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

February 2015

The War of the World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Sharp Edge of Life

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Great Republican Land Heist

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Captive Market

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Day of the Sea

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Great Republican Land Heist·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The wholesale transfer of public lands to state control may never be achieved. But the goal might be more subtle: to attack the value of public lands.”
Photograph by Chad Ress
Article
The Sharp Edge of Life·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The struggle of the novelist has been to establish a measure, a view of human nature, and usually, though not always, as large a view as belief and imagination can wring from observable facts.”
Photo by Eddie Adams/Associated Press
Article
Captive Market·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Fear of random violence lives on, but the reality is that violent-crime rates have dropped to levels not seen since the early Seventies."
Photograph by Richard Ross
Article
The Day of the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Fifteen judges will then sit together in a wood-paneled room, in a city thousands of miles from the Andes, and decide whether the ocean Bolivia claims as its right will at last be returned to it.”
Photo by Fabio Cuttica/Contrasto/Redux
Post
Introducing the February Issue·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ruin of the West
Christopher Ketcham investigates Cliven Bundy’s years-long battle with the BLM, Annie Murphy reflects on Bolivia’s lost coast, and more
Painting by Richard Prince, whose work was on view in October at Gagosian Gallery in New York City © The artist. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery

Percentage increase in the annual number of polio cases in Pakistan since 2005:

857

A bowl of 4,000-year-old noodles was found in northwestern China; and a spokesman for the Chinese Academy of Sciences said that “this is the earliest empirical evidence of noodles ever found.”

A federal judge sentenced the journalist Barrett Brown to 63 months in prison for sharing a link to information stolen from the private-intelligence firm Stratfor by a hacker in 2011. “Good news!” Brown said in a statement. “They’re now going to send me to investigate the prison-industrial complex.”

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

HARPER’S FINEST

In Praise of Idleness

By

I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.

Subscribe Today