Monday, July 07, 2014

`A Facility of Writing Acquired'

“The Faculty of Writing is attainable, by Art, Practice, and Habit only. The sooner, therefore the Practice begins, the more likely it will be to succeed. Have no Mercy upon an affected Phrase, any more than an affected Air, Gate, Dress, or Manners.” 

The clarity of thought, economy of expression and all those upper-case nouns are clues to the time when these sentences were written, if not the place. Chief among the reasons we read Swift and Johnson is the absence of mercy for affectation in language and thought. Prose in their hands is closer to mathematics than finger-painting. Each fashioned a thermostat to maintain the coolness of the words even when the sentiment is hottest. Though the eighteenth century spawned a disproportionate share of crazy poets (Cowper, Smart, Clare, Blake), almost as many as the United States in the twentieth century, its prose more often than not is eminently sane. 

The author of the sentences quoted above is the future first vice president and second president of the U.S., John Adams (1735-1826), writing to his wife, Abigail Adams, 238 years ago today, on July 7, 1776. Three days earlier, the Second Continental Congress had adopted the document he helped draft, the Declaration of Independence – a model of lucid, eloquent, unaffected prose. One of Adams’ American friends who signed the Declaration of Independence, the physician Benjamin Rush, dined in London with Boswell and Johnson, and John and Abigail Adams both admired the writings of, among others, Johnson, Richardson, Pope, Smollett and Sterne.     

Introducing his chapter on Sir Thomas Browne in Cultural Amnesia (2007), Clive James says: “The English language has always made its main initial impact through the turn of a single phrase.” An interesting observation, one that dovetails nicely with the way I tend to read, and that certainly applies to Adams, whose prose tends to be at once systematic and conversational. Later in the same letter Adams writes: 

“Set a Child to form a Description of a Battle, a Storm, a Siege, a Cloud, a Mountain, a Lake, a City, an Harbour, a Country seat, a Meadow, a Forrest, or almost any Thing, that may occur to your Thoughts. 

“Set him to compose a Narration of all the little Incidents and Events of a Day, a Journey, a Ride, or a Walk. In this Way, a Taste will be formed, and a Facility of Writing acquired. 

“For myself, as I never had a regular Tutor, I never studied any Thing methodically, and consequently never was compleatly accomplished in any Thing. But as I am conscious of my own Deficiency, in these Respects, I should be the less pardonable, if I neglected the Education of my Children.”

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