Author Archives: Roger W. Smith

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Sites on WordPress hosted by Mr. Smith include: (1) rogersgleanings.com (a personal site comprised of essays on a wide range of topics) ; (2) rogers-rhetoric.com (covering principles and practices of writing); (3) roger-w-smiths-dreiser.site (devoted to the author Theodore Dreiser); and (4) pitirimsorokin.com (devoted to sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin).

the first (perhaps) and greatest realist

 

 

See my post on Daniel Defoe at

 

 

the first (perhaps) and greatest realist

 

the product of prolonged, intense labor

 

 

Even if Wordsworth had published The Prelude on its completion in 1805, it would not have appeared exactly as it is found in the A text; for no poet ever revised his work for press more meticu­lously than he. Writing in 1816 of some minor pieces which he had just composed he calls them ‘effusions rather than compositions, though in justice to myself I must say that upon the correction of the style I have bestowed, as I always do, great labour’. ‘The composition of verse’ , he wrote later, ‘is infinitely more an art than men are prepared to believe, and absolute success in it depends on innumerable minutiae . … Milton speaks of pouring “easy his unpremeditated verse”. It would be harsh, untrue, and odious to say there is anything like cant in this, but it is not true to the letter, and tends to mislead.’ He might have added that his own description of poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ was liable to the same misconstruction. For experience had taught him that this ‘spontaneous overflow’ was no more than the raw material of art. It was easy enough to give those feelings a loose impressionistic language adequate to record them for himself. But such language was not poetry: it had not really expressed them, and could not transmit them to others. The poet, Wordsworth knew well, was a craftsman, who must toil with unremitting patience at every detail of his work, till it has gained a clearer outline, a fuller substance: not otherwise could it acquire that organic power which is the sure touchstone of art:

The vital spirit of a perfect form.

The labour that Wordsworth bestowed on revision was at least equal to that of first composition, and was pursued when less scrupulous artists would have been well content to leave their work untouched. To Coleridge in 1798 “The Ruined Cottage” [The Excursion, Book I] was ‘superior to anything in our language which in any way resembles it’, yet three years later Wordsworth is found wearing himself out in trying to make it better. The slightness of the difference be­tween many passages found in the rough notebooks, where they were jotted down in the hurry of immediate inspiration, and the form they have assumed in the A text, affords ample proof that Wordsworth was postponing correction rather than that he was satisfied with his work as it stood. It is reasonable, therefore, to suppose that had he prepared it for press in 1805 he would have introduced into the text many of those changes which made their first appearance at a much later date.

Cf. the following fragment of verse, found in an (unpunctuated) autograph manuscript belonging to 1798-1800, which shows how fully Wordsworth understood a principle underlying all great art:

 

nor had my voice
Been silent oftentimes, had I burst forth
In verse which, with a strong and random light Touching an object in its prominent parts, Created a memorial which to me
Was all sufficient, and, to my own mind Recalling the whole picture, seemed to speak An universal language. Scattering thus
In passion many a desultory sound,
I deemed that I had adequately cloathed
Meanings at which I hardly hinted, thought
And forms of which I scarcely had produced
A monument and arbitrary sign.

 

[Then is a lacuna in the MS. here; the argument clearly requires some such words as When I reviewed this random and desultory verse I saw its worthlessness, and came to realize that an artist reveals his true power only]

 

In that considerate and laborious work
That patience which, admitting no neglect,
By slow creation doth impart to speech
Outline and substance even, till it has given
A function kindred to organic power,
The vital spirit of a perfect form.

So, in a letter to Beaumont (July 24, 1804; Letters, i. 167), he praises Reynolds for his ‘deep conviction of the necessity of unwearied labour and diligence, and the reverence for the great men of his art’. Wordsworth’s own reverence for the great masters, and his strenuous efforts to gain perfection of form, are seldom “sufficiently realized.

