Great Prose Stylists
January 29, 2004 3:20 PM   Subscribe

A.J. Liebling; H.L.Mencken; E.B.White: Are The Great American Prose Stylists Long Dead And Gone? Perhaps it helps to have two initials. In any case, Gore Vidal apart, I'm afraid sheer opinionated and passionate prose, backed up by knowledge of the world, unorthodox views and uplifting prose that is simultaneously workmanlike and deliciously readable is a thing of the past in American journalism. Sameness; political correctness and sensitivity have all had their deleterious, neutering effect. Are there any exceptions?
posted by MiguelCardoso (36 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, as a long-form journalist myself, I personally think your "political correctness and sensitivity" theory is hogwash. The pressure to write shorter and shorter stories, each with a clear, crisp and unambiguous "takeaway" for a generation of editors and readers raised on TV, Time/Newsweek, and Net newsbytes, is more the problem here, along with the ever-thinning wall between advertising and editorial.

But Malcolm Gladwell, Oliver Sacks (who contributes to both the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books on a semi-regular basis), William Langewische and Mark Bowden all come to mind as doing very fine work.
posted by digaman at 3:54 PM on January 29, 2004

there's this portuguese guy who used to be a moderately interesting writer, but then he was corrupted by one of those internet blog things.
posted by quonsar at 4:03 PM on January 29, 2004

Dr. Jerome Groopman is no slouch either, if not in the same class as a stylist as Sacks.
posted by digaman at 4:11 PM on January 29, 2004

Is Chuck Palahniuk inapropriate here?
posted by Fupped Duck at 6:45 PM on January 29, 2004


I nominate Martin Amis, who spends much of his time on this side of the Atlantic, and Jack Womack. What the latter does to the English language is illegal in six states and twice as beautiful as sunrise.
posted by adamgreenfield at 6:52 PM on January 29, 2004

If there's a journalist working today who compares to A.J. Liebling, please direct me to that person immediately. His Wayward Pressman columns, collected in several books over the years, are the best -- and, more importantly, most humorous -- media criticism I've ever read. He was also prescient on the subject of media consolidation. Considering his complaints when a five-newspaper town became a four-newspaper town in the 50s, I can't imagine what his reaction would be to all the one-newspaper towns today.
posted by rcade at 7:23 PM on January 29, 2004

I think this temporarily fallow period - when the ranks of the great American prose stylists were decimated by the volleys of television - has ended.

The golden age is always in the past, of course. So it ever has been. The Cedars of Lebannon were a wonder to behold. Whence ? Gone, their pungent smells sunk to the bottom of the Mediterranean, now warding off the scuttling creatures of that sea's appetite for sunken triremes .....Gone. The Colossus of Rhodes ? .....Toppled. The Yankee yeoman philospher ? ....gone and that lean, resourceful, once proud lineage is now flabbily insulted by junk food television nebbishes devolving to a much earlier phylogenetic stage, that of bleached larvae.

But lo! The sun always rises and so this new generation of great prose stylists toils away, pecking out redblooded and impassioned screeds which are even read occasionally, here, on the internet.

...And even as the literary golden age in England was wedded to the art of letters, so too - perhaps - will the golden literary age in America will be wedded to the Blogosphere.

Their words may be devoured, preternaturally soon, by the ravages of time - time as cloaked in the guise of a random EMP pulse, an especially savage Windows virus, the Millenarian Apocalypse, or a sudden Ice Age resurgence ; no matter. The deep wells of the human spirit are fed by veins eternal....

...And the end of this, too, will be decorated by anemones and gnawed by crabs, until this end revolves to a beginning pointing, in it's turn, to a new end.

Peck peck. tap tap. Yo ho ho, and a bottle of rum. Yodel-A-hee-hoo, and with mini marshmellos too.
posted by troutfishing at 7:43 PM on January 29, 2004

The Observer has some good writing i find (not very long tho, which is a good thing in my book). Ron Rosenbaum and Terry Golway are always interesting, even if you're not into the topic. And then there's always Jimmy Breslin, who is eminently readable and has a unique tone.
posted by amberglow at 7:53 PM on January 29, 2004

I agree that Oliver Sacks is a wonderful, wonderful writer - a genius even - and that the other writers mentioned are all irresistible. I'll have the pleasure of catching up on Jack Womack (thanks Greenfield! I [too?] prefer Martin Amis's journalism and autobiographical writings to his fiction).

However, digaman's argument notwithstanding (which I suspect is very true), I was thinking of out-and-out journalists, real newspapermen or women, not part-timers otherwise employed. It's my fault for mentioning Gore Vidal, I suppose. People like Liebling and Mencken were died-in-the-wool journalists - not neurologists, doctors and novelists.

