Wednesday, September 12, 2018

'Within the Bounds of Your Beliefs'

Anthologies have always served as the private tutors I never had. A good anthology is suffused with its editor’s virtues and peccadillos, both of which are valuable. Comprehensive and yet personalized, it includes material you would expect alongside surprises. Every anthology I’ve ever read had something wrong with it, some galling omission, and I’ve come to think of that as a virtue. It makes you appreciate what you’ve already read and often sends you back to it with a renewed sense of gratitude.

In the case of Mark van Doren, who edited The Oxford Book of American Prose in 1932, his most blatant failure is leaving out Ulysses Grant, whose Personal Memoirs are written in the plain style by a former soldier who valued precision and concision. After Lincoln, he is the finest writer who ever served as U.S. president (I’m not forgetting the Founders). Van Doren includes Lincoln’s well-known letter to Grant written on July 13, 1863, with its magnanimous closing sentence: “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”

Among his laudable and unsurprising choices are three chapters from Moby-Dick, one from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, one from Henry Adams’ History of the United States, and one from Henry James’ The American Scene. The last is the chapter devoted to Charleston, S.C., in which James asks, in some of the grandest prose written by an American:

“How can everything so have gone that the only ‘Southern’ book of any distinction published for many a year is The Souls of Black Folk, by that most accomplished of members of the negro race, Mr. W. E. B. Du Bois? Had the only focus of life then been Slavery?--from the point onward that Slavery had reached a quarter of a century before the War, so that with the extinction of that interest none other of any sort was left.”

In his preface, van Doren tells us he purposely included no selections from writers born in the twentieth century. He includes passages from Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915), George Santayana’s Reason in Society (1905) and Mencken’s Prejudices series. There’s no Hemingway, Faulkner or Fitzgerald but you’ll find Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” and Ring Lardner’s “I Can’t Breathe.” The names of several contributors were new to me. Most interesting is Edgar Watson Howe (1853-1937), an Indiana-born journalist who edited a magazine, E.W. Howe’s Monthly. Van Doren includes a selection of aphorisms excerpted from Ventures in Common Sense (1919), with an introduction by Mencken. Howe writes like a slightly anemic Mencken:

“No man may write interestingly and keep within the bounds of your beliefs. He must occasionally go so far as to pleasantly shock you, and cause the uncomfortable feeling that a good man cannot follow him all the way. The author who aims to write nothing offensive to anyone presently writes only hymns and leaflets explaining the Sunday school lesson; and then only children read him; and they read him because they will be scolded if they do not.”

Well, yes, but Mencken wrote it more colorfully. Van Doren’s anthology is about prose, not poseurs.

1 comment:

Faze said...

I love your blog and read it daily. Interesting that you should comment on E.W. Howe. I've been horrified and fascinated by him for years. Rather than a second-rate Mencken, I see him as something like a bitter Elbert Hubbard.

Any collection of E.W. Howe's aphorisms is worth reading. They are like the Book of Proverbs: about half make you smile nod your head, and about half seem too obvious to be stated, or simply wrong.

E.W.Howe's son Edwin wrote a scathing profile of his father for the Saturday Evening Post of October 25, 1941, called "My Father was the Most Wretchedly Unhappy Man I Ever Knew". It more or less reveals that his Dad was what we now call bipolar. The son later committed suicide.