February 16, 2004

Stuck inside of Fowler with the Memphis blues again

Tracking the prescriptivist revulsion against transpire back through time, I recently came to the section on Americanisms in the 1908 second edition of H.W. Fowler's The King's English:

There are certain American verbs that remind Englishmen of the barbaric taste illustrated by such town names as Memphis ... A very firm stand ought to be made against placate, transpire, and antagonize...

I found myself completely unable to understand this. Why should placate remind an Englishman of Memphis? And what is barbaric about Memphis as a town name? Fowler footnotes transpire in order to explain that he oppposes it "[e]ven in the legitimate sense (see Malaprops), originally a happy metaphor for mysterious leaking out, but now vulgarized and 'dead'." Does he really mean that we should remove all dead metaphors from the lexicon? Few words would be left.

Fowler continues:

Mr. Rudyard Kipling is a very great writer, and a patriotic; his influence is probably the strongest that there is at present in the land; but he and his school are americanizing us. His style exhibits a sort of remorseless and scientific efficiency in the choice of epithets and other words that suggests the application of coloured photography to description; the camera is superseding the human hand. We quote two sentences from the first page of a story, and remark that in pre-Kipling days none of the words we italicize would have been likely; now, they may be matched on nearly every page of an 'up-to-date' novelist:

Between the snow-white cutter and the flat-topped, honey-coloured rocks on the beach the green water was troubled with shrimp-pink prisoners-of-war bathing.—Kipling.

Far out, a three-funnelled Atlantic transport with turtle bow and stern waddled in from the deep sea.—Kipling.

Trying to grasp the "remorseless and scientific efficiency" of honey-coloured and waddling, I had an insight. I was trying to make sense of this chapter as a work of scholarship, but I should have been reading it as a modernist prose poem, a sort of cubist collage of the classic themes of European anti-Americanism. Trying to make literal sense of Fowler's objections to Memphis and Kipling is just as pointless as asking Bob Dylan exactly what it means to have the Memphis blues in Mobile:

Grandpa died last week
And now he's buried in the rocks,
But everybody still talks about
How badly they were shocked.
But me, I expected it to happen,
I knew he'd lost control
When he built a fire on Main Street
And shot it full of holes.
Oh, Mama, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Mobile
With the Memphis blues again?

As Fowler's contemporary Mallarme wrote: "Nommer un objet, c'est supprimer les trois quarts de la jouissance du poème qui est faite du bonheur de deviner peu à peu ; le suggérer, voilà le rêve." Well, for some people, anyhow.

After this insight, Fowler's musings go down like sips of vintage port and bites of aged stilton: " foreign ... barbaric taste ...real danger ... remorseless and scientific efficiency ... less desirable character ... anxious ... curious bizarre style ... insinuate itself .. vulgarized .. brief and startling exhaustiveness ... "

It was in 1909, the year after Fowler's work was published, that W.C. Handy moved his band to Memphis and composed the song that came to be known as The Memphis Blues:

Mister Crump don't 'low no easy riders here,
Crump don't 'low no easy riders here.
We don't care what Mister Crump don't 'low,
We gonna bar'lhouse any how,
Mister Crump don't 'low no easy riders here.

Mister Crump don't 'low it, ain't goin' have it here,
Crump don't 'low it, ain't goin' have it here,
We don't care what Mister Crump don't 'low,
We gonna bar'lhouse any how,
Mister Crump can go and catch hisself some air.

By comparison, that's a cold beer on a hot night. I'm with Handy: Mr. Fowler can go and catch hisself some air.

[Update 2/20/2004: H.L. Mencken wrote about the prejudices of anti-americanisms in The American Language (1921), and specifically about some of the words that Fowler objects to:

It is curious, reading the fulminations of American purists of the last generation, to note how many of the Americanisms they denounced have not only got into perfectly good usage at home but even broken down all guards across the ocean. To placate and to antagonize are examples. The Concise Oxford and Cassell distinguish between the English and American meanings of the latter: in England a man may antagonize only another man, in America he may antagonize a mere idea or thing. But, as the brothers Fowler show, even the English meaning is of American origin, and no doubt a few more years will see the verb completely naturalized in Britain. To placate, attacked vigorously by all native grammarians down to (but excepting) White, now has the authority of the Spectator, and is accepted by Cassell. To donate is still under the ban, but to transpire has been used by the London Times.


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 16, 2004 02:01 PM