Tag Archives: Roger W. Smith

bloated writing

 

 

For he actually desires not to see a new State erected in America—one that may end capitalistic adventure as we have known it—but the present one so altered in spirit, the so-called “pioneer spirit” in industry—as to cease concerning itself so completely and selfishly and exclusively with the individual’s personal advance—to change in fact into one in which the so-called pioneering individual will see himself as a representative not only of himself but of the country and the people and the national resources of the same, an environment out of which and by the reason of the presence of which it is possible for him to become the successful individual that he does become—if and when he so does become. And that is certainly a very different interpretation of the kind of individual success we need and ought to have if we are going to have for very much longer any such so-called democratic government or nation as our American Constitution calls for. For, according to Bridges—and I quoting him exactly—”when you are anti-labor you are anti-American. For to be anti-labor you have to rob people of the right of free speech, the right to strike, to assemble, to petition and protest, and therefore, you have to be fundamentally unconstitutional and so anti-American.” And having watched the quarrels between capital and labor outside the American newspaper and editorial business for forty-eight years I can heartily agree.

— Theodore Dreiser, “The Story of Harry Bridges,” Friday,  October 11, 1940

 

“Hitler was no good at all at first. …”

 

 

“Observer; Baseball for Hitler”

By Russell Baker

The New York Times

June 18, 1996

 

Baseball turned its back on Adolf Hitler last week. As the team owners said in a formal statement, “When your business has troubles as bad as ours, who needs to mess around with Der Fuhrer?”

So saying, they persuaded Marge Schott, majority owner of the Cincinnati Reds, to give up control of her business. In a flagrant exercise of the First Amendment, Mrs. Schott had spoken well of the early Hitler.

One sports story reported that she had said “Hitler was good at first.” This sent me to the archives where I discovered that Hitler was no good at all at first, and not at second either.

Rudolf Hess’s memoir says, “The Fuhrer could have been a great shortstop if he hadn’t gone into politics,” but Hess was crazy as a loon when he wrote it.

A more reliable source, Hitler’s masseuse, wrote a book titled, “I Rubbed Hitler the Wrong Way,” which indicates he had very little interest in baseball. “One day while massaging Hitler’s arm,” she wrote, “the Fuhrer seemed in a light-hearted mood, so I ventured to speak to him as follows:

” ‘Do you know, mein Fuhrer, that if you were an American baseball pitcher what your pitching arm would be called by the scribes?’

” ‘Scribes? Scribes?’ he said. ‘Explain scribes to me.’

” ‘They are sportswriters,’ I said.

” ‘So,’ he said, ‘these scribes would call my pitching arm what?’

” ‘They would call it “the old soupbone,” ‘ I said.”

Hitler ended the conversation abruptly, telling the masseuse that when the Wehrmacht occupied America he would like to see a game from the best seat in Camden Yards, but that would have to wait until he finished conquering Russia.

Here is final proof of Hitler’s ignorance of baseball: Camden Yards was not built until 50 years later, and even then he couldn’t have got a decent seat unless he was a corporation. By then, of course, no scribe had called a pitching arm “the old soupbone” for 50 years, and no sportswriter had been called a scribe for 45.

Most of the Nazi leaders were hopelessly ignorant of baseball, as we discover in the Hitler file. Hermann Goring, being the great collector and chief looter in the Nazi hierarchy, apparently wanted a baseball signed by Babe Ruth.

In a note to Hitler the propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, wrote that Goring was writing to a woman in enemy America. Impressions in Goring’s desk blotter, said Goebbels, showed that a note had been sent to a New York woman named Babe Ruth.

Totally ignorant of baseball, Goebbels advised Hitler to turn Goring over to the Gestapo and explain his correspondence “with this American Mata Hari.”

Hitler, who was soft on Goring, was “delighted,” he wrote in a note to Eva Braun, to show his “superior knowledge of American culture to Goebbels.”