I love Gladwell's work but he lacks "oomph" as a writer - I'd say he was more a reporter.

Still, I realize it's not a very good distinction. Thanks for restoring my faith, guys! Off the top of my head, I'd say Calvin Trillin, P J O'Rourke and even Adam Gopnik at his best are world class. The British are blessed; Neil Ascherson, Ian Buruma, Lynn Barber, uneven but addictive Christopher Hitchens.

I often re-read Mencken and Liebling and what I miss is the all-round, talk-about-anything, go-anywhere attitude. No specialization; no inhibitions. Whether talking about German literature; cocktails; food; politics, language or congressmen; anything was fair game and trenchantly dealt with.

I think this eclecticism is gone forever.
posted by MiguelCardoso at 8:03 PM on January 29, 2004

Gone ! Gone ! ( intones the chorus )
posted by troutfishing at 8:38 PM on January 29, 2004

Gotta give props to Tom Wolfe. Jon Rosen shows early promise... we'll have to see how he follows up "Them." Same with Stefan Fatsis -- "Word Freak" was a fascinating read. 'Course, one wouldn't want to give James Gleick the short shrift here, either. Especially if we're mentioning Gladwell.

What do you guys think of Joe Queenan? Is he too much of an essayist to qualify?
posted by ph00dz at 8:51 PM on January 29, 2004

I like Queenan -- good call.

As far as Mencken, I'd really recommend his memoirs, especially "Happy Days." As a former Baltimorean, I can attest to his accuracy in reporting the contradictory American spirit still found there--stupid and enlightened, beautiful and foul, tragic and comic, etc. Even if he might have been just a wee bit anti-Semitic.

I read a lot of Mike Royko growing up, a Chicago (Polish) newspaper writer. Maybe he was the closest we've come in recent years, though he passed away a few years ago. And not half the stylist. Though Anthony Lane's movie reviews make me laugh, I guess it's not the same thing.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:04 PM on January 29, 2004

Anthony Lane is English; but he's damn good.

phOOdz is quite right with Joe Queenan - a great journalist.

_sirmissalot_: As a rabid Mencken fan, who's never been to Baltimore, are there still any bars and restaurants which he frequented and wrote about which are still extant? Is there still somewhere a foreigner like me can go, order a beer and soak up the same atmosphere?

I suppose not, but wouldn't it be great if there was still one remaining outpost? Or similar? Please advise! Thanks! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:16 PM on January 29, 2004

a genius even

I owe a debt to Sacks, because by writing about him, I got the chance to write the piece I'm most happy about having written, out of all the journalism I've done. A great soul, too.

I love Gopnik. I have written him fan mail.
posted by digaman at 9:22 PM on January 29, 2004

Hunter Thompson?

Although, he's almost done, too.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 9:31 PM on January 29, 2004

And then there's that other phenomenon of our times, when self-aggrandizing blowhards mistake themselves for stylists.
posted by digaman at 9:54 PM on January 29, 2004

Hey, thanks digaman - I truly enjoyed reading that! It woke me up to the limited way I was reading Sacks until I'd read your generous, expansive take. No offense, but I think you're cursed with the (totally wired) malediction of being right...! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:58 PM on January 29, 2004

Heh thanks. Sacks is one of a kind.
posted by digaman at 2:43 AM on January 30, 2004

Wendell Berry. His reaction to Sept. 11 2001 is much better thought-out and written than Vidal's. His novels and poetry are also excellent.
posted by eustacescrubb at 3:10 AM on January 30, 2004

Yelling At Nothing: you shame me. How could I have forgotten the good Doctor? That man has brought me more (repeated) joy than any other living journalist and although his latest offerings are well below par (I still keep buying them) there are enough flare-ups and flashes to make it all worth it. And can he write!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 6:02 AM on January 30, 2004

Great call on Calvin Trillin. Everything I've read by him (from food writing to humor to touching memories of his father to straight reportage to crime wriitng) has been excellent. My only complaint with him is that he often recycles his own jokes...but I'm willing to overlook that 'cause he can flat-out write.

I think Gladwell is a fine reporter and good writer, but I wouldn't quite place him in the Mencken/Liebling/White category. Langewische is right beside him, and consistenly produces awfully good work. (And I find Vidal's work to be self-important and annoying.)

Joan Didion can be hit-or-miss, but when she's on her game, she's fantastic.
posted by Vidiot at 6:11 AM on January 30, 2004

Gone ! Gone ! ( intones the chorus )

The bird sits on the hawthorn tree
But he dies also, presently.
Some lads get hung, and some get shot.
Woeful is this human lot.
Woe! woe, etcetera . . . .

