U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Becker and Style

In an essay called “Labelling the Historians” from the April 5, 1917 issue of The Dial, Carl Becker took up the issue of style in history-writing:

any style worth attention cannot be separated from the matter of which it is, in the measure of its excellence, merely the most appropriate form. The very word “style” does incredible harm, since it brings with it, from common usage, connotations that are inapplicable to literary discourse. Style? Stylish dress, stylish woman. Every one knows what a stylish woman is—a woman attractively dressed, a woman with an air, a manner. How then can a writer “have style” unless he has a manner, unless his writing is, in some sense, stylish? Writers who know their business instinctively shudder when the undiscriminating speak of style as if it were something external, something to be put on or taken off at will—a kind of rich, bespangled cloak in which any, even the most emaciated and unprepossessing, body of thought can readily be dressed up and made presentable. One thing only concerns the writer, and that is to find an arrangement of words that will fully and exactly convey the thought or feeling which he wishes to convey. In so far as the form (arrangement of words) is determined by some conventional notion of good writing, rather than by the nature of the thought and feeling to be expressed, it is bad form, bad style—in short, it is “style.”[1]

The context of this excursus is in fact a rather backhanded defense of George Bancroft, insisting, essentially, that Becker’s contemporaries have improperly excused themselves from judging Bancroft fairly by carping about the opulence of his style rather than attending to the quality of his research. But Becker’s own frustrations with the dangers of having a famous style are barely and rather indifferently suppressed here. Many of Becker’s publications—such as a tribute to Frederick Jackson Turner in 1910—had garnered him great praise… but primarily for his style, and not for his ideas. Senior historians—even, richly, Henry Adams—began to chide him indirectly for the trap he was setting himself: “if I were he, I should be a little afraid of indulging so freely my fancy for humor.” William A. Dunning made the point more pertly, snapping, “If you are not careful you will make a reputation as an epigrammist,” and sniffed that Becker seemed content to be “a producer of literature… perhaps that category is what you are seeking to qualify for.”

The spring of 1917 was an odd time, though, for Becker to be bristling about his credentials as a bona fide historian: he was on his way from a lengthy Midwestern sojourn in Kansas and Minnesota to the Ivy League via a call to Cornell. Twenty-five years space, an AHA presidency, and the attainment of a permanent legacy as an Ithaca fixture, though, would mellow any remaining self-doubts, and in 1942 Becker repeated much the same sentiments in a later essay, derived from a talk given at Smith College titled “The Art of Writing.” The setting—a women’s college—perhaps encouraged him to remove the sour jabs at “stylish women” but otherwise the substance of his remarks on style was unchanged, if even more (and more confidently) apothegmatic:

Good style in writing is like happiness in living—something that comes to you, if it comes at all, only if you are preoccupied with something else: if you deliberately go after it you will probably not get it… The good style is the style that is suited for expressing whatever it is—matter of fact, idea, emotion—that in the particular instance needs to be expressed: “proper words in proper places.”[2]

The advice Becker gives here is impeccable, a true atonement for any inclination to mere ornament, to whatever inclination toward epigrammatism his mentors held him liable for. But this Taylorism of the word—“proper words in proper places”—is incomprehensible as a description of Becker’s prose. How few of Becker’s words remain in place at all, much less seek out a proper place!

It is indisputably true that, for many writers, style is a lacquer, or better yet, a broom, erasing the evidence of tangled steps pacing erratically above a problem.

For Becker, and for many natural stylists, style has nothing to do with what goes on or comes off last; it is not a stratum but a structure; it is not the finished product of thinking but rather thinking’s pulse. It is not always an order but it is a pattern. I often think of Becker’s pattern as paisley.

Becker, from my research in his papers, characteristically evaded praise of his style, probably for the reasons subliminally given here. More frustrating to him, I believe, was the fact that most people—his editors primarily—took the naturalness of his style as an indication that producing prose was second nature to him; he breathed in paragraphs, it seemed.

Turning his research into prose was very difficult for him, and the character of his bibliography shows it: the bulk of his output consists of essays (often reviews) and books formed from an extraordinary number of commissioned lectures (of which The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers was one). But the assumption that one might make—that he was fussy about his style, that he twiddled luxuriantly between synonyms or that he awaited the touch of inspiration to transmogrify a plainspoken, workmanlike first draft—I do not think that was the case. I had limited time in Becker’s papers and did not prioritize looking at the manuscripts and galleys of his books, but I cannot really believe that mere diction or phrasing was the bottleneck in Becker’s process of composition.

Becker’s difficulty in producing prose was not about the challenge of producing good prose but rather about the obstacle of producing a prose that adequately compressed the volume and heterogeneity of his thought. Becker’s prose is good not because it is pretty, though it is, nor because it is clear and light, but because the levity and clarity and quality of it comes from a sort of natural iridescence, a refusal of monochromaticism, a polysemy bred deep in the bone. Words do double duty even when they are not actively being punned or troped upon.

