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· Wetting a Line \ Whetting the Points ·

Wendell Berry, in his 1990 book What Are People For? happily links style to fishing and gives me a convenient place to start.

 · Wetting a Line ·

Farmer-essayist Berry understands well Thoreau's dictum that getting one's "hands" dirty knocks the "palaver" out of one's writing, and he understands like Izaak Walton how to make points about style in some taut, intelligent lines about angling. Maybe that's why he focuses on Ernest Hemingway and Norman Maclean in his short essay, "Style and Grace."

The essay is about Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River" (1925) and Maclean's A River Runs through It (1976). Berry notes the clear strengths of these contrasting masterpieces of English style, praising Hemingway's craftsmanly fastidiousness — his "refusing clutter" in not fishing the narrative's famous swamp at last — and Maclean's "not so neat or self-contained, but just as fine," messiness — his choosing to fish in a story of loss, bewilderment, and misunderstanding for "the essential mysteriousness of our experience." I like his contrast, fastidiousness and messiness, and I recommend them both.

But I can't help noting Berry's ending:

I am only trying to make a distinction between two literary attitudes and their manifestations in styles.

Hemingway's art, in "Big Two-Hearted River," seems to me an art determined by its style. This style, like a victorious general, imposes its terms on its subject. We are meant always to be conscious of the art, and to be conscious of it as a feat of style.

Mr. Maclean's, in contrast, seems to me to be a used, rather than an exhibited art, one that ultimately subjects itself to its subject. It is an art not like that of the bullfighter, which is public, all to be observed, but instead is modest, solitary, somewhat secretive — used, like fishing, to catch what cannot be seen.

 · Whetting the Points ·

What cannot be seen, of course, is the big fish — named Grace — which, as Maclean's story makes clear (and you might note here), "comes by art and art does not come easy."

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Love it, Styles! Absolutely first class.

Posted by Mary Lee on November 22, 2002 09:34 AM

A Punny Thing Happened on the Way to . . . class, indeed. I'm arguably richer (and poorer) by two fine(d) turns of phrase at · You Got Style ·  At what rate? I particularly like Donald Knuth's — at the algorhithmic rate of $2.56 (though you appear to deserve the biblical [$3.16] rate, too).

Posted by Styles on November 22, 2002 10:15 AM


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