Anyone who likes Liebling owes it to themself to read his brilliant, hilarious, nostalgic Between Meals, an account of how he learned to eat and drink well in Paris in the '20s. And no, it's not another of those "Paris in the '20s" books. Trust me.
posted by languagehat at 7:43 AM on January 30, 2004

Adam Gopnik, and the Australian Clive James, just to name two. We live in a golden age of long-form and short form journalism. There is so much great prose out there in every form, that we are dazzled. I think it will take our grandchildren to be able to separate out the individual lights.
posted by Faze at 8:04 AM on January 30, 2004

A blogger's Cry and Screed

Since no one picked up on my observation, I'll have to be a wee bit blunter, if no less wordy :

The rise of blogs and web journalism represents a cultural sea change - both in a tsunami-like increase in gross American (and world) written ouput and a corresponding surge in the numbers of self styled journalists and writers of all stripes who share a committment to stylistic excellence.

Soldiers blog from the field of battle, some with brilliance or, at least, distinction....the deranged, savants, misfits and child prodigies, academics, cranks, and the rump of lumpen journalists scrambling for notice.......all blog, post, comment, seethe, and evolve in under the Net's accelerated and compressed evolutionary pressures like the neoterics of Sturgeon's Microcosmic God

Not for decades at least, since electronic communication technologies throughout the 20th Century gradually strangled the mass art of letters - which might be traced to the Medieval cult of courtly love, I suppose, but certainly, at the very least, to soon past the breakdown of the provincial, cloistered Medieval patchwork of that age with the advent of the Renaissance, the Gutenberg press, Luther's challenge, and similar sorts of hubbub that led to the slippery slope of mass literacy (to the dismay of royalty everywhere) - has the written or typed word inspired so much collective passion.

As with the parrots, whales, and bees - we humans must caw, shriek, sing, semaphore, signify, chatter, and opine wherever and however we can. This is what we are, what we do.

Metafilter. A thousand Metafilters. Tens or hundreds of thousands of serious blogs, millions of web diaries. This is new, and germane to Miguel's lament - "A.J. Liebling; H.L.Mencken; E.B.White: Are The Great American Prose Stylists Long Dead And Gone?...." - I see here the received heros of writers and fellow members of the chattering classes passed to and fro, as fetish items.

Television viewing is now known to be one of the top risk factors for the premature shrivelling of human intelligence, of early onset Alzheimer's. Of course great writing ebbed in the great era of mass TV, as that entrancing and passifying miasma oozed from millions of cathode ray tubes to accrete in the minds of millions as a fatty, neuron killing placque.

Passivity, social isolation, lack of new learning, and inactivity drive dementia. So - a prematurely demented generation.

The great prose journalism of the recent passing age was most often born amidst that licentious orgy of information flow, admixture and juxtaposition commonly found at the great news establishments of their times. Fertile writing arises from a fertile climate teeming with randy information. Now, as wide as minds and bloodshot eyes can stretch to gulp it down, a concatenating blizzard of data shrieks from every computer, and so the ranks of those information empowered and driven to inflict their commentary upon the world have abruptly swelled a hundred or a thousand fold.

And they are learning to write, even to think.

The great European insurrectionary spasm of 1848 - which swept across the region and nearly toppled several royal houses and regimes - was driven by famine, epidemics, and a surfeit of unemployed university graduates. Will the web absorb and so defuse the energies of it's talented and largely underemployed and restive wordsmithing masses, or will they learn to focus their energies, in concert, for political and economic gain ?

They are learning their craft, some brilliantly. But can they command the attention of the larger world ? Even here amidst the daily torrent of words, some even polished, that is Metafilter - and in no slight irony - they do not seem to quite exist, really.


Faze nails it, I think. But I would add : much chatter, but to what end ?
posted by troutfishing at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2004

The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine.

"Section 4. The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any state shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void."
posted by clavdivs at 8:48 AM on January 30, 2004

languagehat, I had the most wonderful experience reading Liebling's "Between Meals" in Paris last summer on my honeymoon. I'd read it in the morning in our wonderful little sublet in the Marais, eating my baguette with fig jam and sipping my coffee. A hilarious, great book.

FYI, we had good luck finding excellent food in Paris, and on our very last night, the honeymoon magic really kicked in, and we stumbled on the most marvelous Lieblingesque place -- a very unpretentious but exquisite little family run joint at 38 rue Debelleyme in the 3rd called Le Pamphlet. It's the kind of place that Alice Waters dreams about.
posted by digaman at 8:57 AM on January 30, 2004

Faze's right, there's tons of impressive writing every week, every month.

