Sentences — January 12, 2009, 9:59 am

The Vulgar American Idiom

As the new year began (and following a year-ending week of memoir-bashing), I offered a short list of memoirs for which I maintain unreserved admiration. Alas, in the intervening days, I have been haunted by some of the language I used to describe one of the suggested titles. In particular I wrote, foolishly, that

Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That is my favorite full length memoir…

But “favorite” is a silly word to use to describe a book, much as for an adult the phrase “my best friend” is a suspiciously needy marker. Why saddle a book with favoriteness; why hobble the gait of intimacy with the heavy boots of bestness? For there are, with books, inevitably, many favorites–or so it seemed all too clear to me in the days since I announced my favoritism, as the astonished faces of any number of books I’ve spanned time with stared woundedly at me from the shelves. One such book begins:

In October, 1917, we had succeeded, my friend B. and I, in dispensing
with almost three of our six months’ engagement as Voluntary Drivers,
Sanitary Section 21, Ambulance Norton Harjes, American Red Cross, and at
the moment which subsequent experience served to capitalize, had just
finished the unlovely job of cleaning and greasing (nettoyer is the
proper word) the own private flivver of the chief of section, a gentleman
by the convenient name of Mr. A. To borrow a characteristic-cadence from
Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected
of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the
saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyranny was in some
degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations
between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use
the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn’t get on well.

If memory doesn’t, this link will tell you the name of the book around which this week’s posts revolve and which these three sentences initiate. Like the Graves, here begins a memoir of the First World War. Like the Graves, we have the story of a kind of disaffection, but one entirely distinct from Graves’s. The language to be found in both books is notable, in part surely due to the work in poetry that both men would undertake. But where there is, in the Graves, an unquestioning faith in the stuffed syntax of a phrases like–

For while maps are the biographical treatment of geography, biography is the geographical treatment of chaps. Chaps who are made the subjects of biography have by effort, or by accident, put themselves on the contemporary map as geographical features; but seldom have reality by themselves as proper chaps.

–the book quoted from above mines the same syntactical resources but pitched an octave higher into a sustainedly arch register. Though there is a touch of Twain to the three sentences above, from to “the own private flivver of the chief of section,” to the flagged “characteristic-cadence” in which information is delivered, to call the tone of the above satirical, or merely satirical, would miscast the enterprise which this delicious tone ends up serving so well. How better to write about one’s own pomposity and presumption than in a tone that would, if not excuse it, confuse our relation to such presumption. The book tells of all the trouble one can get in if one does as its author did. It’s trouble one wouldn’t likely want (except for those desperate authors in search of stunt books) but that cannot but come off, in this unique telling, as charming.

“Charming” is not a word that thrills, conjuring as it may for many the image of an émasculé. But the magic in the word is thing to which to cleave–the ability of the charming thing to charm, to cast a spell, to stun, to stop one in one’s tracks, turn to stone, salt, tears. I will cleave further to the book above, a singular favorite memoir of mine among several, on Wednesday.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Sentences May 1, 2009, 2:41 pm

Weekend Read: The Last Post

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
No Slant to the Sun·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

For the past three years my dosimeter had sat silently on a narrow shelf just inside the door of a house in Tokyo, upticking its final digit every twenty-four hours by one or two, the increase never failing — for radiation is the ruthless companion of time. Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly. During those three years, my American neighbors had lost sight of the accident at Fukushima. In March 2011, a tsunami had killed hundreds, or thousands; yes, they remembered that. Several also recollected the earthquake that caused it, but as for the hydrogen explosion and containment breach at Nuclear Plant No. 1, that must have been fixed by now — for its effluents no longer shone forth from our national news. Meanwhile, my dosimeter increased its figure, one or two digits per day, more or less as it would have in San Francisco — well, a trifle more, actually. And in Tokyo, as in San Francisco, people went about their business, except on Friday nights, when the stretch between the Kasumigaseki and Kokkai-Gijido-mae subway stations — half a dozen blocks of sidewalk, which commenced at an antinuclear tent that had already been on this spot for more than 900 days and ended at the prime minister’s lair — became a dim and feeble carnival of pamphleteers and Fukushima refugees peddling handicrafts.

One Friday evening, the refugees’ half of the sidewalk was demarcated by police barriers, and a line of officers slouched at ease in the street, some with yellow bullhorns hanging from their necks. At the very end of the street, where the National Diet glowed white and strange behind other buildings, a policeman set up a microphone, then deployed a small video camera in the direction of the muscular young people in drums against fascists jackets who now, at six-thirty sharp, began chanting: “We don’t need nuclear energy! Stop nuclear power plants! Stop them, stop them, stop them! No restart! No restart!” The police assumed a stiffer stance; the drumming and chanting were almost uncomfortably loud. Commuters hurried past along the open space between the police and the protesters, staring straight ahead, covering their ears. Finally, a fellow in a shabby sweater appeared, and murmured along with the chants as he rounded the corner. He was the only one who seemed to sympathize; few others reacted at all.

Photograph © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

1

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today