Tag Archives: William Styron

America’s greatest essay

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel; the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”—James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” from Notes of a Native Son

When he was seventeen, James Baldwin began writing his great, autobiographical novel about growing up in Harlem, Go Tell it on the Mountain—today it might be sold as a memoir—and would publish it after more than ten years of effort. A couple years later he wrote America’s greatest essay, for my money, which appeared in November 1955 in its first incarnation in Harper’s Magazine as “Me and My House . . .” and became the title essay of Notes of a Native Son. I quoted above from the book’s first essay because it pleases me how Baldwin struck at the sin of sentimentality with such vigor, precision, and beauty (as a boy he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin so obsessively his mother hid it from him; he knew its sins well).

“Notes of a Native Son” opens with the funeral, on August 3,1943, of Baldwin’s stepfather, a Harlem preacher, the father of eight younger children—the last born on the day of his rites—a colorful, contumacious, and bitter patriarch. Baldwin, a gifted Pentecostal preacher himself when only fourteen, had by seventeen turned away from the pulpit and toward literature, a shift that exacerbated tensions with his difficult stepfather. Baldwin’s portrait of him is unforgettable:

“He was, I think, very handsome. Handsome, proud, and ingrown, “like a toenail,” somebody said. But he looked to me, as I grew older, like pictures I had seen of African tribal chieftans: he really should have been naked, with warpaint on and barbaric mementoes, standing among spears. He could be chilling in the pulpit and indescribably cruel in his personal life and he was certainly the most bitter man I have ever met; yet it must be said that there was something else buried in him, which lent him his tremendous power and, even, a rather crushing charm. It had something to do with his blackness, I think—he was very black—and his beauty, and the fact that he knew he was black but did not know he was beautiful.”

To write like that: the rhythms, the conversational yet elevated rounded diction, the hint of oratory, the punctuation—and that surprise at the end! The essay is famous for the soaring grandeur of its elegiac close:

“It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, of men as they are. . . . [T]he second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and now it had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy and, now that my father was irrecoverable, I wished that he had been beside me so that I could have searched his face for the answers which only the future would give me now.”

One pictures Baldwin rejoicing, or at least smiling all day, after writing that paragraph and especially its last line, a gift. Maybe he cried.

The essay is beautifully structured, opening with the funeral and returning to it after scenic flashbacks and exposition. Many students love it, and it teaches well, with two caveats. The first is that Baldwin writes so gorgeously that he gets away with much exposition—his essays are classical in that sense, meditations relying on voice, and far more rhetorical than his fiction. Second, like any masterpiece it can’t be pigeonholed. Does one tell students it’s a memoir or a personal essay? (This hair-splitting will puzzle non-teachers, but students struggle with telling apart these categories, and there is a worthy if subtle distinction.) “Notes of a Native Son” is poised between its subject—perhaps America’s greatest subject, race—and personal history, the story of a man embittered by white prejudice and of his rebellious stepson who fears that he has inherited that bitterness. For teaching purposes I currently call it a personal essay because, though it is a great memoir, Baldwin’s intent is to show the human burden of racism. He uses his own and his stepfather’s life to explore that much larger subject, and makes white prejudice real and its effect painfully clear.

For Vivian Gornick, who discusses the essay at length in The Situation and the Story, it is a “perfect bridge between the essay and the memoir,” both exploring a subject and defining a conflicted self. She notes its “powerful commonality” with Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant,” which also pivots around race, interweaves the personal and political, and features a “murderous truth-speaking” and civilizing voice. Ultimately Baldwin’s essay is about the burden of being civilized, Gornick says, and he forges a form that in its content and expression becomes a civilizing instrument. “. . . Baldwin found he could be everything he had to be—rational, humane, and cutthroat—all at the same time,” she writes. “The narrator’s tone of voice is, in fact, the true subject of the piece.”

In the preface to Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin writes, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” As far as I can see, he was both. Until his death in 1987, during self-imposed exile in France, he was also close friends with one of my favorite writers, William Styron. Baldwin’s eloquent prose is much like Styron’s, a burnished, erudite King James Bible colloquialism, but perhaps even more elegant.

Fiction writer Cynthia Newberry Martin has an interesting new post about Baldwin, Look Again,” with a link to Baldwin’s Paris Review interview, on her blog Catching Days.

