In Love with the Adverb

Should the human race survive the twentieth of those wondrous centuries since shepherds quaked at the sight of God’s birth in a Middle Eastern stable (all in all, a bad career move), our century will be noted more for what we managed to lose along the way than for what we acquired. Although the physical sciences took off, literally, and some rightly stuffed American men with nothing much to say lurched about the moon, sublunary population was allowed to get out of control to such an extent that much of the earth’s good land was covered with cement in order to house the new arrivals while the waters of the globe are now so poisoned that on the just and the unjust alike pale acid rain everywhere softly falls. As we get more people, we lose “amenities” of every sort.

The century that began with a golden age in all the arts (or at least the golden twilight of one) is ending not so much without art as without the idea of art, while the written culture that was the core of every educational system since the fifth century BC is now being replaced by sounds and images electronically transmitted. As human society abandoned the oral tradition for the written text, the written culture is giving way to an audiovisual one. This is a radical change, to say the least; and none of us knows quite how to respond. Obviously the change cannot be all bad. On the other hand, what is to become of that written language which was for two millennia wisdom’s only mold? What is to become of the priests of literature, as their temples are abandoned? What happens to the work of (now one strikes plangently the diminuendo!) Logan Pearsall Smith?

It is startling to think that someone like Pearsall Smith actually lived most of his life in our century. Entirely possessed by the idea of literature, Logan was besotted with language and “the lovely art of writing.” As a result, he spent almost as much time searching for the right unhackneyed adjective to describe the moon as any of that body’s recent callers spent in getting there. He even belonged to something called the Society for Pure English, surely long since dispersed, along with its objective. Yet he was not a pedant; he believed in “Idiom before Grammar.” Finally, like so many of us, in old age, Logan fell in love—with the adverb.

There is something heroic in all this. There is also something beautifully irrelevant to a culture where the idea of literature is being erased by the word processor while even its memory is less than green in the minds of those proud school-teachers who are currently charting for themselves vast cosmogonies of words and signs in the vacuum of Academe. Logan actually thought that there was such a thing as good—even fine—writing. Today hardly anyone knows the difference between good and bad prose while those who do know had better keep quiet about it: literary excellence is not only undemocratic but tends to subvert teacherly texts.

Logan Pearsall Smith was born October 18, 1865, the son of a wealthy Philadelphia Quaker who, rather abruptly, left the family glass business and became an evangelist, preaching the Higher Life. Then, as abruptly, inspired by venery, he quit preaching. Logan’s mother became—and remained—a writer of best-selling uplifting books. Logan lost his own faith at eleven—vanished while up a cherry tree, he said. But he remained to the end of his days a Quaker at heart, modest, self-aware, self-mocking. Happily, he was as hard on others as on himself.

England delighted in the Smiths; and they in England. The family settled there. In due course, one daughter married Bertrand Russell; another married Bernard Berenson. One niece married Virginia Woolf’s brother; another niece married Lytton Strachey’s brother. After Harvard and Oxford, Logan married literature and lived happily ever after with occasional lapses into a kind of madness, the inevitable fate of one who has been denied not only the word processor but the Apple home computer in which to encode Thoughts.

As a young man, Logan had known and delighted in Walt Whitman of nearby Camden, New Jersey (described in Logan’s memoir Unforgotten Years, 1939); but most of his life was spent in England, where he worshiped Henry James; knew Bernard Shaw and the Webbs; was related to Bloomsbury. Since Logan had an income, he could follow his own literary pursuits: making anthologies of Milton and Shakespeare and Jeremy Taylor; collecting aphorisms by others; making up his own. He was a favorite of those, like James, whom he regarded as masters. He was less favorably regarded by others. Mrs. Woolf was actually unkind about Uncle Logan. But Logan held his own. He confessed, in a letter to her (November 2, 1932): “I may have mocked at Bloomsbury because mockery is my favorite pastime, and also perhaps (to take a darker view into that dark cabinet, the human heart) because I was not admitted to its conclaves.” But then, he sweetly added, “I know from my own feeling how justly critics resent criticism, and mockers being mocked.”

In 1913 Logan became a British subject. On March 2, 1946, he died and his former secretary, Cyril Connolly, wrote in The New Statesman: “Two weeks before his death a friend asked him half jokingly if he had discovered any meaning in life. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘there is a meaning; at least for me, there is one thing that matters—to set a chime of words tinkling in the minds of a few fastidious people.’ “

Logan devoted his life to getting his own sentences right. Edmund Wilson did not think he always succeeded; “in spite of his cult of writing…he [never] became a real master. His prose is rather pale and dead.” But the Anglophobe Wilson was not well disposed toward the Anglophilic Logan. Later, Wilson came to see the virtue of Logan the miniaturist, the creator of Trivia.

A lover of language, Logan was always on the lookout for sentences, phrases, aperçus, pensées (he found fascinating the fact that the last two words have no proper English equivalents); he delighted in the splendors of seventeenth-century English prose, particularly that of Jeremy Taylor. He wrote appreciatively of Montaigne, de Sévigné, and Sainte-Beuve. But he was at his best when he wrote of “fine writing” and the works of the English aphorists.

As a writer, Logan himself was very much school of America’s own (now seldom read) Emerson who was at his best in “the detached—and the detachable—sentence.” Logan quotes Emerson on literature (in English Aphorists): “People do not deserve to have good writing, they are so pleased with the bad.” And, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” And, of course, “Poets are not to be seen.”

