Tuesday, January 01, 2008

`The Shallows Where the Suckers Moon'

In 1952, A.J. Liebling devoted a book, The Honest Rainmaker, to James A. Macdonald, aka Colonel John R. Stingo, a New York racing writer who worked for the precursor of The National Enquirer. By the time Liebling met him in 1947, the Colonel was a stylish, superannuated con man who had lived for decades in the Dixie Hotel on Forty-Third Street in Manhattan. He was, in short, a hero to Liebling, whose raffish Weltanschauung (a deliciously pretentious Germanism he detested) repudiated his father’s respectable bourgeois values. His adopted father figure, Stingo, took as his nom de plume an old English word meaning “strong ale or beer.” I introduce The Honest Rainmaker because, if you haven’t read it, it’s an excellent way to start the reading year. A funny book that blurs distinctions between journalism and fiction, it’s the least stuffy epistemology you’ll ever laugh through. More importantly, on the first page, Liebling encourages bloggers everywhere:

“The Colonel has always believed that fortune swims, not with the main stream of letters, but in the shallows where the suckers moon.”

We bloggers swim in the literary shallows, an ecosystem we ought to cherish. Though vulnerable to self-importance, especially our own, and to bad writing (ditto), we’re blessed with the gift of independence, free to grow as writers, to learn or hone the craft, and to make asses of ourselves in public. Are we suckers? Only a sucker would do this gratis. At the start of The Rural Life, Verlyn Klinkenborg observes that each new year inspires him to contemplate keeping a journal:

“What drives the impulse toward New Year’s journal keeping is….the shocking realization that the only thing left of the old year is a few tufts of wool caught in the barbed wire. What I want a journal to do could be done just as well by a more aggressive savings plan.”

Klinkenborg goes on to laud the great diary and journal keepers in the English tradition, Pepys and Boswell, for their “dogged absence of self-consciousness”:

“The value of Pepys’s diary and Boswell’s journal is the world they depict and only incidentally the depiction of their authors.”

I don’t think Klinkenborg means that Pepys and Boswell are absent from their proto-blogs, or that we would wish them to be so. Rather, we come to value what they value, what they deemed important in their times and places -- details of food and drink, sex and commerce, medicine and religion. By their choices, they reveal themselves. One of the bittersweet joys of watching old movies, especially from the silent era, are the incidental details captured by the camera behind or off to the side of the action -- billboards, restaurant signs, horse-drawn wagons. So, too, with us. Who knows what our great-grandchildren and their offspring will cherish in some throwaway clause we’ve written? There’s much pleasure to be discovered in inadvertent documentary content. Klinkenborg says that if he were to succumb to journal keeping, “this is what I have in mind. I want to count the crows in the field every afternoon. I want to record the temperatures, high and low, every day and measure the rain and snow. If a flock of turkeys walks into the barnyard, I want to mention the fact,” and so one. And here’s another, related reason to persevere as a blogger, brought to you by Theodore Dalrymple:

“Thanks to the fact that I write, my life is satisfactory. I can inhabit gloom and live in joy. When something unpleasant happens to me, provided only that it is potentially of literary use, my first thought is `How best can I describe this?’ I thereby distance myself from my own displeasure or irritation. As I tell my patients, much to their surprise -- for it is not a fashionable view -- it is far more important to be able to lose yourself than to find yourself.”

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