Baldwin wrote in longhand, on yellow legal pads, and at night, beginning after dinner and continuing until three or four o’clock in the morning, he told The Paris Review. “When you’re writing,” he said, “you’re trying to find out something you don’t know. The whole language of writing for me is finding out what you don’t want to know, what you don’t want to find out. But something forces you to anyway. . . . ”

“I don’t know what technique is. All I know is you have to make the reader see it. I got this from Dostoyevsky, from Balzac. . . . Every form [fiction and nonfiction] is difficult, no one is easier than another. They all kick your ass.”

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Writing by the ‘dangerous method’

A train station near Ravenna, Italy, May 2010

Frankly, I thought I knew how to write, but it turned out I didn’t, and I don’t. I don’t. I get to learn it over and over and over. It isn’t supposed to be easy. It is supposed to be hard and the process of making art and the product is worth all the energy that you put into it. It is what matters. It is a noble goal. Even if you never attain it, which is true for most of us, it’s life-enhancing to try.“—Jo Ann Beard, in an interview with Michael Gardner in Mary

On my recent European trip I dipped again into Writing with Power, finding it dense but savoring Peter Elbow’s hard-earned insights. He’d been such a poor writer that he had to drop out of graduate school, only returning years later. If he’d been a natural, he probably would not have noticed how he actually wrote successfully, when he did. Pre-outlining didn’t work for him, either.

Elbow advocates timed free-writing—ten-minute nonstop bursts to empty our heads of junk, to find nuggets, to warm up, to tap creativity, or to explore topics we’re writing about, like Aunt Mary’s screened porch in summer. He comes closer than anyone does to convincing me to freewrite. For instance, I’m a sucker when he gets all mystical and credits freewriting both with reducing writers’ legendary resistance to writing and also with preventing them from conquering their resistance. Here’s a sample of his thinking on this from Chapter Two of Writing with Power:

To write is to overcome a certain resistance: you are trying to wrestle a steer to the ground, to wrestle a snake into a bottle, to overcome a demon that sits in your head. To succeed in writing or making sense is to overpower that steer, that snake, that demon. But not kill it.

This myth explains why some people who write fluently and perhaps even clearly—they say just what they mean in adequate, errorless words—are really hopelessly boring to read. There is no resistance in their words; you cannot feel any force being overcome, any orneriness. No surprises. The language is too abjectly obedient. When writing is really good, on the other hand, the words themselves lend some of their energy to the writer. The writer is controlling words he can’t turn his back on without danger of being scratched or bitten.

You’ve got to love a guy who comes up with stuff like that. In one of his chapters on the pros and cons of various writing processes, I discovered that I use the “dangerous method,” which means trying to make perfect words, sentences, and scenes as you go. The problem with this, he says, is that writing’s two major components, the creative and the critical, are at odds. They are too different. He thinks the editing mind being employed too early blocks writers or turns their prose wooden.

It would be hard to change my ways, however, and for now at least I’m not even going to try. For one thing the dangerous method is kind of working. Granted, I’ve ended up cutting hundreds of pages from my memoir that I’d been polishing for years. But lots of famous writers seem to use the dangerous method, or some variation. Recently I read that someone, Joan Didion I think, used to retype the entire essay she was working on every day. And based on Scribbly Jane’s recent post on John McPhee’s interview with Paris Review, it appears he stews and procrastinates all day, then sits down at the eleventh hour and taps out one perfect page. John McPhee! In its obituary for William Styron, The New York Times reported on his method:

[I]t was an unconventional routine he stuck to: sleep until noon; read and think in bed for another hour or so; lunch with Rose around 1:30; run errands, deal with the mail, listen to music, daydream and generally ease into work until 4. Then up to the workroom to write for four hours, perfecting each paragraph until 200 or 300 words are completed; have cocktails and dinner with the family and friends at 8 or 9; and stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, drinking and reading and smoking and listening to music.

My personal excuse for trying to make everything right as I go is that that’s how I achieve Elbow’s holy grails of discovery and of experiencing what I am writing about. He’d probably say I’m just polishing and could spend that time creating, and he’d probably be right.