 

— William Wordsworth, The Prelude Or Growth of a Poet’s Mind (Text of 1805), , edited by Ernest de Selincourt (Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. xviii-xix

 

 

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We see that true creative writing, attributed ordinarily to inspiration, is the product of prolonged, intense labor. I believe this is true of composers of classical music as well.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

writing is at bottom a self-centered activity

 

 

 

‘The Perspective of Joyce’s Dubliners’

 

 

The following is a statement about writing in the form of a comment which I appended to my post “My Boyhood”

 

Roger W. Smith, “My Boyhood”

 

It was made by me in response to a comment by a reader of my post.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   November 2019

 

 

 

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I appreciated your getting back to me with follow up on my response to your comment on my blog post “My Boyhood.”

I feel that some comments of my own regarding how the piece was written and my approach to it would be pertinent.

I wrote the autobiographical essay over a period of about six months (perhaps longer). I started it and got very into it, then put it aside.

I would go back to it periodically when something occurred to me to add. The piece grew incrementally, by accretion. It’s about thirty pages long.

My usual working method as a writer is to follow and trust in the drift of my recollections and thoughts. I feel that a good writer has the ability to link things that often do not on the surface seem to be connected — through a train of thought or of associations. Details and incidents come into one’s consciousness and get linked in the mind and fused in the narrative. Connections are made that might not be obvious and could be overlooked. It’s sort of like following one’s nose as a dog does — one does NOT first write an outline and say to oneself, I will cover this area first, then that, the next one. It’s anything but a PowerPoint presentation.

So, what individuals, persons get included, as a general rule/principle, and in this instance?

Take Janet Funke, my next door neighbor and my first playmate. One of my earliest recollections is when I stole the flowers from her father’s garden. The incident made a big impression on me, especially because I incurred my mother’s displeasure and because of the way she handled it. So, Janet became a “character” in my blog post.

How Ralph’s birth would come into play does not seem pertinent. I was still age three when he was born. And, a sort of diaristic account of everything that occurred in the family and milestones was not what I intended. I certainly do recall your birth and how exciting it was for the family and me, especially to have a sister.

In writing, I usually don’t begin with a plan. I let things emerge in my mind and impinge upon my consciousness. I follow my own train of thoughts or associations, trust in it.

A respected friend and mentor liked the piece a lot and said he enjoyed reading it. He said it reminded him of James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”

I am attaching a PDF file (SEE ABOVE) which includes discussions of Joyce’s narrative technique. I once attended a lecture by Allen Grossman, an English professor at Brandeis University who discussed the same thing in a lecture on Joyce’s story “Araby.” I know that you already know it, but the point made in the commentaries is that Joyce, as author, writes strictly from the point of view — I believe the professor used the term “favored consciousness” — of the main character, in the case of “Portrait,” of Stephen Dedalus. Authorial omniscience does not occur; interpolated commentary by the narrator is basically omitted. We see things at a “ground level” view, strictly through the lens or prism of the young boy. My friend thought I achieved this.

Regarding subject matter – and persons discussed — in this and other blog posts of mine.

A key point is that — as I have already said — I write about whatever occurs to me — often relying on my memory, which I was told by my former therapist, as well as others, is excellent. Businesspeople have agendas, and coaches have playbooks; the creative process seems to be a matter of free association. Who knows why an author or artist uses some material as grist for the mill and overlooks other material?

Regarding who was named and/or discussed in “My Boyhood,” I reread it myself yesterday to see who was named and/or discussed.

I was not writing a family history. Nor was I trying to place emphasis on parents or siblings. My parents are mentioned, for example — anecdotally and with regard to how they impacted my upbringing — but this was not an essay about my parents.

Regarding births of siblings, to be honest, consistent with my modus operandi, when I was writing the essay, it did not occur to me to discuss them. I probably wouldn’t have anyway. Our family is discussed — could not be left out — but from a particular perspective, namely their direct influence, experientially, on me.

This wasn’t a piece about my siblings, family, or family history — it was about one particular member of our family: ME.

My former therapist, Ralph Colp Jr., observed that writing is at bottom a self-centered activity, both in terms of what it involves (viewed qua activity) — a solitary one that one undertakes hoping to be read — and by virtue of its nature: a priori, by definition. How true that seems to be.

