America’s Text Life

While stalking the murky woods of final grading, your humble critic also foraged throughout the Internet, looking for choice edibles. Very local. So with today’s last spasm of energy, let me adduce the following links as evidence that humanity’s existential status is still blinking at “Worth Saving.” They are all about language and how we should take better care of it.

  • Norman Mailer’s critical fortunes have been on the wane for a while, though an eventual rebound is always possible for any writer whose name rang out during his lifetime. At least in the case of The Armies of the Night (1968), his fictional history/historical fiction/officious monologue about the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, this is unfortunate, because the book contains a wonderful depiction of the poet Robert Lowell, whom he found worthy of overlapping adjectives, “a fine, good, honorable man” whose “grace was in the value words had for him[.]” I love Mailer’s attention to the ethical consequences of language. As he saw it, Lowell always “seemed to emit a horror at the possibility of squandering them [i.e. words] or leaving them abused[.]” I tend to trust Mailer’s judgement on this, because in the same narrative he carefully dismantles the mid-century American version of imperial euphemism (VIETNAM WAR EFFECTIVE AND JUST). Dude spent time in the military and its profanity-rich cultural ecosystem, and guess what? “[A]ll the gifts of the American language came out in the happy play of obscenity upon concept, which enabled one to go back to concept again.” “What is magnificent,” declares Mailer, “about the word shit [sic] is that it enabled you to use the word noble[.]”
  • Years ago Paul Fussell’s Wartime (Oxford UP, 1989) drew my attention to the shit/noble point. Did you know that Fussell also wrote a slim study of Kingsley Amis? Follow that link to The Anti-Egotist (1994).
  • Dan has mentioned this essay before, so I apologize for repeating, but David Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence,” published near the end of the Bush/Cheney administration, is required reading. It will always be required reading. That crew’s loathsome rhetorical productions will be classroom material for decades. Think about all those lyric villainies. Extraordinary rendition. Coalition of the willing. Axis of evil. Shock and awe. The surge. Even Richard Nixon, coiner of “War on Drugs” and the “silent majority,” can’t touch that swag. Sadly, Bromwich’s text is behind a paywall, unless you have a subscription to the NY Review of Books (duh) or are on a campus/library network that has access. As 2013 ends, let’s recall that we live in a world that is in some ways worse than what the Bush vandals dreamed up, thanks to the Obama administration’s shameful expansion of the American security state.
  • Re: the above: This is your semi-daily reminder that President Obama is not a populist with a cool iPod and a Lapham’s Quarterly subscription, but a modestly progressive, by-all-appearances personally decent member of the USA’s detached elite. In other words, not horrible like Romney, but basically Bill Clinton without the adolescent sexual habits.
  • At Slate, Rebecca Schuman has a modest proposal: abolish the essay-writing component of content-based or otherwise discipline-specific introductory college courses (e.g. Western History 101, Intro to Great American Words, Philosophy’s Biggest Hits, Musicology for Physicists, et cetera). Instead, she argues, intro classes should base their grading on oral exams, which, she argues, would force students to actually master course material, reduce opportunities for long-winded bluebook bullshit, and consequently make life better for teachers, who wouldn’t have to slog through as much coal slurry. No more papers or essay exams; just answering questions that a real person poses in real time. Paper writing would be left for later classes, where students motivated about their majors would be more willing to put in the labor it takes to produce decent prose. The article has drawn brainlessly awful hate mail as well as thoughtful discussion. It is worth your five minutes. Come on. Slate articles are short, and it isn’t like other experienced teachers haven’t also brought this up. Granted, as a comp instructor who runs a lot of first-year classes, I don’t think it’s feasible to stop assigning papers altogether. In fact, I’m generally skeptical of Schuman’s pitch, if you read it literally and not Swiftianly. When it comes to writing instruction at most colleges and universities, it would be more immediately helpful to have smaller classes, better job security for faculty, and a  K-12 system that allowed its best teachers to actually teach kids how to write and read stuff besides Instagram captions and SAT swill.
  • If you write, edit, or publish in any professional capacity, you are tight with the Chicago Manual of Style, the “Grammar and Usage” section of which is written by Bryan Garner, who also wrote the best usage guide around for contemporary English, Garner’s Modern American Usage. When it comes to that small cohort of English speakers/writers/readers who care deeply (maybe even obsess, kibbitz, spasm, and fret) about grammar and usage, Garner and David Foster Wallace are fellow travelers. (Wallace’s long essay “Authority and American Usage,” published first in Harper’s as “Tense Present,” introduced me to Garner.) The point is, I seriously fucking care about hyphenating phrasal adjectives. The second point is, D.T. Max has a cogent little post on the New Yorker‘s website about DFW and BG. Like Mailer on Lowell, Max emphasizes that Wallace’s bone-deep fascination with English usage isn’t aesthetic snobbery but a form of moral imagination. See above, David Bromwich, or Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.”
  • Considering that I’m someone who is always looking for work, it would probably behoove me to be blandly professional on this blog, which pops up in Google searches.  On the other hand, I am from Virginia, I admire Thomas Jefferson, and Patton Oswalt is great:

Bang palace! (h/t Dan on this one)

  • Naomi Baron’s Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World (Oxford UP, 2008) is germane to everything if you live in an affluent country.
  • Since TGR didn’t get up a Weekend Beats post, I wanted to post a Tuesday jam. But because I’m on an Amtrak train (no big deal) right now, I can’t access YouTube content. This being the case, I suggest you listen to The Stranglers’ “Golden Brown” followed by Trina’s “Pull Over.” They’ll blend, TGR promises. Stay warm for the holidays.

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