Elblow’s discussion of such intangibles reveals that his concern isn’t with nuts-and-bolts craft but with process—and, really, ultimately, with the writer’s psyche. Writing does seem to me to be a profound struggle with the self—or at least it is for me. Facing the blank page with the Self and all that. Who am I? Who was I? Why did I do that, say that, fail to do that?

This returns me to the quote at the start of my last post; but if writing is not, at base, a set of skills, what is it? Some time ago, when I knew more about writing, I tried to answer this in my post “Between self and story.” This time, I’ll return to Clear and Simple as the Truth, whose authors, Francis- Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, say that writers’ “verbal artifacts” mask something deeper, more fundamental and conceptual going on than the mere arrangement of words. They say:

Great painters are often less skillful than mediocre painters; it is their concept of painting, not their skills, that defines their activity. Similarly a foreigner may be less skillful than a native speaker at manipulating tenses or using subjunctives, but nonetheless be an incomparably better writer. Intellectual activities generate skills, but skills do not generate intellectual activities.

Words on the page come from the self, and, for most writers, getting them there regularly seems to require a struggle with the self, of overcoming resistances arising from fear and confusion. I think a writer has got to like making sentences. This work is about seeing what comes out of you and, at the sentence level, trying to make it sturdy and sometimes beautiful.

Then revising, forever. And dealing with resistance and the exciting-depressing realization that any new project worth doing is going to make its own unique and otherwise perplexing demands. But I believe, and fervently hope, that writing, like other complex activities, rewires our brains. I think we do get better with practice, even if writing doesn’t seem to get much easier.

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Narrative structure in ‘Nat Turner’

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. Vintage. 480 pages.

Eventually I realized that William Styron’s poetic descriptions of weather and landscapes in The Confessions of Nat Turner aren’t supposed to represent the world as we know it—or even as the characters know it, save perhaps for the narrator, Nat Turner—but to create a feeling in the reader of tragic grandeur, of a doomed place saturated with significance and emotion. There’s an element of the fantastical at play in the novel’s dreamy mise en scene:

“Behind us in the cart the three boys had gone to sleep, sprawled against each other lifeless and limp in the moonlight. The night was clamorous with frogs and katydids, warm, fragrant with cedar, clear like day, the moon powdering the trees in light as starkly white as the dust of bone. The lop-eared mules, plodding along with a crushed rasping sound against the dewy weeds, found their way ahead as if they knew the road by heart, and I let the reins go slack in my hand, drowsing too, and fitfully slept until the end of the trace, roused only once and then dimly by the high wail of a bobcat miles off in the swamp, its distant scream echoing through some perplexed strange dream like the sound of claws scraped in anguish against the bare face of the heavens.”

I’ve never read two words lashed together quite like “crushed rasping.” Styron loved language—metaphor, adjectives, orotund phrases—especially its rhythm and sound. His prose is tuned to the ear. In the passage above, the long “o” sounds evoke the slumberous nighttime excursion. Why did he write “dust of bone” instead of the equally arresting, and shorter, “bone dust”? I think because of sound: dUHst UHv bOHn. His language in The Confessions of Nat Turner lends itself to theatrical reading.

The novel is divided into three major sections, and the first third, with Turner in jail awaiting execution moves the slowest. The next, which recreates his life from boyhood to young manhood, is compelling in its depiction of his growing up in unusually lucky circumstances amidst the quotidian rhythms of plantation life. When the thin coastal soil fails under the burden of continuous tobacco crops and the bankrupt farm’s chattel is dispersed, Nat is thrust into increasingly brutal hands. The section ends with the blossoming of his hatred—not for his crude new owners but for his kindly and enlightened first master, who taught him to read and gave him hope. The man’s naivete about people and his essential ignorance of slavery’s hopelessly degrading and depraved nature thrust the institution’s cruelties upon Nat at last.

In the novel’s final third, Turner’s hatred grows to encompass all whites, the guilty and innocent both; and it portrays his relationship with the sweet and spiritual eighteen-year-old girl he would kill. The insurrection is a powerful dramatic culmination that depicts shocking attacks. Most significant in the violent maelstrom are Turner’s murder of the innocent girl and his sparing of another (who then spreads the alarm). A brief fourth section returns to Turner in his cell, on the eve of execution.

