Sunday, 03 August 2008

As Abish attests, all American art is alliterative. (x-posted.) Not really, of course. Only if it’s postmodern or romantic, and today it’s romantic. Edwin Markham’s The Real America in Romance (1909) sought to blend “authentic history and romance … to their mutual advantage.” His rationale: Here are set before us the examples of great men of earth, men great in their patriotism and self-sacrifice; and side by side with them are romantic characters typical of the times, men and women only less great in their kindliness and unselfishness, all affording a high expression of the art of Anglo-Saxon romance. Instead of reading about historical characters and events, we see the persons themselves in action, and live with them through the events of their day and generation. The reader loses himself in the irresistible fascination of the story, and the impressions resulting are made on the heart as well as on the intellect. You do not merely read about Columbus: you endure with him his hardships, share with him his disappointments, rejoice with him in his achievements. You actually feel the thrill of discovery when the New World swims into his vision. Not content with telling you merely that Washington wintered and suffered at Valley Forge with his army, the author takes you straightway into the camp, shows you the torn and bleeding feet of the soldiers, and makes you stand watch with the half-fed sentries, with little to warm your blood except a fiery determination to die of cold, hunger, or British bullets, rather than give up the fight for your country. That’s a single paragraph in the original, but I’ve sliced it up 1) because it’s overlong, and 2) to emphasize a rhetorical shift from “the reader” to “you.” What opens as a theory of literary affect quickly pivots into admonishment — the reader who doesn’t endure, share, rejoice, winter, suffer or stand watch isn’t merely a bad reader but unpatriotic. “If you have fail to empathize with those who fought ‘for your country,’” Markham as much as says, “you’re a terrible American.” He never considers a reader might withhold sympathy not because he or she possesses a paucity of patriotism, but because his bathetic prose betrays an ear unworthy of enthused encomium. Consider the first sentence of Volume IX, The Stars & Stripes: A band of boys was abroad in the streets of Boston. But Scott, you say, happy accidents have happened heretofore! Granted. Now consider the first two sentences of the second paragraph: But it was not mirth nor mischief that brought them forth to throng the streets. So much might have been inferred from their eager and excited talk as they hurried over the flagging, covered thinly with snow. Those alliterative pairs — “mirth nor mischief” and “eager and excited” — bespeak a deliberately alliterative aesthetic agenda. Still don’t believe me? Turn to the twenty-first page and proceed to ponder this passage: Then the people, or such of them as did not feel the restraint of the more orderly element, rose in riot. The...

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