“I told him that Babe Ruth was the name of an American candy and that Hermann, who has a sweet tooth, was probably ordering some from New York,” Hitler wrote.

We now know, of course, what Goring was really up to. His gardener’s memoir, “Down the Primrose Path With Goring,” reports that he was often ordered to stand in a hay field for hours chasing fly balls Goring hit off a fungo bat. The gardener writes:

“He once said to me that Hermann Goring was not much more corpulent than the greatest batter in history. ‘What’s more,’ said Goring, ‘both of us are named Hermann.’

“I didn’t know then that Herman was only the second name of the famous Ruth and that it had only one ‘n,’ while Goring’s was his first name and had two ‘n’s.’ ”

Goring apparently hoped to meet Babe Ruth once the Wehrmacht occupied New York and to impress the Yankee slugger by smacking a few batting-practice pitches out of the park. Babe Ruth, he hoped, would be impressed enough to sign a baseball, thus making it unnecessary to loot the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The baseball owners’ distaste for Hitler reminds us that baseball and Adolf once had something in common. Hitler became furious because a black American sprinter, Jesse Owens, beat the flower of Aryan athletics in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Such an embarrassment could not have happened that year to major league baseball owners. They simply didn’t let blacks play.

 

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Absolute genius (on Russell Baker’s part).

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 2021

“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is regarded as a classic. I would say, “Great effort.”

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‘Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu’

 

“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” [italics added]

— George Orwell, “Why I Write”

 

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John Updike’s 1960 New Yorker article about Ted Williams’s last game for the Boston Red Sox: “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” (The New Yorker, October 22 1960) is frequently quoted and seems to have a status akin to “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” (See downloadable Word document of the full Updike text, above.)

 

What is wrong — in my “contrarian” opinion — with Updike’s piece?

It is too long (it needed pruning).

It is too fine (typical of New Yorker pieces); too “literary and (at times) too flowery.

It is the work of a brilliant, undeniably talented writer whose dazzling performance — like that of some virtuosos — comes between you and the subject matter, i.e., the focus of the piece: the great baseball player Ted Williams, his last game.

One tires of Updike’s verbal pyrotechnics, his asides (authorial interventions, commentary).

Is this reportage or an essay? Updike tried to do both. I think it was a mistake.

“Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu” is regarded as a classic. I would say, “Great effort.”

 

— Posted by Roger W. Smith

    January 2021

 

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See also my post:

“Saul Bellow on writing”

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/26/saul-bellow-on-writing/

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey” (Notable Sports Figures)

 

Please see my post

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey”

at

Roger W. Smith, “Leo Durocher”; “Wesley Branch Rickey”

 

In addition to what I say about my own writing there, aspiring writers may wish to note the effectiveness of my leads to each of the two pieces, in both creating interest anecdotally, as it were, and framing the content of each article.

 

— Roger W. Smith

   December 2020

white male privilege (a flawed premise)

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‘The President is golfing and exercising White male privilege’

 

 

 

 

 

Re:

The president is golfing and exercising White male privilege

By Robin Givhan

The Washington Post

November 17, 2020

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/11/17/president-is-golfing-exercising-white-male-privilege/

 

 

This story illustrates a major flaw in constructing a piece of writing: a weak premise. A piece built on no sound premise — in fact, on no real premise at all; on no valid, cogent, or original thought.

A piece that essentially reiterates, using scant evidence, a weak idea or cliché.

Many readers would — I am certain do — agree that Trump is unfit to be president, that he lives a privileged life and seems not to care about people, that it is deplorable; that he appears to spend most of his time — and has done so increasingly in the past few weeks — watching television, tweeting, and, when he leaves the White House, golfing, while for all intents and purposes ignoring the pandemic and doing nothing about it.