 

 

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Addendum:

 

Benjamin Franklin seems to have been regarded as an egotist.

His autobiography (which he died having never completed) is regarded, deservedly, as a classic.

Franklin had twelve siblings in his immediate family (his father had a total of seventeen children from two marriages). They and Franklin’s parents are scarcely mentioned in the Autobiography (and then only in the first few paragraphs, with most of the siblings remaining unnamed and unmentioned), with the exception of Franklin’s brother James. James figures prominently in the early chapters because Franklin’s worked as a boy in the former’s printing establishment. This was an important experience in determining the course of Franklin life. His disagreements with his brother (who was jealous of the attention and praise Franklin received for squibs he wrote for his brother’s papers) were the main reason Franklin left Boston to try his luck in Philadelphia.

There would have no point in an autobiography of Franklin’s devoting space to his parents or siblings. He touches upon family very briefly by way of introduction and then moves on.

he used to think the fault lay in himself

 

 

“[Joseph] Fowke prided himself on a friendship that allowed him to be a reservoir of anecdotes about [Samuel] Johnson: ‘I remember Samuel Johnson remarking that in the early part of his studies he used always to think the fault lay in himself when he did not understand a passage, but at length, after many discouragements, he discovered that his author did not understand himself.’ ” [italics added]

 

— Joseph Fowke, letter to Philip Francis, 7 September 1789, quoted in Thomas M. Curley: Sir Robert Chambers: Law Literature and Empire in the Age of Johnson (The University of Wisconsin Press, 1998). pg. 375

 

 

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This quote calls something to mind about my experience in reading and writing.

I tend to read serious, weighty works of both nonfiction and fiction. I read slowly and deliberately. I often find myself reading passages and pages over again, often several times. The effort is usually worth it. It’s not necessarily that the author didn’t say it well, but the ideas or thoughts are deep and invite reflection. Or that the thought — the point being made — is embedded in a “dense,” intricate grammatical structure, which does not necessarily mean it was poorly written.

If something seems new or striking to me, I often make note of the passage — copy and save it.

(In general — this comment pertains not to reading per se but to cogitation engaged in in daily life, ongoing mental activity and the ordinary process of rumination — I tend to be a somewhat plodding thinker and to be very reflective. I run things through my mind over and over again, often something I can’t quite explain to myself to my satisfaction. Later — sometimes weeks later or longer — it will occur at times that a new way of seeing something I have been mulling over comes to me.)

 

 

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Samuel Johnson’s comment pertains to reading. It can be inferred from the above quote that he was a diligent reader. Everything I have read by him and about him supports this inference. He devoured books, read closely, with an active, engaged mind.

This is very true of me. I am the opposite of a “passive” reader. I am continually asking myself, do I agree with the author; is something well said or not; what kind of corroborative or evidentiary support is provided; and so on. What do I think? Is this a good book, in my opinion, or not, and if so, why or why not?

Books for me are nutritive. They are a source of ideas and a stimulus to mental activity. I do not read for “relaxation” (as, it seems, is often the case with TV). Yet reading is invigorating. Also pleasurable. And usually exciting.

An anecdote worth repeating by way of illustration is the following. I came across a review by the English historian J. H. Plumb in the 1980s in The New York Times Book Review. He mentioned among the great historical works of all time those of Francis Parkman.

I had heard of Parkman, but was not acquainted with and had not read his works. The mention of Parkman made me want to read him. Before starting to do so (once I had resolved to) and getting ahold of his books (not readily available), I experienced a frisson within me (akin to pleasurable feelings of anticipation in other spheres of human activity) at the thought of beginning an “excursion” into his works, which I knew meant reading not just one of them.

Over the course of months, I read all seven volumes of Parkman’s France and England in North America. It was an experience one might compare to a keenly anticipated prolonged overseas trip. As I told my therapist, who found the comment telling, it wasn’t just picking up a book. The excitement I felt showed how much reading meant to me.

