“In his writings we have so competent a grasp of what was to be said, that we have the effect of italics without the use of them.”
High praise. The misuse or overuse of italics is a vulgar affectation, like writing solely in capital letters or using multiple exclamation points (or any, for that matter). The structure and rhythm of a sentence, bolstered by word choice, make italics irrelevant except in book and film titles, and when quoting words in a foreign language that haven’t been assimilated into English. Of all prose virtues, clarity is supreme. If I can’t understand you, your thoughts have little value and I will probably stop reading. Sometimes, on the other hand, if I understand you too readily, I’ll probably stop reading.
The writer quoted at the top is Marianne Moore in the April 1926 issue of The Dial. Nominally, she is reviewing two new editions of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, but in fact is celebrating Johnson as man and writer. When Donald Hall interviewed Moore for the Paris Review, he asked about the influence of prose stylists on her poetry. The first work she cites is Johnson’s “Life of Savage.” She repeatedly identifies Johnson as a favorite model for her poetry and prose. Moore follows her sentence above with this:
“There is also an abundant naturalness, and a simplicity which like that of Abraham Lincoln, was not ashamed to be vulnerable to distress.”
A writing lesson and enormous insight into both men are packed into that sentence. The Complete Prose of Marianne Moore (ed. Patricia C. Willis, 1986) can be consulted as a writing manual. She writes (and quotes):
“Consciousness of lack or of disappointment is an odd part of self-sufficiency and an unselfconscious attributing of value to the minute is seen in the statement: ‘Nothing is little to him that feels it with great simplicity; a mind able to see common incidents in their real state is disposed by very common incidents to very serious contemplations.’”
[The sentence quoted by Moore is from a letter Johnson wrote to Joseph Baretti on July 20, 1762, and is transcribed by Boswell in his Life of Johnson.]