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· Compromising Style: Malcolm Cowley on Socspeak ·

I'm sure you've seen what I call compromising style. It follows from delivering what's wanted, not what's needed. The compromiser typically writes worse than he can, promising to go along — to get with the program: toeing someone else's line toward a presumed, predicted, pompously prescribed point. Although it necessarily marks a favored way to bureaucratic perdition, it does of course pay one's bills.

 · Malcolm Cowley ·

I got to thinking about all this Friday though prudence begs me skirt specific circumstances, but I thought to share the literary generics. And who should come to my aid but Malcolm Cowley, the literary chronicler of "The Lost Generation." From 1948 to 1985 Cowley regularly advised The Viking Press and, in 1956, wrote an impressively witty piece called "Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification." I thought to share it today. Although I can represent it only partially, it is an instructive tale of "compromising style."

I have a friend [Cowley begins] who started as a poet and then decided to take a postgraduate degree in sociology. For his doctoral dissertation he combined his two interests by writing on the social psychology of poets. He had visited poets by the dozen, asking each of them a graded series of questions, and his conclusions from the interviews were modest and useful, though reported in what seemed to me a barbarous jargon. After reading the dissertation I wrote and scolded him. "You have such a fine sense of the poet's craft," I said, "that you shouldn't have allowed the sociologists to seduce you into writing their professional slang — or at least that's my judgmental response to your role selection."

My friend didn't write to defend himself; he waited until we met again. Then dropping his voice, he said: "I knew my dissertation was bady written, but I had to get my degree. If I had written it in English, Professor Blank" — he mentioned a rather distinguished name — "would have rejected it. He would have said it was merely belletristic."

Perhaps it's well to recall that — as Robert Frost once said "belletristically" — "I was educated by degrees." What Frost really meant, etymologically, was, of course, "by degradation." You can bet Cowley knew the derivation. But I'm happy to report that Cowley himself turned to the grammatical rather than rhetorical implications of Socspeak, summarizing in his final paragraph the sort of "degradation" (or "transmogrification") grammar undergoes in Socspeak. It's a matter, you might note, of "conquered" parts of speech.

The whole sad situation leads me to dream of a vast allegorical painting called "The Triumph of the Nouns." It would depict a chariot of victory drawn by the other conquered parts of speech — the adverbs and adjectives still robust, if yoked and harnessed; the prepositions bloated and pale; the conjunctions tortured; the pronouns reduced to sexless skeletons; the verbs dichotomized and feebly tottering — while behind them, arrogant, overfed, roseate, spilling over the triumphal car, would be the company of nouns in Roman togas and Greek chitons, adorned with laurel branches and flowering hegemonies. Malcolm Cowley, 'Sociological Habit Patterns in Linguistic Transmogrification,' Reporter, Vol. 15, No. 4, September 20, 1956.


Today, alas, I feel "robust" enough — but a little "yoked and harnessed." I feel like a "February adjective" to an October post.

And tomorrow, I have jury duty.

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