A TRAVELLER IN ROMANCE
Somerset Maugham’s A Traveller in Romance discusses the nineteenth century novel: Style, subjects and topics, formats – all mostly apart from content. It makes for odd descriptions and overblown characters, and a lot of insignificant stuff that the twentieth century novelist dropped from manuscripts.
Most nineteenth century connotations about the novel has lapsed or expired; there are adherents clinging to them today, wondering why the English language is moving from those expressions and disregarding their volumes. From what I inferred Ulysses and its structures based upon theology and doctrine from the Catholic Church is an expression of the Nineteenth Century. Reading Virginia Woofe, and many of her literary enthusiasts present lapses in truth, logic, reason, and anything to make her prolix novels comprehensible.
From the other side of the literary world was a non-novelist who wrote the most splendid novels and terrific short stories: Youth and End of the Tether alone should make Joseph Conrad’s career. Every detail tells the story and builds without many literary artifacts derived from the Greeks, Romans, the Renaissance or from poetry. The stories define characters and actions. Hemingway does that in his more cryptic style.
Maugham highly criticized Henry James – HORRORS!
The faults of English writing have always been diffuseness, verbosity, and in the novelists of my generation, anaemia. This anaemia..we owe largely to an American writer, Henry James. His influence on English fiction was enormous. Henry James never came to gripes with life. He was afraid of it, and knew it only as you might know what is going on in a busy street by looking out of an upstairs window. The problems that he examined with such scrupulous integrity were little social problems of no real significance. But such was his skill, such was his charm and such was the power of his personality that he led many of the better writers in England to turn their eyes away from the needs, passions and immortal longings of humanity to dwell on the trivial curiosities of sheltered gentlefolk.
The verbosity of the English language…is due…to our love of words for their own sake, apart from the meaning they convey. (page 209)
Maugham’s comments about Herman Melville aroused my curiosity: “Good writing is a stylization of the common speech of the people. To my mind, the two great masters of prose the America has produced are Hawthorne and …Melville. Melville learned to write from his study of the great English stylists of the seventeenth century, and at his magnificent best he has a splendour, a majestic, resonant eloquence, that no modern writer has surpassed.” (page 209)
I remembered the antiquated style in Moby Dick. I reread. It is easy to recognize that book as an allegory, and once the reader keeps it in mind, neglect all else. Verbosity – why say in five words what can be said in twenty. Writers of English prose like to consider themselves as poets and sometimes playwrights. There are overblown passages. No one in English ever talks in the way that Melville has characters exchanging words. Thoughts of characters, the common person of the nineteenth century, did not consider Greek mythology or Biblical passages to consider, influence and control life, unless he was some egghead or bonehead living the simple life in the Massachusetts suburbs. But Thoreau did not think much of the Ancients – he was too busy counting tree rings.
Every early writer of English liked to consider themselves as poets. What is poetry, stylistically?
The best poetry is made up of nouns and their relationships with one another. Nouns are the medium. Nouns are the message. What is English prose, stylistically? The best prose depends on verbs. They make the language go; they take readers places. However, the longer the English sentence, the more likely readers will lose sight of the verb and lose their way, mired in words, prepositional phrases, wandering logic, roaming reason, dependent clauses with antecedents in independent clauses – before or after – four lines away, ample reliance on willing suspension of belief and exotic uses of grammar. Critics and others prize sentences, beautiful sentences – long and longer sentences. A modern English reader doesn’t give a hoot about sentences if they are unconnected to telling stories. Indeed, long and lengthy sentences lose most participants in conversation.
While reading along the analogy in Moby Dick, a reader can avoid many nineteenth century pitfalls. Just know Moby Dick primarily tells about the United States, 1850. The whales are the North. The crew and Ahab (John C. Calhoun) are the South – the consummate power of hate. The ship is the nation.