The Magazine

How to Write

Advice from the good old days remains timeless.

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By STEFAN BECK
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A traveler passing through the Mid-Ohio Valley might see little incentive to stop in Parkersburg, West Virginia, with its landscape dominated by strip malls, windowless gambling parlors (deceptively styled "cafés"), and billboards advertising the hazards of copper wire theft and crystal meth. But Parkersburg's Carnegie Library, built in 1905 and listed in the National Register of Historic Places, is well worth the trip; today it is home to the Trans
Allegheny Bookstore, without a doubt one of the finest--oddest--used book stores in America.

It's an excellent place to find something you didn't know you were looking for: a complete set of Samothrace excavation reports, a first edition of Herb Caen's Don't Call It Frisco, or a stack of World War II-era Life back issues. What it always has in stock, however, is a beautiful collection of antique children's books and textbooks, and it was in this cabinet that I made the shocking discovery of Edwin L. Miller's Practical English Composition, published in 1915 by Houghton Mifflin in four small green volumes.

By "shocking," I don't mean that it's rare or valuable but that it differs so markedly from today's pedagogy that it might as well have come from another civilization. Like the Carnegie Library itself--with its stained glass, wrought-iron spiral stairs, and glass-tiled floors--it belongs to a world which seems to have taken reading and writing far more seriously. It illustrates why so many Americans regard the ability to communicate eloquently much as Mark Twain's Britons regarded the solar eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: as magic, rather than as something within any intelligent person's grasp.

What is one to make of a text for high school students which takes its epigraph from Samuel Johnson: "Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to volumes of Addison"? Or which offers Thomas Babington Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome as a work "with which most boys and girls of fourteen are familiar"? Both examples fail the relevance test so prized by today's educators. But there is something wonderfully demanding in the "irrelevance" of Miller's old textbook. Its idiosyncrasy comes to the fore in its opening salvo, which dares to tell its students why they should know how to write:

[T]he person who cannot write and speak fluently and correctly is at once set down as ignorant and inefficient. .  .  . [W]hile ignorance of chemistry or trigonometry is seldom discovered, a lack of skill in composition is instantly detected and punished. It is punished by that loss of the power to influence other people which is its inevitable consequence.

Few teachers today would admit that her students ran the risk of ending up "ignorant and inefficient." But George W. Bush has for years endured the punishment Miller describes, despite possessing "communication skills" at least equal to those of most of his detractors. The reason is that they see composition as an ability a president, not Joe Citizen, should have in spades. No surprise there, for the system Miller sets down for acquiring this skill is somewhat technical, calling for a practice and patience, and is a legitimate challenge even to capable students.

One must first have "something to say." He then assembles it, composes it orally, writes it down, and revises it. Revision is crucial. Miller notes that Macaulay "did not despise spelling and punctuation, but he did despise people who despise spelling and punctuation." The expectation that students might wish to model their tastes on Macaulay's seems quaint--doomed, to be perfectly honest--but it's worth a try.

Another suggestion, with apologies to Dr. Johnson, that "[n]o man except a blockhead or an angel ever wrote except for an audience," is bracing. One doesn't teach himself composition for therapy, or even for something so vague as "self-expression." He writes to persuade. Whether this is always strictly true, it's worth teaching. The ability to write should precede any reason for doing so.

Yet Miller's curriculum consists mostly of reasons for writing. In Book One he starts small: "Excuses for Tardiness" or a "Letter of Friendship About Your School." An injunction to describe a friend begins with the epigraph, "What a piece of work is a man!" There is no attribution--the reader should know, or should care enough to find out. "Write a description of one of the following," begins one exercise, and the list includes such "drab" personages as Napoleon, Lincoln, Nelson, and Daniel Webster. In Book Two the focus is on newspaper articles. Each chapter concludes with something to memorize, a snippet of Shakespeare, George Eliot, Cicero, Burns, or Kipling, to name only a very few.

There are sections on grammar--difficult grammar--and proofreading, versification, and rhetoric. That students should know the difference between trochee, iambus, dactyl, and anapest, when many of their teachers surely do not, will strike readers as absurd or comical, as will such earnest questions as "What figure is 'cadaverous cod'?" and "Why 'befuddled sails'?" or "What motive made Demosthenes an orator?" and "Are there any words in Lincoln's exordium which you do not understand?"

When the laughter dies down, however, a brutal truth remains: Fewer than 100 years ago, students were called upon to know far more than they do now, and to feel ashamed if they didn't. Further, they were expected to commit works of genius to memory, and to be inspired by this task to create great works of their own. Being part of literary history--or trying to be, anyway--was its own reward. "Why 'trumpeted'?" the student is asked after a selection from Walden. Why not?

These may be "stodgy" texts, but what they're designed to teach is apparent in all exceptional writing: a love of clarity and persuasion; a respect for tradition, even when one must break with it; an urge to be precise and punctilious and to excel within the bounds of the language, having truly mastered it.

"Architecture is frozen music," we're told, by Goethe, in a chapter asking us to "[d]escribe any building in the range of [our] personal observation." The "model" is a piece from the Chicago Tribune about the Grand Trunk "dippo" in South Bend, Indiana, the "obsoletest railway station .  .  . principally Gothic, with a little Hun and a bit of Cuckoo Clock."
I'd choose for my theme the Carnegie Library of Parkersburg, as obsolete as the learning it contains, and every bit as timeless.

Stefan Beck writes on fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.