Emerson’s lecture “Art and Criticism” is an amusing piece, though I suspect it was a serious educational lecture for the everyday audiences of farmers and merchants who went to see Emerson at the Lyceum. Art in the essay is the art of writing and criticism seems to be what Emerson does to the art of writing, though the last two paragraphs of the lecture briefly mention criticism.
Aside from praising writing as “the greatest of arts, the subtilest, and of most miraculous effect;” and aside from declaring it an equalizer of class and a transformer of laborers into thinkers, Emerson spends most of the essay creating his own personal version of The Elements of Style.
First he lays into scholars and asks,
Ought not the scholar to convey his meaning in terms as short and strong as the smith and the drover use to coney theirs?
High falutin’ language may be nice, but if you want to communicate your message, you must learn the common, everyday language of people: “Speak with the vulgar, think with the wise.” Short Saxon words are stronger and more powerful than Latin ones. Emerson even confesses to “some titillation of my ears from a rattling oath.” It tickles me to no end to know that Emerson appreciated good swearing.
He moves from discussing plain language to the value of “compression,” or as he elaborates, “the science of omitting.” Get rid of the extra, meaningless words that just take up space. Read your writing out loud, he suggests, and “you will find what sentences drag.”
Use words properly. And here he goes into several pages of words and phrases that he finds “odious.” A few examples:
Some as an adverb — “reeled some;” considerable as an adverb for much; “quite a number;” slim for bad; the adjective graphic, which means what is written –graphic arts and oral arts, arts of writing, and arts of speech and song,–but is used as if it means descriptive: Minerva’s graphic thread.”
And he goes on and on warning against words like display and peruse, using balance for remainder, and overly showy words like asphodel, harbinger, amethyst and all the rest of the “precious stones.”
If you want to know how to use language, read Shakespeare, Emerson suggests because there is no such master of low style as he, and therefore none can securely soar so high.
Besides Shakespeare, Emerson praises Montaigne, Goethe, and Herrick. I thought Herrick an odd choice, but Emerson likes him because “he found his subject where he stood, between his feet, in his house,” the everyday world. Oh, and Emerson’s friend Carlyle gets mentioned as having great style too.
The art of writing is the highest of those permitted to man as drawing from the soul, and the means or material it uses are also of the soul. It brings man into alliance with what is great and eternal. It discloses to him the variety and splendor of his resources.
Given this belief, I can understand why good writing is so important to Emerson and why he is so picky.
In case you are wondering about Emerson’s own writing and process, his speeches, meant for an audience of everyday people, were longer and filled with many common anecdotes and humor the audience could relate to. The lectures were meant to entertain and to educate. Emerson strove never to speak down to his audience. He continually worked and re-worked his lectures even after he had delivered them to make them even better for the next audience. A lot of his lectures were eventually turned into essays. When he was writing essays he was brutal in revising. He cut out all but the strongest supporting anecdotes and eliminated every extraneous word he could.
But for all his personal writing rules and for all he spent his lecture telling people what to do and not to do, Emerson also knew that rules were meant to be broken:
A man of genius or a work of love or beauty will not come to order, can’t be compounded by the best rules, but is always a new and incalculable result, like health. Don’t rattle your rules in our ears; we must behave as we can.
Strunk and White, eat your hearts out.
Next week’s Emerson: “Thoughts on Modern Literature”