John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Hawthorne's caution

I wonder whether some of us in the paragraph game, finding ourselves abruptly deposited on the street after long tenure with a publication, may suffer from the psychology that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in the “Custom-House” section of The Scarlet Letter. Here is how Hawthorne describes the fate of the long-tenured officeholder turned out after a change in administration:


He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possesses an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer [read journalist] — fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world — may return to himself, and become all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as best he may. Conscious of his own infirmity, — that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost, — he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope — a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death — is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to office [read employment in journalism]. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.*


You need not be alarmed, gentle reader; for my part, I am far from tottering after my own unkindly shove last April, and I retain possession of a fair quantity of my original tempered steel and elasticity, as any employer who has the wit to engage my services will quickly discern.



*This excerpt constitutes about half of a paragraph. No doubt we can expect to hear some discourse on Hawthorne’s defects as a writer from the anonymous commenter who called me “verbose” and urged me to cut my posts by a third.

9 comments:

  1. The depth of perception in the Hawthorne paragraph you quote more than makes up for any of his minor defects as a writer. When I was a freshman at IU with a double major in journalism and psychology, I followed the advice of my English professor, Merrit Lawlis, and changed the psychology to Comp Lit. "You can learn a lot of psychology from the great authors," he said.

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  2. Was Hawthorne known to partake of opium?


    [I don't know anything about the profiles to post comments by; on twitter I am MichiganCityDDS]

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  3. Nobody reads Hawthorne anymore who isn't compelled to sit in a tenth grade English classroom with a term grade pressed against his or her head. I am sorry. It just doesn't happen.

    Hawthorne could have cut by 1/2 (50%) and have been more effective. That intro always impressed me as being totally unrelated to the novel. WTF?
    In fact, most of the NOVEL seemed unrelated to the novel. Come to think of it, Hawthorne is definitely overrated.

    Bad examples lead to bad conclusions...

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  4. Incidentally, it is possible to find Hawthorne's prose not to one's taste without being a Philistine about it.

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  5. To Anonymous, who claims "Nobody reads Hawthorne" unless compelled, you are wrong. By my senior year in high school, I had never been assigned to read any Hawthorne, so I read The Scarlet Letter alone, with no class or teacher to help. It was slow going sometimes. I might have read some of those pages 2 or 3 times, but I ended up with something to show for it, inside.

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  6. The First AnonymousNovember 13, 2009 at 5:28 PM

    Hey!

    The other Anonymous stole my thunder! I'm the "You're too verbose" Anonymous, not the "Nobody-reads-Hawthorne" Anonymous.

    I actually like Hawthorne...

    I especially like his book "The Last of the Mohicans."

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  7. Anne,
    Theodore Dalrymple, among other things a psychiatrist, maintains that all of psychology can be found in Shakespeare, that since his time we've never learned more than can be found in his plays. (I paraphrase.)
    Shakespeare also possesses the attraction of concision.

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  8. Shakespeare's succinct, too.

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