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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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.