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· Mark Twain's Speaking-Truth-To-Power Style ·

I found an interesting Mark Twain passage today. Quoted in Larzer Ziff's brief study, Mark Twain, part of the Lives and Legacies Series (Oxford 2004), it catches perfectly what might be called Twain's speaking-truth-to-power style.

Its prompt was simple. Twain was suddenly levied taxes in 1887 on his English royalties, and rather than write to the revenue clerk who'd informed him, Edward Bright, he wrote to Queen Victoria instead. You can almost hear the old writer say, "No Taxation without Representation," while presenting himself in a cagey tone of mock familiarity to Her Highness.

I do not know Mr. Bright [Twain wrote], and it is embarrassing to me to correspond with strangers, for I was raised in the country and have always lived there, the early part in Marion County, Missouri, before the war, and this part in Hartford County, Connecticut, near Bloomfield and about 8 miles this side of Farmington, though some call it 9, which it is impossible to be, for I have walked it many and many a time in considerably under three hours and General Hawley says he has done it in two and a quarter, which is not likely; so it has seemed best that I write your Majesty.
 Mark Twain, 'Petition to the Queen of England,' in Larzer Ziff, Mark Twain (New York: Oxford, 2004), 100; Ziff below, 101.

As Dr. Ziff says, "[Twain's] was a being that constantly manifested itself in his writings . . . yet was never embodied by them . . . an uncontainable force that could burst forth at any moment regardless of context." That's why, when given his honorary doctorate from Oxford, Twain slyly said, "I like the degree, but I'm crazy about the clothes."

Charming. Perhaps Matthew Arnold's shade might even have said then: "Hereabouts, Sam, it's 'the best that has been thought and said.'"

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· For the Class That You Showed ·

     · Johnny Carson ·

Johnny Carson (1925-2005)

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· Whose Words These Are I Think I Know ·

You should maybe hear in my title a poetic line from Robert Frost. It's changed, of course — his "woods," from "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," turn (without acknowledgement) now into my "words."

I begin this way because, poetry notwithstanding here, my subject today is history — especially this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. We Americans celebrate it each January, of course. My own day I've spent preparing for a writing class tomorrow, one King has long figured in. Of interest has been a scholarly essay noting King's quoting of black clerics, but citing white, in My Pilgrimage to Non-Violence (Keith Miller, "Composing Martin Luther King, Jr." PMLA, January 1991).

Miller's claim is interesting. He explains how in borrowing from black preachers, King is not rightly to be charged, thoughtlessly, at least, with plagiarism. My students always take his essay to heart.

My purpose, however, is neither to commit nor commend such borrowing, but rather, in the interest of study, to inform solid, scholarly reading — which, as I tell my students, necessarily includes three key tasks:

  • abstracting the main ideas,
  • noting any ordered figures of speech,
  • and observing the main divisions of topical organization.

Here I thought to note just the second, implicitly giving you the gist of Miller's essay. Fit to the task is an email I wrote Friday to a student who, down with an incipient cold, asked me for a short study update. Here is our exchange.

Student: I will not be able to attend class today (1/14), and I sincerely apologize for this. I have been trying to fight off a bad head cold (even though it's just beginning). I would greatly appreciate any information you could give me as to what the class read or discussed today, granted no new hand-outs were given. I apologize for the inconvenience.

Styles: My thanks for your note. Since not everyone finished it, we had a conversation today about Miller's essay. I stressed only his use of figures, ignoring everyone's suggested titles and Miller's topical divisions. We'll do them Tuesday.

His main concerns are three: the key word "borrowing" (which when critics quote it may be ironical), his two phrases "shared treasure" (suggesting money and coinage) and "the black folk pulpit" (preachers preaching, literally, at Ebenezer Baptist Church), and, last, his key claim that King's discourse is whole-cloth weaving not quilt-making ("tapestry" not "patchwork" [p. 75]). You should note, however, Miller's prior use of "mine," "weld," and "alloy" — metallurgical terms — which he does not, of course, stress so much.

This reading, though technical, is really quite helpful in understanding Miller's argument. We all began, by the way, saying whether we agreed or not with his claim, however much we really understood it.

Do get well. I'll start analyzing his text and thought more Tuesday. Then you can share your own suggested title.

This short title, a classroom heuristic I use, will take the form tomorrow of "_____________, _____________, and the Idea of _________________." It helps my students inform their understandings of what I call an author's "conceptual topic." But tonight my topic is just bedtime, or, as Frost might say (echoing a prayerful rhyme), "Now I lay me down to sleep."

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· Function Follows Form, Indicatively Speaking ·

So, you might ask, where have I been? My answer involves more, alas, than a cursory glance at holiday cheer or a quick nod at my newly-begun winter quarter. For as I hint above, I've surfaced from recently-mentioned backend matters, always a regrettable time sink. Just ask the sleepy programmers at MovableType, the guys surviving on double-strength Starbucks coffee and sugary Coke. Mark my formal, but hardly functional, snippet of MT-3 javascript — pointedly deformed now merely to appear online.

if (canFormat) {

   with (document) {

      write('" href="#" onclick="return formatStr(document.entry_form.text, \'span class=\'blockquote\')"> · <MT_TRANS phrase = Blockquote · " width="24" height="19" border="0" />');

      write('" href="#" onclick="return formatStr(document.entry_form.text, \'span class=pullquote\')"> · <MT_TRANS phrase = Pullquote · " width="24" height="19" border="0" />');



Function Follows Form
It renders two very helpful buttons I've crafted to "blockquote" my code above and, indeed, to "pullquote," at left, its point: "Function Follows Form" (indicatively speaking). I've thought to share it to demonstrate how self-referencing recursions can sometimes be partly seen in textual or visual representation, at least if carefully deformed and wholly unworkable. Happily, you can find them both below, even if you can't use them in my two left-hand BQ/PQ buttons.

 · <MT_TRANS phrase = MT's Javascript> ·

Naturally, there are more — involving Perl script, ASCII code, binary digits, electrons, quarks, even theorized strings, I hear. All of which goes to show that such backend matters can become enormously complicated.

But it's been that way from the get-go. Indeed, you might recall my first nod to Geoffrey Hartman's apt take on style, "an index of how the writer deals with the consciousness of mediation." So I thought to end by extending Hartman's point with a quotation drawn from a programmer much smarter than I, LeRoy Searle — a Seattle writer who marks Hartman's point also more stylishly than I:

[T]he shape of language, as articulation [Searle writes], is the realization of a potential; and what is produced in the exercise of the power is a form. Linguistic insight is based on the ability to infer from manifest examples the function of the example from its form, as when one recognizes that the relation between a topic and a comment is invariant, no matter what the content of the topic or the comment. So too with subjects and predicates, noun phrases and verb phrases, parts of speech, inflectional patterns, and so on. It follows that items in a language have not "meaning" but only a distinctive shape and that understanding any articulate expression requires assigning an interpretation to that shape. Leroy Searle, 'Afterword' to Critical Theory Since 1965, eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle (Tallahassee, FL: Flordia State University Press, 1986), 864.

Naturally, I'll leave that interpretation to you.

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