Saturday, April 24, 2010

Style and the Man, by Meredith Nicholson

Ransacking a bit some histories of Indiana fiction, today I ran across Meredith Nicholson, a bestselling novelist from the very early parts of last century. His (yes, his—like Evelyn, it certainly throws one for a loop the first time) three best-sellers were from 1906, 1907, and 1912. A large number of his works are therefore in the public domain and available in full at Google Books. Most of his novels are fairly long, but there is a 55-page pamphlet type thing titled "Style and the Man" which appears to have been a sort of stock speech he must have given at various literary or fraternal society dinners.

The book was printed in 1911 and could be said to be one of the last full blooms of the Genteel Tradition (Santayana would give his famous address on the subject that year). While Nicholson was of a Midwestern background (and his regional pride peeks out just a bit when he praises the cogent rhetorical style of fellow Hoosier Benjamin Harrison), his exemplars of style are the sages of New England—Hawthorne, Emerson, James Russell Lowell, and Henry James—and the British writers who either influenced them or were typically read alongside them—Arnold, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, Carlyle, Kipling, and (a little surprisingly, I thought) Robert Louis Stevenson. We also get near the end a couple of names that have been virtually lost (at least to a non-Victorianist): Alice Meynell and Maurice Hewlett.

Nicholson's descriptions of these writers vary widely in eloquence and charm; I felt his characterizations of Hawthorne and Lowell to be flat, but once he has cleared his throat with them and gets to Emerson (one senses Emerson provides a more natural affinity), Nicholson's own style remarkably improves and his figures begin to move more freely. The remainder of the speech is, I think, very good, and well worth reading for its congeniality, even if it is not entirely original in its notions.

There are a couple of interesting passages near the Benjamin Harrison bit: Nicholson has turned to the changing fashions of political rhetoric and muses with a kind of cluttered, clumsy irony that "Terror and horror are rarely evoked by our later orators. Even the slaughter of the innocents in the Philippines in the amiable effort to extend our beneficent empire to Asia has brought forth no really striking protest worthy of the cause." And a page later he mocks the style of the former President TR:
And while we are touching upon the literary style of statesmen you will pardon me for quoting further, in illustration of the reluctance, caution and restraint that may check the exuberance of personal feeling, from a statement made by Colonel Theodore Roosevelt in January 1904. He said: [a hyperbolic statement about the virtues and abilities of Secretary of War Elihu Root follows] Criticism offers no adequately descriptive word for this type of reserved, unventurous statement. Let us consider whether it may not properly be styled the imperial theodoric.
At any rate, I wanted to pass this on; as Aaron proved with a recent discovery of a bizarre gothic-football story by Willa Cather, there's all kinds of crazy things from the turn of the century hanging out on the internet.

1 comment:

Tom said...

Amazon has a lot of free stuff you can get and read on your pc kindle app or kindle from the turn of the century as well.