Thursday, September 13, 2018

'Grazing Idly in a Literary Pasture'

For no good reason I’ve read very little by Donald Hall, who died recently at age eighty-nine. Partly out of guilt I resolved to read at least one of his books. Almost at random I took Principal Products of Portugal: Prose Pieces (1995) from the library shelf, because I liked the title’s non sequitur. He explains his choice of title like this:

“. . . code for things miscellaneous, unrelated, boring, and probably educational. The title should please not only for its prodigious procession of p’s but for its metrical Longfellowship, bringing back memories of ‘This is the forest primeval, the mur- ’—and rote recitation standing in the third grade doing the multiplication tables, 7s maybe, or maybe the principal products of Portugal.”

This is a man who ought to have run a blog. The thought is confirmed by a number of Hall’s essays, which usually avoid academic mummification on one side and folksy jolly-good-fellowism on the other. Hall’s voice is casual and conversational but he never whispers the lousy writer’s lament: Love me. Love me. Take “Long Live the Dead,” originally published in that well-known scholarly journal the Boston Globe. From the title you would never guess it was devoted to Hall’s love of Edward Gibbon. He starts with this:

“Really, disinterested reading—reading by whim or chance, without conscious purpose—contributes most to a writer’s interest. Grazing idly in a literary pasture, we discover manners of language alien to our habit, which allow us new invention. If we stick to what we already know, we stick to what we already do.”

As an undergraduate, Hall had tried to read Gibbon, he says, “but I never took him in.” In late middle age he tried again, and everything was different: “I took him in whole, headlong, in an ecstasy of disinterested reading. I read nothing for months but Gibbon, poleaxed by rhythms, by syntax that branched like a maple, by irony administered through sentence structure.” Hall’s experience with Gibbon resembles my own. I tried when young, succeeded at age forty-seven. Now I periodically revisit, using the notes I took as a guide. Hall and I share another late-life revelation:

“Reading Gibbon I discovered the pleasure of reading two books at once. While I studied the decline and fall of Rome, I also attended to the mind of the later eighteenth century.”

And, of course, as is always the case when rereading, another book is added to the stack, for you will recall scraps of your previous readings, and the sort of person you were. Every book in the hands of a thoughtful reader is a palimpsest. Hall says Gibbon sent him back to the Greek and Roman historians, and then to Hume, Macaulay (“whose gorgeous prose expends itself in sentimental pursuit”) and Henry Adams. Perhaps history is an old person’s preserve after all. Hall credits Gibbon with “drawing my attention to neglected possibilities of language, especially long controlled sentences in which syntax (enforcing its own drumbeat or rhythmic dance) provides or enables judgment. And Gibbon encouraged me to depart from the imitation of common speech. . . . The tone of a vocabulary establishes a vocabulary of tone.”

I enjoy reading what a poet has to say about prose. We like to assume his awareness of language and its potentials and limitations is informed, perhaps privileged. Not always the case, of course, but here’s something Hall writes in another essay in Principal Products of Portugal, devoted to Henry Adams:

“Among the great historians, Henry Adams’s style does not call attention to itself so much as the styles of Gibbon, Macaulay, and Parkman—not to mention (as I suppose) Tacitus or Thucydides. But it is no glass of water.”

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