I wondered why Styron structured the book as a long flashback instead of chronologically. The opening does introduce an obvious mystery: How did Turner end up there? And more specifically: Why did Turner himself murder only one person, the belle of the county? This is a hook, but still the opening is challengingly slow by comparison with the rest of the book, with dense passages lacking much paragraphing or line breaks. I found Styron’s answer in an interview he gave to Humanities in which he explained the enormous influence Albert Camus had on him:

“In fact, the architecture of The Confessions of Nat Turner was largely determined by the architecture of his book The Stranger. I began to see just how the plight of a man condemned to death reflecting on his life from a prison cell, which is true for The Stranger, I might use as a similar structure for The Confessions of Nat Turner, which indeed is what I did.”

Styron’s close friend James Baldwin urged him to try entering the psyche of the slave. In an interview for the book Conversations with William Styron, Styron said the structure and point of view also allowed him to introduce Turner’s lawyer, who interviewed the slave and published the original Confessions, and to show in ironic counterpoint what Turner might really have said and thought, in contrast to what the confessional documents—with “a lot of white man’s hokum” in them—purport he said. And Styron wanted to explore in the opening Turner’s questioning of his relationship with God and to depict his despair. Scenes in the first section show, as well, Turner’s attraction to the girl and his fraught encounter with the judge who would decide his fate a year later.

After widespread acclaim, a handful of black intellectuals, amidst the upheavals of 1968, launched a sustained attack on the novel for various political reasons, including over the issue of whether a white man should write in a black man’s voice, telling his story. (Similar outrage occurred years later over Styron, a gentile, writing a Holocaust story, Sophie’s Choice.) Plans for a major movie were scrapped (there are now rumors that Spike Lee may be considering filming Confessions). Styron knew he’d written a book for the ages, but was grieved over most of the fuss. Even today, more than forty years after its publication, anyone who writes about this book is bound to call it “controversial.” An essay last year in The New York Times Book Review claimed it “became the center of a debate that has helped shape American literature ever since” but added fatuously that there are now novels that tell “a messier, trickier, less comforting story.”

This harrowing story, beautifully expressed and plotted, a work of art, deserves better. The Confessions of Nat Turner must be read without agenda, slowly and receptively, to appreciate Styron’s feat in bringing to life an America we cannot remember and can scarcely imagine—and to honor his sheer courage in doing so. Its unrestrained imaginative depth achieves the definition Styron himself once gave of greatness: “Most books, like their authors, are born to die; of only a few books can it be said that death has no dominion over them; they live, and their influence lives forever.”

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The poetic prose of ‘Nat Turner’

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron. Vintage. 480 pages.

William Styron told interviewers he worked slowly, writing his thick books by hand, in No. 2 pencil, on yellow legal pads. In Sophie’s Choice his alter ego reads his sentences aloud, testing them, as he goes. Styron had an ear for rhythm and a fearsome vocabulary that he wasn’t afraid to unleash. The lovely word motes was what I remembered about his The Confessions of Nat Turner, not much else, from my first reading of the novel when I was about sixteen, though it’s likely the book’s sonorous language sank deep. When I told a writer friend that I was rereading it, she said, “Bill Styron can flat knock a sentence out of the ballpark, can’t he?” Oh, yes.

The novel is based on the life and actions of Nat Turner, a slave who led an uprising in 1831; his angry band butchered about sixty people before being subdued. Vengeful whites murdered about two-hundred innocent slaves in retribution. After escaping into the woods for some time, Turner was caught, and, after his confession and trial, hanged and his corpse mutilated. Apparently he was a religious fanatic and perhaps crazy—probably schizophrenic—and Styron found him unappealing. His Nat is also deeply religious and highly intelligent but more normal, a man driven to butchery by the insanity of slavery. Styron called the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize after it was published in 1967, a “meditation on history” rather than a historical novel. He said he was lucky so little was known of Turner’s life, beyond his rampage and his confession, leaving Styron free to create.

