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:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

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

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2016

Save Our Public Universities

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Rogue Agency

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Mad Magazines

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Killer Bunny in the Sky

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Bird in a Cage

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Save Our Public Universities·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Whether and how we educate people is still a direct reflection of the degree of freedom we expect them to have, or want them to have.”
Photograph (crop) by Thomas Allen
Article
New Movies·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Force Awakens criticizes American imperialism while also celebrating the revolutionary spirit that founded this country. When the movie needs to bridge the two points of view, it shifts to aerial combat, a default setting that mirrors the war on terror all too well.”
Still © Lucasfilm
Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.

Number of people who attended the World Grits Festival, held in St. George, South Carolina, last spring:

60,000

The brown bears of Greece continued chewing through telephone poles.

In Peru, a 51-year-old activist became the first former sex worker to run for the national legislature. “I’m going to put order,” she said, “in that big brothel which is Congress.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today