I read books eagerly. I “devour” them. (Continually reflecting upon and critiquing what I read.) And extract every bit of wisdom and knowledge I can.

 

 

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According to Johnson, the fault often lies with the writer, not the reader. So true.

There have been innumerable instances in my own experience of reading writers who don’t take pains to be clear. Who don’t seem to feel it is worth the bother. Or — it seems to often be the case — never bothered, in the first place, to learn how to write. My own training and experience in writing began early, and I was also aware of the importance not just of having something to say, but of being able to write well. I worked very hard, from an early age, at writing, labored at it, at getting my ideas down on paper and polishing and improving a composition.

 

 

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I have read quite a few books over the years which were by authors supposedly learned and well informed, and highly regarded — often experts in their field — who turned out to be very poor writers. Who confound the reader and leave you more confused than enlightened. I have often found myself giving up and laying the supposedly authoritative and masterful work aside.

This sort or experience is also true of some epistolary and other communications and even conversations that I have had with persons I was closely acquainted with, who, rather than clarifying things, tended to obscure them with (sometimes) pomposity or thoughts and observations not made clearly that they are fond of expounding upon.

 

 

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Apropos clarity, as it pertains to writing, I have been accused of pomposity in my own writing. Such criticisms are utterly unfounded. My writings do display erudition, which, unaccountably, makes some readers uncomfortable. (It occurs to me: Erudition, learning, in the minds of persons such as my detractors, makes you a snob.)

I myself, as a reader, humble myself before a display of erudition, and am eager to be instructed and enlightened. But I find that often inferior writers are “showing off,” as it were, want to impress the reader without taking pains to be clear.

It should be apparent to anyone who reads my writings what pains I take to be clear. (My wife will tell you that.) The opposite of arcane. This is true of my “scholarly” writings (sometimes based on extensive research) and other pieces of mine that are on topics of general interest and often reflect personal opinions.

There are no examples in my writings of pretentiousness. And erudition (I am not an academic or renowned or well known scholar) is not a sin.

Samuel Johnson, by the way, expressed his opinions forcefully (for which he was often accused, I think unfairly, of arrogance) and brought great, indeed prodigious, learning to bear. He had a distinctive, elevated style which some commentators (not a few) have found pretentious and old fashioned, like eighteenth-century dress would now be. This bothers me not a whit.

 
— Roger W. Smith

   October 2019

specifics versus generalities; Orwell vis-à-vis Dreiser (a salutary principle for all writers)

 

 

 

I have been reading — with pleasure — George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Orwell eschews generalities. Compare to him a writer such as Theodore Dreiser:

And to it, at times, some troubled vessel feeling its way along the wide waters of the Sound, replied, its somber call adding to the sense of uncertainty and fatality which seemed to pervade the night. Because of this, and my own uniformly brooding state at the time, I was at once restless and sad, stirred by and hurt emotionally by the uncertainty and treachery that works forever under the walls of life. Why are we here? Where are we going? How beautiful and elusive this mystery of living–the appetites and hungers of men, their loves and hates.

— Theodore Dreiser, “This Madness [Aglaia],” Hearst’s International combined with Cosmopolitan, February 1929, pg. 198 [“This Madness” was a novel by Dreiser published in installments in the magazine.]

 

When a girl leaves her home at eighteen, she does one of two things. Either she falls into saving hands and becomes better, or she rapidly assumes the cosmopolitan standard of virtue and becomes worse. Of an intermediate balance, under the circumstances, there is no possibility. The city has its cunning wiles, no less than the infinitely smaller and more human tempter. There are large forces which allure with all the soulfulness of expression possible in the most cultured human. The gleam of a thousand lights is often as effective as the persuasive light in a wooing and fascinating eye. Half the undoing of the unsophisticated and natural mind is accomplished by forces wholly superhuman. A blare of sound, a roar of life, a vast array of human hives, appeal to the astonished senses in equivocal terms. Without a counsellor at hand to whisper cautious interpretations, what falsehoods may not these things breathe into the unguarded ear! {Note the verbosity and a sort of “randomness” in the prose, perhaps inducing something like vertigo in the reader. Very un-Orwellian.]

— Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie, Chapter I

 

You will never find such passages in Orwell.

Orwell’s sentences, his prose, are built out of (as if one were building a hut) the “sticks and stones” of SPECIFICS, specific DETAILS. For example:

 

War, to me, meant roaring projectiles and skipping shards of steel; above all it meant mud, lice, hunger, and cold. It is curious, but I dreaded the cold much more than I dreaded the enemy. The thought of it had been haunting me all the time I was in Barcelona; I had even lain awake at nights thinking of the cold in the trenches, the stand-to’s in the grisly dawns, the long hours on sentry-go with a frosted rifle, the icy mud that would slop over my boot-tops.

— George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Chapter 2

 

 

As the alarm clock on the chest of drawers exploded like a horrid little bomb of bell metal, Dorothy, wrenched from the depths of some complex, troubling dream, awoke with a start and lay on her back looking into the darkness in extreme exhaustion.

The alarm clock continued its nagging, feminine clamour, which would go on for five minutes or-thereabouts if you did not stop it. Dorothy was aching from head to foot, and an insidious and contemptible selfpity, which usually seized upon her when it was time to get up in the morning, caused her to bury her head under the bedclothes and try to shut the hateful noise out of her ears. …

It was just half past five, and coldish for an August morning. Dorothy (her name was Dorothy Hare, and she was the only child of the Reverend Charles Hare, Rector of St. Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk) put on her aged flannelette dressing-gown and felt her way downstairs. There was a chill morning smell of dust, damp plaster and the fried dabs from yesterday’s supper, and from either side of the passage on the second floor she could hear the antiphonal snoring of her father and of Ellen, the maid of all work. …

— George Orwell, A Clergyman’s Daughter, Chapter 1

 

This is not monotonous or boring writing. It’s the opposite. It engages the reader and fixes the attention completely.

 

— Roger W. Smith

    October 2019

how to write; Exhibit A

 

 

 

Roger W. Smith, ‘Sorokin as Bilingual Stylist’

 

See Word document above.

 

 

I am very proud of the short scholarly paper posted here, which I have just finished. It has not yet been published.

It was written by me for an upcoming academic conference.

I had very short notice and a tight deadline — about a week to research and write the piece.

I hunkered down and was virtually chained to my computer for the past few days. There was a lot of spade work to be done before I could begin writing.

On Saturday morning, two days ago, I was still doing what would be called spade work. I was very focused and energized. But, later in the day, I found myself being over anxious — too “wired.” I decided I had to shut down and do nothing for the evening.

I woke up refreshed on Sunday morning and ready to work. But I had a feeling of consternation in that I couldn’t see how I could get the piece done by the end of the day. It was due Sunday at the latest. The editor said she had to begin preparation for publication on Monday.

I told myself,  Roger, no more “research.” No more examining your source materials. It’s time to WRITE. (Note that I had about twelve hours left.)

I had a draft already, but it was an amorphous mess of some preliminary overall thoughts I had had pertinent to my topic and some sections partially written, plus a lot of stuff I had cut and pasted from downloaded source materials and “dumped” into the text.

The creative process started to kick in (if that’s the right way to say it) — miraculously — in my genius brain. (Don’t’ worry, I’m being facetious.) I saw a way I could possibly structure and organize the presentation. I wrote five or ten subheadings that seemed to provide a sort of outline and to group content into some meaningful order. Then I rearranged my materials under the subheads.

“Let’s see how long it is now,” I said to myself. Twenty pages. The editor wanted six to eight pages including an abstract and footnotes.

Howe can I possibly get it down to the required length in such a short time, I thought.

I went at it and started pruning. I found that a lot could be cut, such as long quotations, or repetitive quotations and examples.

The piece was still too long. I did a tightening job which required intense effort and craftsmanship. Lo and behold, I had gotten the piece down to just under eight pages.