The novelist, however, had grown up in the same area of tidewater Virginia as Turner’s rebellion, was descended from a slave owner, and had thought for decades about bondage. He also read widely on slavery and devoured the handful of documents on the insurrection. Turner’s voice which tells the story is strangely believable, despite possessing a vocabulary astounding for any human, then or now. A bachelor preacher’s voice is like “the crepitation of a cricket in the weeds.” “Crackle” would’ve been a lot simpler, but the elevated, antiquarian diction suits the period and its narrator.

Early in the book, with Nat wrapped in chains, having been kicked, spat upon, and stabbed in his shoulders by women wielding hat pins, he meets with his court-appointed attorney the day of his trial, his execution inevitable:

“Sluggish autumnal flies filled the cell, stitching the air with soft erratic buzzings as they zigzagged across the golden light, mooned sedulously over the slop bucket, crept in nervous pairs across Gray’s stained pink gloves, his waistcoat, and his pudgy hands now motionless on his knees. I watched the leaves merging with the shadow shapes swooping and fluttering at the edge of my mind. The desire to scratch, to move my shoulders had become a kind of hopeless, carnal obsession, like a species of lust, and the last of Gray’s words seemed now to have made only the most dim, grotesque impression on my brain, the quintessence of white folks’ talk I had heard incessantly all my life and which I could only compare to talk in one of my nightmares, totally implausible yet somehow wholly and fearfully real, where owls in the woods are quoting price lists like a storekeeper, or a wild hog comes prancing on its hind legs out of a summer cornfield, intoning verses from Deuteronomy. . . .

“When he had gone and the door had closed me in again, I sat there motionless in my web of chain. The midafternoon sun was sinking past the window, flooding the cell with light. Flies lit on my brow, my cheeks and lips, and buzzed in haphazard elastic loopings from wall to wall. Through this light, motes of dust rose and fell in a swarmy myriad crowd and I began to wonder if these specks, so large and visible to my eye, offered any hindrance to a fly in its flight. Perhaps, I thought, these grains of dust were the autumn leaves of flies, no more bothersome than an episode of leaves is to a man when he is walking through the October woods, and a sudden gust of wind shakes down around him from a poplar or a sycamore a whole harmless, dazzling, pelting furry of brown and golden flakes. For a long moment I pondered the condition of a fly, only half listening to the uproar outside the jail which rose and fell like summer thunder, hovering near yet remote.”

While he risked wordiness, Styron’s lavish language can satisfy in a way that submissively stripped prose can’t. He chafed at being called Faulkner’s heir, but in both cases their prose is rhetorical—concerned with style or effect—in a way different than the clear-windowpane declarative mode that’s carried the day. His descriptions aren’t dabs on the canvas but suffuse the narrative; if it’s hot, we’ll be reminded of how the characters experience heat throughout a scene, which is liable to unroll over many pages of action and lengthy explanation.

Light’s shifting quality is a motif as it swarms with motes or is “cool white” or smoky or golden or “yellowish and wan” or autumnal or dusty or “pale as water” or “pollen-hazy,” or “glimmering, crepuscular, touched with that greenish hue presaging the onslaught of a summer storm.” There’s the “slanting icicle light of Christmas afternoon.” And: “Light from the descending sun fell amid the October leaves and through wood smoke and haze lay streaming upon a tangled desolation of weeds and brambles, so furiously luminous that it seemed a field ready to explode into fire.”

The sky’s a presence too: one day a “white rack of cloud hovered, covering the heavens, impermeable, its surface crawling with blackish streaks of mist like tattered shawls.” And the wind is always palpable: “Across the roof of the woods the wind rushed in hissing, majestic swoop and cadence, echoing in far-off hollows with the thudding sound of footfalls.”

Of course, the guy could tell a story too. In this case he entered into a lost world and the foreign consciousness of the humans who inhabited it, black and white alike. The Confessions of Nat Turner underscores how much the novel is a form of history, for its ambition is to recreate, portray, explain, a world in the entirety of its emotional and physical and historical aspects.

Next: More on the book’s language, plus its structure . . .

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A few more words

I own a few sacred words, words of such beauty I desire to be worthy of them. I adore these watery two: lacustrine, of or pertaining to a lake, and pelagic, of or pertaining to the open seas or oceans. The oceans are mighty places, you know, and pelagic fishes must swim faster than their lacustrine kin.

