Wednesday, November 18, 2015

`On the Crown of the Road, Out of the Gutters'

Some of us value bluffness in writing and speech, especially from doctors, cops and critics. Get to the point, don’t try to ingratiate yourself, don’t soft-soap, euphemize or curry favor, and hold the filigree, please. Listen to Charles P. Curtis Jr. in the opening words of his preface: “To begin with, this anthology is for the thinker, and not for the feeler, primarily for the extrovert thinker. Needless to say, it runs over into some of his introverted and intuition margins.”

With this voice I’m already sympathetic, though I knew in advance Curtis was a Harvard-educated lawyer. His dichotomies seem central to understanding human nature: thinker/feeler, extrovert/introvert. By “extrovert” he doesn’t mean “hail fellow well met” or Mr. Popularity. He means the public man or woman, the parent, child, spouse, worker and citizen, not the sensitive plant.  Curtis and his co-editor of The Practical Cogitator; or, The Thinker’s Anthology (1945), Ferris Greenslet, work hard to address grownups. One can’t imagine such an anthology being assembled today, when adults are routinely treated (and treat themselves) like slow-witted children, and yet twenty-four editions of the Cogitator were published between 1945 and 1985. Curtis says he took his title from The American Practical Navigator (1802), an encyclopedia of navigation written by Nathaniel Bowditch, suggesting the book was intended not as a collection of greeting-card sentiments but as a sort of instructional manual. In the preface, Curtis outlines his rules for inclusion in the book:

“Nothing purely inspirational, nothing sentimental. And yet nothing cynical. Nobility of thought keeps on the crown of the road, out of the gutters.”

When was the last time you saw “nobility” used in a non-ironical sense? And another refreshingly common-sensical rule:

“Treatise, textbook, letter, novel, speech, verse, anything is given equal welcome. As to verse, none for its own sake, none simply because it was beautiful. Verse has been treated simply as another, more elegant, more memorable form of speech.”

You can glean a sense of Curtis and Greenslet’s values by considering the writers they most often quote: Montaigne, Oliver W. Holmes Jr., William James, and Whitehead. They have an unfortunate fondness for Emerson (and John Dewey, and E.B. White), partially redressed by the presence of Johnson, Santayana, Unamuno and Chesterton. In their chapter devoted to reading they quote with approval Edward Gibbon’s essay “Abstract of My Readings; with Reflections”: “Let us read with method, and propose to ourselves an end to which our studies may point. The use of reading is to aid us in thinking.” The editors quote a writer new to me, Guy Murchie. Despite their stated intention to include nothing “simply because it was beautiful,” Murchie’s two-page excerpt contains a list of names for the winds of the world. Here is a sample, pure poetry:

“. . . the brickfelder of southern Australia; the harmattan of North Africa; the belat, maloya, imbat, chubasco, bora, tramontane, leste, simoon, galerna, chocolatero, bize, crivetz, etesian, baguio, elephanta, sonora, ponente, papagayo, kaus, puelche, siffanto, solona, reshabar, purge, and others. . .”

That’s only half of Murchie’s catalog, but it suggests Curtis and Greenslet’s assumption that the world is a vast, well-stocked place, full of wonders and horrors (the volume was assembled during World War II), leaving us with no excuses for boredom. This is an ideal bedside or bathroom book, and Curtis himself makes excellent company. Here he is in his preface:

“We have tried to build a dry wall. If the reader finds that one of the stones has fallen out into the field, let him only take care not to stumble over it. The only cement is a few comments, from which the editors, looking over the reader’s shoulder, could not refrain.”

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