Any writer will tell you that the hardest thing to do is to write a short piece when you have more material that you can fit in.

After slaving over a piece of writing — short or long — optimally the materials you are working with, words and paragraphs, suddenly gel and cohere — almost miraculously, it seems — since a moment before you had what was essentially a mess in front of you to work with, or — perhaps one should say — clean up.

 

 

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There’s such ego satisfaction in pulling such a job off. (The editor responded immediately with very positive feedback.) Here’s what I think this piece illustrates by way of pointing out what good writing requires and how excellence and professionalism can be ascertained:

— an ability to work a great deal of documentary material (based upon arduous research) into a tightly constructed piece

— how to assemble all this material and then present it in a coherent fashion, so that the piece reads well

— how to achieve an admixture of evidentiary materials with expository writing in which one conveys lucid, well thought out opinions and insights that do not get “lost in the traffic”

 

— Roger W. Smith

   September 16, 2019

some thoughts about writing as it relates to IQ

 

 

I was a freelance writer and editor for a few years, interrupted my career to pursue a graduate degree, but spent most of my work life working in offices. My last office job, which lasted over twelve years, was as a business writer with a consulting firm in Manhattan.

Only a few days after I had joined the firm, I attended a company conference on the West Coast which was devoted to mainly to sharing of best practices with colleagues from various offices. That was the first time I became aware of a high-ranking employee, Mr. ________. We were employed in the same office.

The first time I saw him, he was in a corridor of our hotel prior to the beginning of the day’s proceedings. He looked like he had just woken up, and he was carrying a copy of The New York Times which he had purchased at the hotel magazine shop. He appeared lost in thought and somewhat disheveled and looked like a prototypical New York intellectual.

That’s _______ _______,” someone said. “He’s brilliant!”

It turned out that almost everyone in our office held Mr. _______ in awe. Mostly because of his reputedly large stable of devoted clients and his mesmerizing hold on everyone as an absolute authority on employee benefits.

But — I found out over time — he was no Einstein. Not a genius. His reputation for intellectual prowess, such as it was, was not deserved. (Which is not to say that he wasn’t intelligent.)

Mr. _______’s secretary showed up at my desk one day and dropped a seven page long, double spaced, typed draft on my desktop. “_______ wants you to edit it,” she said. I did not work for Mr. _______’s department, but it was assumed that I would do it immediately with no further discussion. It turned out that what he wanted me to do was edit the draft of remarks, or a speech, he was planning to give to some office, company division, or professional association.

It is actually the kind of work I like to do. I dove right in. Soon I was scratching my hair. The content of the speech may have been okay, but his thoughts were expressed horribly.

However, I have always fancied that I can wordsmith and make read decently just about any piece of English prose — on any subject, technical or nontechnical — written by an adult with a modicum of education and a knowledge of English as a first or second language.

Among the awkward phrases  of Mr.  _______ that I recall — he kept failing miserably at getting his thoughts across, at crafting phrases and sentences — was “Russian red tape expert,” used in the following sentence about employee benefit laws: “A Russian red tape expert would be proud to issue 49 pages of closely printed regulations. ….” I changed “Russian red tape expert” to “Communist apparatchik.” (Upon reflection, I think that “Soviet apparatchik” might have been better.)

I labored over the speech for about two hours and returned it to  Mr. _______’s secretary. It was received without a word. I never heard anything from him by way of follow up or got any thanks. I was proud of my work. I still have a copy of his draft with my edits.

It is true that a lot of so-called geniuses — this includes true geniuses — cannot write well. Many academics who became world renowned (the Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse comes to mind) were horrible writers, and many professors — including many (it seems a preponderance of them) in the humanities — write poorly and pay little heed to style and the craft of writing. It also seems that many of the greatest writers of all time, while showing obvious intelligence, let alone brilliance, in certain respects — did not possess IQ’s that would make them eligible for Mensa.

Just what the relationship between a genius for writing and being in the “gifted” class (as early childhood educators would term it) with respect to intelligence is, is not obvious and raises potentially interesting lines of inquiry.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   August 2019