We try to capture our feelings with words, and we think more precisely and deeply with them. Therefore knowing the meaning of bumptious serves well. Yes, we might call someone “pushy,” but bumptious has a hapless and comic, yet grating, quality.

I couldn’t make some of my pet distinctions without existential, which makes me wonder if, as feared English teachers of old implied, a big vocabulary is demonstrably a good thing. Existential holds resonance and romance for me because I struggled through Being and Nothingness (in fear and trembling) in college.

But when we learn others’ beloved words we may spend our whole lives unable to forget them but unable or unwilling to use them. Exhibit A is pusillanimous: cowardly or timid. Mostly the word seems good for humorous applications. Didn’t the Wizard, or was it the Cowardly Lion himself, use it in The Wizard of Oz?

Per existential: some love ontology or ontological—“the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence or being as such,” says Dictionary.com; but I can seldom remember the meaning of ontology no matter how many times I look it up. My new digital Oxford English Dictionary adds “essence” helpfully to its definition: “the being or essence of things.”

So when your car tire is flat you have an existential problem to solve, but how you think about that problem may well be ontological. I guess. And we all know the essence of existence is one damn thing after another, to paraphrase Winston Churchill.

Then there are words like risible, which I always think means offensive, when instead it means causing or capable of causing laughter. Attenuated, which I associate with “bloated,” means to weaken; so does vitiate. I can never remember that saturnine means slow and gloomy when lugubrious means mournful, dismal, or gloomy—doesn’t it seem that one of these words is unnecessary? I suppose one man is saturnine while another is lugubrious (and, possibly, he’s bumptious as well). My mind flails at such slight differences: there’s insuperable—incapable of being surmounted; an “insuperable barrier”—and ineluctable: incapable of being evaded; inescapable.

An intelligent friend—he earned a doctorate in genetics—doesn’t like writers who use “big words,” he told me recently over lunch. I wonder about the tension there, for both writers and readers. Must a writer hold himself back, not use the precise term because most readers won’t know it? Then I think of David Foster Wallace, who was lavish with hard words; in one of his essays he used piacular, a rare adjective meaning “making or requiring atonement.”

Sometimes it does me good when I’m writing and struggling to open and read part of a book I’ve admired to see how plain most of the language is, how common the words. Like many readers and writers, I presume, I think of the great beauty and emotional effect of a work as a whole, and judge my partial and ongoing efforts harshly in comparison. Literature is made mostly of common material, but precisely used, in new or uncommon combinations.

Still, I’ve got my own lengthening list of interesting words I’d like to use, written down and defined. I review the document sometimes, examine at a word like otiose (serving no practical purpose) and wonder about using it, not to disparage someone’s excuse-making verbiage but to describe a piece of farm machinery, say. Two punchy, colloquial words I’ve admired but not yet used: skeevy—meaning disgusting or sleazy—and pawky, a British adjective meaning shrewd and cunning, often used in a humorous way.

My life mostly lived—I’m middle-aged, which doesn’t really mean “in the middle of life” but “neither young nor old,” on the way to, but not quite identifiable as, elderly—and I’m making lists of toothsome words like a precocious child trying to better himself or like a conceited adolescent hoping to one-up the competition. In a phase where I look up words compulsively in almost everything I read, and then paste their meanings into my personal list, I realize with a certain horror that I’m simply recreating a dictionary. My document is up to twelve pages, but at least it’s customized, a record of my own admiration and yearning.

Surely we’re impoverished without lovely and exact words; perhaps our culture’s coarseness stems in part from its narrowed vocabulary. We use monikers like input and monetize, while better and more beautiful words languish, and some beloved by our educated forebears disappear. Whole worlds of knowledge disappear. It’s bell wether, not weather: a wether, a neutered male sheep, was tame and led the flock, wearing a tinkling brass bell, behind the shepherd. I used to know the nautical definition of chine—where a boat’s bottom meets the side of its hull—without realizing, until I looked it up, perplexed by a writer’s phrase “like a chine of meat,” that it means an animal’s backbone and can also mean a ridge of land.

In an interview with the Paris Review in 1999, William Styron said a writer must love language, implicitly defending his own free use of unusual words. “You have to have a vocabulary,” he added. “So many writers who disappoint me don’t have a vocabulary—they don’t seem to have much feeling for words.”

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