May 16, 2004

Highfalutin writing taught at Harvard?

Following up on Geoff Pullum's critique, Claire at Anggarrgon suggests that

Dan Brown's prose probably isn't entirely his fault. He was a Harvard undergrad, a classics major. As such, he's been subjected to Expos, which as far as I can see is a machine which turns semi-literate American high-schoolers into semi-literate American college students with a fondness for long words and extraneous adjectives.

This observation might help solve another literary puzzle. I'm still struggling through Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club, which is taking me longer to read than two dozen ordinary thrillers of similar length. My problem is the strange writing style, which I experience as a sort of constant low-level linguistic culture shock.

The difficulty is not so much with long words and extraneous adjectives -- though there are plenty of both -- but rather with words and phrases that seem strange in their context. In my earlier post, I gave an example where the strangeness goes so far that the result is outside the usual bounds of grammatical English ("a hefty bear of an indigoed uniformed man"), but usually the result is just odd and distracting. Here are a few more examples, from the thicket I happen to be thrashing through at the moment:

(p.101) Holmes jumped when he noticed the rifle leaning against the wall. "Longfellow, why in the land is that out here?"

(p. 102) Longfellow did not move. His stone-blue eyes stared ahead into the richly cracked spines of his books. It was not clear whether he'd remained a part of the conversation. This infrequent, remote look, when he sat silently running his hand through the locks of his beard, when his invincible tranquillity turned cool, when his maiden complexion seemed a bit dusky, put all his friends ill at ease.

(p. 103) "... I've done us all a good turn," Holmes said. "This could put us in a dangerous way!"

The phrases that I've highlighted in red all stop the narrative flow for me, while I try to sort out a complex of incompatible lexical and semantic associations.

Was "why in the land" really a late-19th-century variant for "why in the world"?

My understanding of the ... cracked spines of books is illustrated by this picture. However, such cracks are are not visible from the back of a shelved cloth- or leather-bound book, and anyhow, it's odd to say that a book's spine is "richly cracked" in this sense. Did Pearl instead mean that the books' spines had the kind of leather surface represented by this picture? Probably.

What kind of blue stones are Longfellow's stone-blue eyes like -- opaque pastel turquoise? clear cornflower-blue sapphire? the dusty gray-blue of indigo pigment, traditionally called "stone blue"? A commonplace expression like "sky blue" is open to similar ambiguities -- there are lots of colors of blue sky -- but because the expression is so common, it goes down easily. A phrase like "pale blue eyes": would also be inoffensive. An appropriate specific reference, to topaz or lapis lazuli, would create a specific image if one is needed, but simple "his blue eyes stared...", or even "he stared..." might have worked as well.

And what does it mean for Longfellow's "maiden complexion" to become "dusky"? Is it darker because he's blushing? That doesn't make any sense. Is it darker because he's hypoxic? That doesn't make sense either. Does Pearl just mean that Longfellow seems to his companions to be withdrawing into shadow? Again, I've just wasted a bunch of neural activation on a set of questions that have nothing to do with the story.

Pearl's "stone-blue eyes", "richly cracked spines", and "maiden complexion" that "seemed a bit dusky" are all phrases that seem to have little narrative function other than to add a highfalutin tone. They do add bits of circumstantial detail, but the images are like glittery found objects glued to the surface of a sculpture. The things they describe are not integral to the story, and the language of the descriptions is forced and somehow out of joint.

In my earlier analysis, I wrote that

The Dante Club's front matter tells us that "Matthew Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature in 1997, and in 2000 from Yale Law School". I ask you, is it likely that a person with that background would be so insensitive to the norms of the English language?

No, a much more plausible hypothesis is that Pearl graduated from a slightly different Harvard University, in a universe slightly different from our own, and read a body of English and American literature that is also just a bit different.

[...] I'd hate to revert to the much more prosaic theory that Pearl just systematically substituted fancier words for plainer ones, as one of my friends in junior high school used to do ...

Claire seems to be saying that the "Expos" course (short for "Expository Writing"?) is now teaching all Harvard undergraduates the technique that I teased my junior-high friend for using, as he sat with his copy of Roget's, systematically piling up modifiers and replacing common or expected words with rare or odd ones.

Please don't think, by the way, that I object to complex writing or to unusal words or phrases. Some of my favorite authors use archaic, specialized or dialectal language as a way of establishing character or propelling a narrative forward, as I've described here, here, here, here and here. Eamonn Fitzgerald explains how this works in the novels of Patrick O'Brian:

In O'Brian's hands, words change from being discrete items of vocabulary to elements making up a vast and vivid painting alive with nature, machines, horror, humour and humanity. ... This facet of his work was seized upon perceptively by Jason Epstein in The New York Times ... [quoting] a passage from The Far Side of the World in which Aubrey... constructs a device to raise the anchor because the usual mechanism -- the capstan -- has jammed:

"With scarcely a pause Jack called the midshipmen. 'I will show you how we weigh with a voyol,' he said. 'Take notice. You don't often see it done, but it may save you a tide of the first consequence.' They followed him below to the mangerboard, where he observed, 'This is a voyol with a difference.'" Bonden, a fellow officer, brings the heavy sheaved block. " 'Watch now. He makes it fast to the cable -- he reeves the jeer-fall through it -- the jeer-fall is brought to the capstan, with the standing part belayed to the bitts. So you get a direct runner-purchase instead of a dead nip, do you understand?' "

Not quite (especially since mangerboard and jeer-fall do not appear in the 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary or its several supplements), but enough for readers to see for themselves what O'Brian has left to the imagination: Aubrey bent under a hanging lantern in the dappled half light below decks surrounded by his midshipmen in their top hats, showing them with his hands how to raise an anchor when the capstan pawls are broken."

[The Epstein piece, a justly negative review of the movie Master and Commander, can be found here].

This kind of writing is not to everyone's taste, but it works for me in a way that Pearl's writing doesn't.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 16, 2004 12:47 PM