It is also indisputable that, until very recently, golfing was (and perhaps in the present day, still is, predominantly) a sport for rich men, most of them white (I would presume); and that until recently golf clubs and courses banned blacks. And, that most golf clubs are still private and expensive — for wealthy males (I presume it is mostly a men’s sport). And, this was undoubtedly even more the case in our past history. It was a sport for the rich, leisured class.

So what?

I see photos of men riding golf carts on the course and think, they can’t they even walk and (maybe carry their bags); and look at the caddie hanging on the back of Trump’s golf cart, and it all looks so decadent, and I don’t like Trump; and why isn’t he governing? Why doesn’t he do his job? I wouldn’t want to join his club (should I be a golfer) or visit Mar-a-Lago.

This tells me a lot about Trump (but I knew it already) and about the lifestyles of some people, but the op-ed does not in the least enlighten me. It is jerry built on the premise that this is all about white male privilege. Well, yes, Trump, is white and is assigned to that artificially constructed racial category. And, yes, he lives a life of privilege and seems heedless about many things he should care about or do something about. But this tells us nothing about white male privilege, or advances our understating of it; and, anyway, white male privilege is a code word used to enshroud weak, tendentious thinking.

Bill Clinton was a womanizer. He had an affair with an intern. Donald Trump is a womanizer and groper (or worse). Using them as my key examples upon which I construct a lead and build my case, I will write an opinion piece about male chauvinism or infidelity? They have a countless number of companions in the crime, and there are so many examples throughout history that such a piece would be meaningless. The only valid piece, approach, would be to begin with the topic of, say, male chauvinism, sexual predators, white privilege, or some such topic, define what is meant by it, and then proceed to show why it is a problem today, how it is not being acknowledged or addressed, etc. It might be a very boring piece, but at least one could conceive of such an approach. But to begin with Trump’s failings and outrageous behavior, and to then assert that this proves something about white male privilege is an a priori unsound and worthless endeavor. It amounts to this writer wanting to prove something — show us: that she is against white male privilege.

Rather than hanging her op-ed on the premise of white male privilege, the author could have merely written a piece — probably illustrated — showing what Trump has been up to in the past few weeks: mostly tweeting baseless complaints about the election having been stolen, watching television, and golfing. Then say that this is ridiculous and shows that he is not governing as he still should be and is, most importantly, not dealing with the pandemic in any way. That is enough to say, and although we already know it, the writer could give specific examples of Trump’s activities since the election and put in her two cents worth. Nothing wrong with that.

It’s as if I wrote an article. The head of the local school system was found to have been cheating for years, embezzling funds and neglecting kids’ education while enjoying luxuries and perks. The premise of my article is that corruption is pervasive; corrupt officials with a sense of entitlement are living a life of privilege and perks and see nothing wrong with this. (I might say, proving nothing, “White men in important positions are committing an awful lot of crime nowadays.”) Corruption has been going on forever, and most people don’t care about it. And so forth. Such an op-ed, though probably true with respect to the broad assertions made, would be worthless, would provide no enlightenment, as opposed to a news story about the official’s crimes, which would at least be informative.

In English composition we were taught the importance of choosing and identifying one’s thesis (main topic). The thesis of this op-ed, as the writer construes it, is white male privilege. A valid, workable and sustainable topic would have been, Donald Trump’s decadent behavior in the midst of a public health crisis in the waning days of his presidency.

 

— posted by Roger W. Smith

   November 2020

metaphor-itis (aka galloping metaphor disease)

 

 

This post consists of my brief comments on the following book review:

 

“The Plight of the Aggrieved, Rich Manhattan Liberal”

review of Shelter in Place. a novel by David Leavitt

reviewed by Michael Callahan

The New York Times

October 13, 2020

 

SHELTER IN PLACE

By David Leavitt

 

It’s late 2016, and Eva Lindquist is distraught. The chilly, exacting Upper West Side socialite has gathered a circle of sycophants at her Connecticut country house to witness her gnashing her veneers over the recent election of Donald Trump. Swirling her glass of wine, she remains puzzled and furious at the blithe acceptance of this apocalyptic event by her feckless husband, Bruce, a wealth manager, and her standard-issue Manhattan leisure-class coterie: the bickering artsy couple, the hanger-on magazine editor with no money, the diffident gay decorator. (All of the women seem to be some derivative of Iris Apfel.)

