Hubert Butler, the Irish essayist too little known and appreciated in the United States (and perhaps in Ireland), wrote a letter to a magazine editor in 1943 explaining his manner of writing (“technique” is too clinical a word for so humane a writer) as “putting an idea across and working on it at the same time.” In defense of an essay the editor had found “obscure,” Butler clarifies what might have been mistaken for slipshod amateurishness:
“…as I felt fairly certain where I wanted to get, and there wasn’t much space, my idea was to hustle the reader (for his own good) past all the forks and turns and not picnic at each cross-roads and take him into my confidence. That would have been a different kind of journey. I was quite ready to make it, but not in that article…I usually find indirect methods the best and have sympathy with the man who gave his son a good slap so that he would remember having seen a salamander.”
I borrow this excerpt from R.F. Foster’s essay on Butler collected in The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland (2001). Foster, author of the definitive two-volume biography of Yeats, says of Butler: “...for his readers, the sense of delighted approbation and agreement is invariably moderated by a well-placed slap, reminding us that we have just encountered something special.”
One suspects the only slaps Butler ever delivered were metaphorical – admonishments, hard facts delivered as well-mannered hectoring, truths unburdened with fear or self-serving sympathy, all written with the utmost grace and without sermonizing. What honest writer in 20th-century Ireland, writing of matters Irish, would not resort to the strategic deployment of slaps? Odd to align them with “indirect methods,” but one understands. It’s a way to get the reader’s attention and keep it. To write indirectly is a matter of temperament, as is the use of slaps as mnemonic devices. A writer forever moving by indirection risks baffling readers; another, forever slapping, tedium and resentment. Another Irishman said as much in 1731 in “Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift”:
“Yet malice never was his aim;
He lashed the vice but spared the name.
No individual could resent,
Where thousands equally were meant.
His satire points at no defect
But what all mortals may correct;
For he abhorred that senseless tribe
Who call it humor when they gibe.”
[The essays of Hubert Butler (1900-1991) were not collected in books until starting in 1985 with the publication of Escape from the Anthill, followed by The Children of Drancy (1988), Grandmother and Wolf Tone (1990) and In the Land of Nod (1996). The only American edition of Butler’s work, Independent Spirit: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), is drawn from the four volumes published in Dublin by The Lilliput Press.]