Mamet's and Simic's essays are very, very good

re Lane: he is a very well-read man, an elegant writer, and he is fun to read, but it'd be easy to argue that he is no movie critic, at least in the more cutting, Kaelesque sense.
he is a witty writer who goes to the movies, which is an entirely different thing (not to mention his weird fascination with, say, the acting skills of Sandra Bullock)

re O'Rourke -- he used to be marginally funny, in a "Joe Sixpack travels abroad" way, about 20 years ago. then, his shtick got very tired very quickly. he simply lacks the writing skills. and his analysis -- what little of it there is -- is (unvoluntarily) laughable.
Queenan always struck me as O'Rourke Lite.

I'm with the Didion/Langewiesche/Bowden fans.
Gopnik I never really liked -- very smug, and I don't like his brand of wit, sorry.
posted by matteo at 10:22 AM on January 30, 2004

oh, yes: I forgot to mention the mighty Vonnegut
posted by matteo at 10:23 AM on January 30, 2004

Regarding O'Rourke - when he's on, he's on. I highly recommend his book "Modern Manners" - I'm a fan of his, and that's probably my favorite of them all. "Parliment of Whores" was also very, very good, too.
posted by Veritron at 10:31 AM on January 30, 2004

Modern Manners came out in 1989

maybe it'd be more precise to say "when he was on he was on"?


posted by matteo at 10:50 AM on January 30, 2004

"When did you first feel what Pound called "the impulse" to write?"

"When I noticed in high school that one of my friends was attracting the best-looking girls by writing them sappy love poems."

How did you act on this impulse?

"I found out that I could do it, too. I still tremble at the memory of a certain Linda listening breathlessly to my doggerel on her front steps."

an honest poet.
posted by clavdivs at 11:16 AM on January 30, 2004

What Thou Lovest indeed, clavdivs -- how many times does LXXXI gets unfortunately quoted at wedding banquets?

anyway, very good excerpt from Simic's A Fly In The Soup:

Sometimes I think I remember nothing about that bomb, and sometimes I see myself on the floor with broken glass all around me, the room brightly lit and my mother rushing to me with outstretched arms. I was later told that I was thrown out of my bed and across the room when it landed and that my mother, who was sleeping in the next room, found me thus. Whenever I asked her to elaborate, she refused, giving me one of her habitual sighs and looks of exasperation. It's not so much that the memory was traumatic for her--it certainly was! What upset her and made her speechless on the subject was the awful stupidity of it all. My father believed in fighting for a just cause. She, on the other hand, never swayed from her conviction that violence and especially violence on this scale was stupid. Her own father had been a colonel in World War I, but she had no illusions. War was conducted by stern men with rows of medals on their chests who never really grew up. If you mentioned an Allied victory to her, she'd remind you of how many mothers on both sides had lost their sons.

and this is Mamet, The Rake

My sister opened the door, and she saw my grandfather sitting on the bed, and my stepfather standing by the closet and gesturing. On the floor of the closet she saw my mother, curled in a fetal position, moaning and crying and hugging herself. My stepfather was saying, "Say the words. just say the words." And my grandfather was breathing fast and repeating, "I can't. She knows how I feel about her. I can't." And my stepfather said, "Say the words, Jack. Please. just say you love her." At which my mother would moan louder. And my grandfather said, "I can't."
posted by matteo at 12:17 PM on January 30, 2004

Those guys are cool, but as Miguel pointed out, they ain't journalists. I do wish we had more names to add to that list.
posted by digaman at 1:05 PM on January 30, 2004 [1 favorite]

Those guys are cool, but as Miguel pointed out, they ain't journalists. I do wish we had more names to add to that list.

After his father died in 1899, Mencken was free to choose his own trade in the world. "I chose newspaper work without any hesitation whatever, and. save when the scent of a passing garbage-cart has revived my chemical libido, I have never regretted my choice," he later said. He was a reporter or editor for several Baltimore papers, among them Baltimore Morning Herald. He later joined the staff of the Baltimore Sun, for which he worked throughout most of his life. From 1916 to 1918 he was a war correspondent in Germany and in Russia

wait, you mean the others beside Mencken?

I do wish we had more names to add to that list.

here is a list

also, coleridge, dickens, orwell
posted by clavdivs at 2:55 PM on January 30, 2004

Womack is a science fiction writer--as such, I find him trite and affected. Your mileage may vary. I'm not aware of his being a journalist.
posted by y2karl at 12:56 AM on January 31, 2004

posted by clavdivs at 3:51 PM on January 31, 2004

« Older maybe a pleasant demeanor isn't one of the many...   |   Old Time Candy Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments