane Allen.

Now, although Mr. James does not belong to the generation that is passing away, it is only by courtesy that he can be claimed by Young America, as the Chap-Book means to use the term. Mr. Hearn is no longer among the writers who are called new, and we are left with Mr. Allen as our sole instance in rebuttal of the assertion that "Young America has no style." Confronted with such a scant array of witnesses for style among American authors, I do think of a possible fourth or fifth. I should put the name of Mr. Russel Sullivan beside Mr. Allen's as a story writer who is first and last and always careful of his style; who never overwrites himself; who is never slipshod or hurried or violent or insincere; and who is never guilty of crimes against taste, offences to beauty. Think of it! How little this seems to say, and yet of whom else can it be said? Of how many can it even be said, as it can of Mr. Allen and Mr. Sullivan that they always write like gentlemen? Of course, there is Miss Guiney; she always writes like a gentleman. She is the possible fifth of whom I thought; and still I hesitated to mention her for two reason. First, because she is a poet, and I had thought only of naming prose writers. Secondly, because though Miss Guiney has an individuality of expression beyond her fellows, more striking and more beautiful, she has the Meredithian fault of involution; like her beloved Elizabethans she is not always free from the fantastic; she can hardly plead not guilty to the charge of occasionally torturing expression; so that with all her genius which we so much admire, she cannot be quite acquitted of crimes against simplicity, of offences, therefore, against beauty. I have said so much in praise of Miss Guiney's poetry before now, that I hope not to be called impertinent in finding fault with her style. Indeed, if she could be known to the public as she is known to her friends through her private correspondence she would have to be accounted among Young Americans the most competent stylist of them all.

But there! One is hurried away into the vortex of personalities and preferences and prejudices. I shall say no more of my instance of what seems to me style; I have probably said too much already. The question that naturally follows such a meagre conclusion is, "Why is style exactly what Young America has not?" I have at least one suspicion of the cause, and I fasten it upon journalism. If there are not half a dozen American writers who may properly be called stylists, how many American journals are there that know what style really is, or make so much as a pretence of encouraging it in their columns? And among journals I mean to include, of course, our great popular magazine, like Munsey's and the Century. The Atlantic possibly may be counted an exception as a periodical which pays some heed to the sort of English it prints, but then the Atlantic is not popular. It is rather an exigency than a fault, perhaps, that our journals should be indifferent to style, and that their influence should tend to make careful writing seem a thing of very little importance. In their world the fact is the main thing; in the world of art the fact is entirely secondary. A man who never has time to make a good sentence himself will not be likely to appreciate painstaking in others. If anything, he will be a little impatient of it; he will grow to scorn it as a mark of overrefinement and fastidiousness. Driven to work at high speed himself, the journalist will gradually lose whatever artistic conscience he may have had; he will lose his felicity, his individuality, his devotion; and he will fill their place with the facility acquired in routine and the clap-trap engendered by haste. He will look with shame on the gradual process of his own degeneration; yet it will go on. His bread will be buttered on that side; and he will know it. He will not have the strength to turn it over and butter it on the other side; if he had, he would not remain a journalist; a magazinist, a clever writer of short stories; he would be a stylist, or at least he would have some of the makings of a stylist in him. But no one can have style at the rate of thirty words a minute.

The beauty of style is like the beauty of nature, achieved only through infinite care of results, with infinite carelessness of time. The successes of journalism are achieved through infinite care of time, with infinite carelessness of the manner in which the results are expressed. And it is in journalism that the genius of America is expressed; in it her civilization has found its most distinctive activity. Journalism, which has come to perfection, or at least come to its supremacy, in America, may be said to represent her genius, and to be the distinguishing characteristic feature of her intellectual life, just as the drama may be said to represent the genius of Elizabethan England, and to be the most salient feature of the intellectual development of that age. It is the most natural thing in the wor[l]d, then, that the methods of journalism should obtain in American literature; and that when one finds a certain flaw in that literature, one should look for its cause in that journalism. As a matter of fact, the American novel, as we understand it today, the realistic novel, is a product of journalism, a sort of glorified interview. Its producers have imported the methods of the newspaper into the domain of art. And we hail one young writer after another with joy and acclamation when he sends in his repertorial copy from his own particular kail-yard; we praise his vivid local color, his wonderful realism, his faithfulness to nature. Has he imagination? What a gratuitous, what a superfluous question! Who cares for imagination in the face of such marvellous local color? Has he style; does he even write good English? What an absurd question! How impertinent to think of grammar and style in the face of such magnificent realism! Has he the artistic sense? How ridiculous! Of course, he is artistic; think of his matchless faithfulness to nature. Alas, we forget that nature is almost never artistic. We forget that the dramatic and the significant and the artistic have to be carefully selected from nature with infinite pains and wisdom, and that it is the artist's business, the novelist's business, so to select them. In consequence of just such fallacies, in consequence of the prevalence of journalistic standards in the field of letters, the vast mass of our fiction is hopelessly overlaid with the depressing gloom of everything that is commonplace and insignificant-the grayness of the commonplace, the tedium and dulness of the insignificant. I do not mean to say that journalism is tedious or dull; far from it. These are the very sins it most abhors. I only mean to say that the methods of journalism are productive of tedium and dulness when employed in the field of art, a field for which they are utterly unfit and inadequate; and that whatever else they may give us, they will never give our literature style, they will never give it distinction or charm or power or serenity; in truth, they will really tend to destroy all these qualities and to make style almost a hopeless rarity.

It is true that the stylist, like the poet, must be born; that a feeling for style, like a talent for music, can never be wholly acquired; and yet the stylist must be made as well as born. With infinite pains and labor and study, he comes to his perfection. Loving care must be the first law of his life, for hurry is his death. But in journalism hurry is the first law of life; perhaps one might almost say that in America hurry is the first law of life. At all events, I am sure that loving care is one of the secrets of style, and that "style is exactly what Young America has not."


"A Note on Style," Boston Evening Transcript, Sept. 12, 1896 [back]