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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Points on Style's Triangle ·

Style is a difficult term, clearly in need of definition. From the Latin stylus, its root suggests a "sharply pointed writing instrument." Though adequate, that definition is limited at best. It's true, of course, that Style is a writing instrument — a quill, pen, and even MT-powered computer — but the term extends as well, and even more importantly, to the writer, reader, and meaning. No writer has made that point better, I think, than J. Middleton Murray.

Murray's classic The Problem of Style (lectures delivered at Brasenose College, Oxford, in the summer of 1921) is handy here, and I note therein this interesting passage:

We may make a little clearing in the jungle by considering the way in which the word Style is commonly used. I think that I detect at least three fairly distinct meanings; they appear in these three sentences. First, "I know who wrote the article in last week's Saturday Review — Mr. Saintsbury. You couldn't mistake his style." Second, "Mr. Wilkerson's ideas are interesting; but he must learn to write; at present he has no style." Third, "You may call Marlowe bombastic; you may even call him farcical; but one quality outweighs his bombast, his savagery, and his farce — he has style."

 · Style's Rhetorical Triangle ·

Murray naturally goes on to explain the sentences, delineating what is often depicted as the ethos, pathos, and logos of style's rhetorical triangle. Style is, as Buffon writes — adding some needed French orthography — l'homme mêmé: "the man himself." Again, it's a "teachable" technique — "only properly applied to the exposition," as Murray thinks, "of intellectual ideas" (though that's debatable). And last, it's a more "absolute" notion, referring to a quality which "transcends all personal idiosyncracy, yet needs — or seems to need — " Murray claims, "personal idiosyncrasy in order to be manifested. Style," he writes, "in this absolute sense, is a complete fusion of the personal and the universal."  J. Middleton Murray, The Problem of Style, Oxford UP, 1922, 4-6.

That's heady stuff, but it delineates the point well enough — at least for today. Maybe triangulates it.

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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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