It was a challenge to write this way, but not because it took time to transcribe, to get the words down on paper. It took time, rather, because this iridescent quality comes only from a laborious program of thinking through a question from many sides, of amassing a series of intuitions and correspondences picked up through general and specialized researches, of constantly plunging into pedantic obsessions with trivia and re-summiting the heaps of one’s note cards to take the broadest view one possibly can of a whole subject.

Becker was, to put it in its simplest terms, never content with a two-dimensional arrangement of facts; even the squarest of facts had a subtle curvature, he believed, and he had to account for it in his prose. That is, I think, the enduring pleasure and profit of his style, whether he will accept that word or no.

[1] Reprinted in Everyman His Own Historian: Essays on History and Politics (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, Inc., 1935), 137.

[2] Reprinted in Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, edited by Phil L. Snyder (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1958) 134.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think more than the matter of “style,” Becker is talking about or disparaging artifice in writing. He finds the use of unnecessary ornamentation (decorativeness, $10 words to seem erudite, and more words than are necessary) in writing deplorable and without purpose in communication. He should, however, rethink what the word “style” means and use it properly.

    Even if a writer is truly seeking (through whatever means or mindset) the “proper words in proper places” that does not preclude him or her having a “style” or character to their writing. Did it not it would be a pretty dreary read. It is necessary for all that flows from writing to happen and is the mark of the author. The purpose of writing after all is communication.

    His observation that “Good style in writing is like happiness in living—something that comes to you, if it comes at all, only if you are preoccupied with something else: if you deliberately go after it you will probably not get it” is quite zenlike and recalls the legendary zen archers:

    “In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality. The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bulls-eye which confronts him. This state of unconsciousness is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skills, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.”

    Maybe that’s why writing can not be taught but only learned. A book can’t teach you how to do it. So read and read some more and then write and and write and learn to self edit if you want to be able to think on paper and get the right feeling in your work as well.

    Remember the words of Coleridge as you write the world’s wrongs:

    The perfect poem “must be one, the parts of which mutually explain and support each other; all in their proportion harmonizing with, and supporting the purpose and known influences of mutual arrangement.”

    And if anyone tells you writing is easy, they are either lying or not very good. It’s torture.

    Peace.

    • I took Andrew, and Becker, to be saying that style arose from one’s manner of thinking through issues, not necessarily purposed adornment or superfluity. That’s spirit with which I read “proper words in proper places.” – TL

      • I think confusion arises over the matter because Seal and Becker seem to be speaking of two distinct manifestations of style – style and “style” – in ways that make it difficult to separate one from the other.

        The latter (“style”) is derided and springs from those instances in which “the form (arrangement of words) is determined by some conventional notion of good writing, rather than by the nature of the thought and feeling to be expressed, it is bad form, bad style—in short, it is “style.”

        “Style” is to be avoided in one’s writing:

        “Writers who know their business instinctively shudder when the undiscriminating speak of style as if it were something external, something to be put on or taken off at will—a kind of rich, bespangled cloak in which any, even the most emaciated and unprepossessing, body of thought can readily be dressed up and made presentable.”

        Style would appear to include decorousness and ornamentation and overwriting. It appears that Becker’s contemporaries, partly because of the “opulence” of his style “believe him to have “style.” And though he had garnered great praise… [it was] primarily for his style, and not for his ideas.” A matter of “style” over substance it would appear.

        The former (style) is the result of a writer finding “an arrangement of words that will fully and exactly convey the thought or feeling which he wishes to convey.”

        This is “good style” and as such “is the style that is suited for expressing whatever it is—matter of fact, idea, emotion—that in the particular instance needs to be expressed: “proper words in proper places.”

        So if there were improper words (the wrong words or too many words) in the wrong place in the writing, the piece would lack good style and suffer from bad “style.”

        Good style also is something that arises naturally and organically from the subject that is being written about. And while it includes conscious thinking and integrating information there is an unconscious process at work as well that features in producing writing of good style.

        So we are back to Zen archery and Coleridge.

        I don’t’ think anything is clarified either through descriptions of writing such as:

        “Becker’s prose is good not because it is pretty, though it is, nor because it is clear and light, but because the levity and clarity and quality of it comes from a sort of natural iridescence, a refusal of monochromaticism, a polysemy bred deep in the bone. Words do double duty even when they are not actively being punned or troped upon.”

        And:

        “For Becker, and for many natural stylists, style has nothing to do with what goes on or comes off last; it is not a stratum but a structure; it is not the finished product of thinking but rather thinking’s pulse. It is not always an order but it is a pattern. I often think of Becker’s pattern as paisley.”

        I apologize but I have no idea what he is saying, and I think it only adds to the confusion.

        Perhaps it’s time to heed the wisdom that goes “Talking about [writing] is like dancing about architecture” and just write and read.

        Peace.

  2. “Style” means a reasonably educated and willing reader can sail through, not claw their way through, the text–pausing to admire some beautiful or challenging phrases, not academic language.

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