Eva is the kind of perennially aggrieved cosmopolitan who in movies is depicted aggressively slapping on body lotion before bed. Even as she cows the members of her social set, she remains the sun around which they orbit; her friends spend all of their time talking either to her or about her. She’s a tabula rasa, TAUT AS PIANO WIRE as she tosses out withering rejoinders LIKE BEADS AT MARDI GRAS. But she is also prescient, warning that Trump will manipulate the media to rip the country to shreds, even as her privileged petting zoo shrugs off all the doom and gloom.

“The news isn’t news anymore,” she laments, “it’s just pompous opinionating, the purpose of which is to keep us anxious, because these people … know that as long as they can keep us anxious, as long as they dangle the carrot of consolation in front of us, they’ve got us hooked. They’re no different than the French papers in 1940, just more sophisticated. And more venal.”

Determined not to be caught behind enemy lines, she impulsively buys a grand but tattered apartment in Venice. It’s a decision that will fling the lives of her self-involved cabal hither and thither, LIKE RAINDROPS BEING SHAKEN OFF AN UMBRELLA.

There is an art to writing about unlikable people while still engaging the reader to invest in their indulgence, vanity and, yes, happiness. Tracking the fallout wrought by Eva’s acquisition, Leavitt unfurls a droll drawing-room pastiche that evokes la dolce vita as “Seinfeld” episode. His boorish elites argue over the altruism of Barbara Kingsolver, whether Jean Rhys would have been anything without Ford Madox Ford, and the true symbolism of the pussy hat, all while dropping words like “ouroboros” and “concupiscence” in everyday conversation. IT’S AARON SORKIN ON STEROIDS. And surprisingly compelling.

Leavitt has claimed John Cheever and Grace Paley as influences, and it shows here: His dissection of the pampered New Yorkers’ reaction to Trump’s election, which they treat as a personal affront, is lethal and also kookily endearing. These poor rich people, wringing their hands at a country they no longer recognize, when what they’re truly mourning is the death of their own relevance. You can almost hear Elaine Stritch warbling “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the next apartment.

At one point, Aaron, a bitter, unemployed editor in Eva’s circle of faux bonhomie, tries to look at the bright side of the election. “When writers start to feel oppressed again,” he says, “they’ll start to write books worth reading instead of all of that idiotic upper-middle-class self-absorbed liberal navel-gazing crap we got when Obama was president.” Leavitt cleverly crafting a New Yorker cartoon in words, proves there is still some navel-gazing worth reading. His autopsy of the current liberal ennui is not particularly trenchant or surprising, but it’s certainly amusing. And in this ghastly year, can’t we all use more of that?

 

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Besides the metaphors I have highlighted in all caps above, there are several “implied” ones: e.g., ‘privileged petting zoo, “cleverly crafting a New Yorker cartoon in words.” And “Leavitt unfurls a droll drawing-room pastiche that evokes la dolce vita as ‘Seinfeld’ episode.”

 

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Mr. Callahan is clearly a talented writer. It’s like when a pianist sits down to play, and you immediately know either that the piece is very good, or that the pianist is, or both.

I am wary of saying anything critical (about Mr. Callahan’s review). I am impressed by his talent. But all the clever metaphors caught my attention. I could easily become envious. but there is a danger here. The writer who is too clever. Who almost parodies himself or herself. The danger of mannered writing which sounds affected.

