+ Two Great Tectonic Shifts in English Writing…

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This is from Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article on G K Chesterton:

And then [Chesterton] seemed very dated very soon.  There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing.  One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries.  Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length.  But the style — formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved — was still a sort of default, the voice in which leader pages more or less wrote themselves.

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure, and thanks to the French (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being.  The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry.  Chesterton mannerisms — beginning sentences with “I wish to conclude” or “I should say, therefore” or “Moreover,” using the first person plural unself-consciously (“What we have to ask ourselves…”), making sure that every sentence was crafted like a sword and loaded like a cannon — appeared to have come from another universe.  Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers.  The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader.  What had seemed charming and obviously theatrical twenty years before now could sound like puff and noise.  Human nature didn’t change in 1910, but English writing did.  (For Virginia Woolf, they were the same thing.)  The few writers of the nineties who were still writing a couple of decades later were as dazed as the last dinosaurs, post-comet.  They didn’t know what hit them, and went on roaring anyway.

This is a small portion of Adam Gopnik’s article, “The Back of the World: The troubling genious of G.K. Chesterton,” in the New Yorker, July 7&14, 2008. www.newyorker.com .  Read the rest!

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