“He was the very model of a grand old man: punctilious, unbellicose, evenhanded, coasting with evident enjoyment down the waning rim of his life and into—well, posterity?”
Who is the subject of this enviably generous summing-up? When I read it again this week nearly fifty years after it was written, I was struck by how the virtues singled out by the author may no longer be judged virtues by many readers and writers. Punctilious? How bourgeois. How anal-retentive. How boring. Unbellicose? With patriarchies to smash? Running dogs to euthanize? Life is war. Evenhanded? Fairness is unfair. Enjoying life into old age? A privilege of the privileged.
In his foreword to a new edition of F.L. Lucas’ Style, originally published in 1955, Joseph Epstein writes:
“For Lucas, style `is personality clothed in words, character embodied in speech.’ He adds: `If you wish your writing to seem good, your character must seem at least partly so. And since in the long run deception is likely to be found out, your character had better not only seem good, but be it.’ He notes that before Napoleon appointed anyone to an important post he first asked whether he had written anything, and if so he wanted to read it so that he could see its style.”
[Guesses as to the identity of the writer described at the top and the author of the description are welcome.]
[ADDENDUM: In the passage at the top, L.E. Sissman is writing about W.H. Auden in “Auden” (Innocent Bystander: The Scene from the 70’s, 1975).]