By the way, the characters in the novel are given to debating things such as whether Jean Rhys would have been anything without Ford Madox Ford. A clever reference (telling detail) indeed! Kudos to the author (Leavitt), and to Mr. Callahan for noticing it. And, while I am at trying to be fair to Mr. Callahan, let me repeat, he can write — that’s for sure — words and clever formulations roll off his keyboard like those of writers of yore such as Henry Miller. Which is to say, he can effortlessly compose prose that “flows” (here’s a metaphor of my own) like music to the reader’s ear (or should I say, like the Mississippi River?).

 

— Roger W Smith

   October 14, 2020

“Perhaps the most wonderful Sunday of my life!” (a Henry Miller letter)

 

 

 

 

 

Henry Miller letter to Emil Schellock

 

 

 

Attached is the text (downloadable Word document above) of a letter dated December 1, 1930 from the American writer Henry Miller — written by Miller from Paris — to his American friend Emil Schnellock. Miller and Schnellock had known each other since schooldays at P.S. 85 in Brooklyn (class of 1905). They were lifelong friends. Emil Schnellock was a successful commercial artist.

Miller moved to France in 1930 (he made a previous trip there lasting a few months in 1928) and remained in France for approximately ten years. During this period, as an exile. Miller experienced profound feelings of liberation and a burst of creativity, both of which are seen in his autobiographical novel Tropic of Cancer.

 


— Roger W. Smith

    September 2020

 

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addendum:

This letter “charmed” me when I first read it some thirty (perhaps) years ago. I thought to myself: Now that’s how to write a letter!

Reading it again now, I guess I would say that I am not quite as entranced. Maybe what thrilled Miller almost a century ago doesn’t thrill (or titillate) us the same today. But this is vintage Miller. The raconteur who when he gets going should not and can not stop. It all comes tumbling out, not carefully crafted: the minute observation and the grandiose impression or thought; the connoisseur and intellectual as well as the sensualist and extoller of the tawdry, the carnal and prosaic. One thing I would say about Miller’s writing is that, it all tumbles out pell-mell, but he has a great “ear.” The tone, rhythm, and pacing are just right. I guess that’s gift a writer such as Miller is born with.

 

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addendum:

See also my post:

“Henry Miller”

Henry Miller

 

vocabulary building (my post)

 

 

Check out my long post (from August 2017) about vocabulary building and the importance of vocabulary to a writer. It’s one of the best pieces (written by someone who knows from experience what he’s talking about) ever written on the subject.

 

Vocabulary: Building and Using One’s Own; The Delight of Same; Its Value to a Writer

 

https://rogers-rhetoric.com/2018/12/27/vocabulary-building-and-using-ones-own-the-delight-of-same-its-value-to-a-writer/

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

Francis Parkman

Parkman excerpts

Excerpts from the works of the historian Francis Parkman are posted here (above) as a downloadable Word document.

In view of my mentions of the historians Carlyle and Macaulay in recent posts on rhetoric and style, I got to thinking this morning about the historian Francis Parkman, author of The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life and the monumental seven-volume France and England in North America; and of an early, forgotten work: Vassall Morton: A Novel (1856), which, I dare say, few have ever read. (I am proud to be able to say that I have.)

A student at Harvard College of the historian Jared Sparks, by whom he was greatly influenced, Parkman was fluent in French and was an admirer of Froissart, whose works included the Chroniques (Chronicles) a prose history of the Hundred Years’ War written in the fourteenth century. Parkman’s style of historical writing would probably be termed “romantic” and perhaps lyrical. His research in primary sources was prodigious, belying the impression (which would show ignorance of them) that his works are not scholarly or objective. His narrative is crystal clear.

He can — and has by his admirers — be read almost for his style alone.

What modern historian writes narrative history with metaphors and descriptive passages such as the following?

a rolling sea of dull green prairie

On the right hand and on the left stretched the boundless prairie, dotted with leafless groves and bordered by gray wintry forests, scorched by the fires kindled in the dried grass by Indian hunters, and strewn with the carcasses and the bleached skulls of innumerable buffalo.

Yet hardly anyone reads Parkman nowadays.

— Roger W. Smith

   September 2020