Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Bad Company and Good Prose

Heather Cox Richardson

Once again, I have been keeping bad company. This time my unsavory companion is Thurlow Weed, master wire-puller of nineteenth-century New York politics, and the mastermind of much that I find troubling in the deeply troubled years of the Civil War era.

Fortunately, Weed kept quite good company himself. . . at least after he died. Historian Glyndon Van Deusen produced a biography of Weed in 1947 from which I have learned more than I wanted to know about New York politics, but from which I have also gotten new ideas about the importance of engaging prose. Van Deusen’s book is remarkably readable. Here he is, for example, on the industrial world of the late nineteenth century:

The Civil War and the ensuing years saw the opening of a new era in American life. In the North, a great migration of farmers swept into the lands west of the Mississippi, transforming that region into the granary of the world. Industry assumed gigantic proportions. The smoke that belched from thousands of chimney stacks, the fires that glowed at night in the steel towns, symbolized opportunities that drew a motley crowd of dreamers and spoilers, builders and wreckers, into the industrial cockpit. Chambers of commerce increased and multiplied, side by side with
Murderers’ Alleys and Poverty Lanes. Sleek dwellers in brownstone fronts and gimcrack chateaux looked down their noses at their country cousins, and shuddered with distaste as they saw trade-unions take root and grow in the darkness and squalor of the tenement districts. The age of Big Business had arrived, with all its glory and all its shame. (317)

This paragraph carries the weight of setting up the postwar world in which Weed operated, and it does so pretty thoroughly, it seems to me. Van Deusen creates a memorable paragraph primarily through his use of striking nouns—granary, dreamers, spoilers, builders, wreckers, cockpit, Murderers’ Alleys, and so on—an unusual technique compared to the more common reliance on strong verbs. He uses strong verbs, too, of course. The sentence: “Sleek dwellers in brownstone fronts and gimcrack chateaux looked down their noses at their country cousins, and shuddered with distaste as they saw trade-unions take root and grow in the darkness and squalor of the tenement districts” uses both nouns and verbs effectively to create a portrait of the era.

Surprisingly, Van Deusen does not use color, smell, or specific images to convey his point. Perhaps those are techniques of a later generation of writers, but color, at least, would have fit well here.

This sort of sweeping paragraph is less popular nowadays than it was in 1947. Today’s editors seem to prefer an individual point of view rather than the sort of omniscience Van Deusen uses. Today’s cry is for “boots on the ground,” an individual set of eyes through which a reader can see.

While I’m all for the idea of carefully constructed individual points of view, abandoning this older style entirely seems to me a loss. For me, these bird’s-eye snapshots provide the backdrop in front of which the action takes place, kind of a scan of the area before focusing on the figures in the foreground.

Am I the only one who likes these old-fashioned broad-brush descriptions?


Randall said...

Heather: I've recently been reading a lot of mid-century literary historian, American Studies precursor Van Wyck Brooks (pronounced like "bike"). I think he's a masterful stylist. And talk about birds-eye view. . . He has an uncanny ability to set a scene and paint a picture of intellectual life in 19th century America. I don't think he's read much any more, but he should be, for his prose alone.

See the The Flowering of New England, 1815-1865.

You might be right about how style has changed. But I think it may be that historians today are cautious of writing in a sweeping fashion.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

Maybe we don't write this way because such lovely descriptions are hard to footnote. :)

Randall said...

Ha! Good point.

Perhaps it's time to reconsider footnotes inside of footnotes as one step closer to infinite regression.

Unknown said...

I just ordered an old hardcover copy of Paxson's History of the American Frontier, because I liked the settings. I'd like to think it's possible to do this, and then zoom in to the close shot of characters.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

The first "big" history like this I was exposed to was Braudel's "Mediterranean World." I fell in love. I'd never read anything like it.