During the years that Logan was writing about other people’s writing and collecting other writers’ phrases, he was himself working on his own library of miniature portraits, narratives, descriptions, and other “trivia.” (In 1755 Samuel Johnson nicely defined the word “trivial” as “vile, worthless, vulgar, such as may be picked up in the highway.”) Logan saw himself as the latest in a line that extends in French from La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes and Pascal’s Pensées to Jules Renard’s notebooks (“I find that when I do not think of myself I do not think at all”). In English the line begins with Bacon and includes Chesterfield, Blake, Hazlitt, Emerson. Just what it is these writers do is hard to explain in English because we lack the words—in itself something of a giveaway. These sharp thrusts are not really maxims or wisecracks or thoughts; yet they are often indistinguishable from them. At one point, Logan uses the word “illuminations”; and he notes that for those “whom the spectacle of life as it is, stripped of its illusions, possesses an inexhaustible fascination, for such students of human nature there will always be a great attraction in these profound X-rays of observation, which reveal the bones beneath the flesh; these acute and penetrating phrases which puncture man’s pretensions and bring him disenflated to the earth.”

Logan Pearsall Smith joined the glittering line in 1902 when he published, privately, a truly slender volume, Trivia, “from the papers of one Mr. Anthony Woodhouse.” He thought a pseudonym necessary. So did Mother. “It is certainly very quaint and interesting,” wrote Hannah Smith, “but it is what I would suppose would be called very ‘precious,’ as it begins nowhere and ends nowhere and leads to nothing.” The terminus that Hannah Smith could not see in her son’s work was, of course, perfection—a matter of no consequence to a believer in the Higher Life. Fifteen years later, Constable republished Trivia; and its author became agreeably if not enormously famous on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1921 he published More Trivia; then came Afterthoughts and, in 1933, all of his illuminations were gathered into one volume, All Trivia (containing the never-before-published Last Words).

When Unforgotten Years was distributed by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1939, Logan became popular. Although he liked to quote Aristippus of Cyrene (“I am taken by these things, but they do not take me in), he was delighted. In 1895, Henry James had warned him that loneliness was the dedicated artist’s lot. Now Logan was taken up by a new generation of writers and remembered anew by an old generation of hostesses or, as he wrote one of the former, Hugh Trevor-Roper (June 26, 1941): “I will admit a weakness for one cup of poison, that of social success, whose flavor, as far as I have tasted it, is delicious and which I have never known anyone resist to whom it has been proferred. Power is, I believe, even more poisonous and more delicious, but that I have never tasted.”

But despite sprigs of laurel and windfall checks, he kept on writing and reading “miscellaneously,” more or less well served by a series of secretaries, of whom the most celebrated was Cyril Connolly and the most aggrieved Robert Gathorne-Hardy, later his biographer. Logan himself never ceased to serve the English language and its literature. In 1924, when the seventeen-year-old Dwight Macdonald wrote him an admiring letter about Trivia, Logan responded: “…I don’t think I had any natural gift for writing. But the art of prose, unlike that of poetry, is one that can be learnt.” Also, “the amused observation of one’s own self is a veritable gold mine whose surface has hardly yet been scratched.” In 1945, he wrote Trevor-Roper, “My life has been spent in mooning over that little book [All Trivia], as it was my fantastic daydream to write a little book which should live on after my own unregretted departure.”

Edmund Wilson came around in 1950: “I always used to think Trivia overrated. A certain amount of it, to be sure; and yet there is something in it, something dry, independent, even tough. There are things which one took in at a glance when one first picked up the book and looked through it, and yet which ever since have stuck in one’s mind…in dealing with incidents frankly infinitesimal” (four “in“‘s in six words is a record, Mr. Wilson), “somehow succeeds in [a fifth!] being impressively truthful….”

The French have a phrase, l’esprit de l’escalier, which means, literally, “the wit of the staircase,” referring to all those marvelous things that you did not say at the party which now occur to you as you descend the staircase en route to the exit. Fortunately, Logan saw to it that his own staircase-musings were not only polished highly but memorialized for all time. Whatever he may or may not have said at the party, he certainly had ample time to get it right on the stairs.

For what is now close to forty years a number of Logan’s lines or anecdotes or volumes-in-miniature have stuck in my mind. “The Ear-Trumpet,” for instance. At table, a deaf lady asks Logan to repeat a phrase he has too proudly let drop that is, to his horror, as he booms it to the horrified dinner party, “the interstices of their lives.” This story later reverberated for me in a Washington, DC, drawing room when a deaf lady asked a solemn man his name and he replied, solemnly, “I am Senator Bourke C. Hickenlooper of Iowa.” She then asked him to repeat his name, which he did. “Now I have it!” she said at last. “How deaf I’ve become!” She gave a contented laugh. “And to think that I thought that you said your name was Senator Bourke C. Hickenlooper of Iowa.” Thus, Logan chimes for me down the radioactivedusted corridors of the twentieth century.

To the extent that there will always be a few voluntary readers, Logan ought always to have some of them. All Trivia is a whole library in miniature. He retells legends and composes entire novels and biographies in a page while producing eternal wisdom as well as life-enhancing malice in a series of phrases: “Those who set out to serve both God and Mammon soon discover that there is no God,” or “If you want to be thought a liar, always tell the truth.” Logan has also written if not his urn burial his demitasse burial when he contemplates his world as posterity is apt to see it: “a dusty set of old waxworks simpering inanely in the lumber-room of Time.” But then, as he comments in English Aphorists, “On the whole [the aphorists] are a malicious lot; their object is not to extricate man from the mire of his condition, but rather to roll him more deeply in it. So much do they enjoy fishing in muddy waters, that they are not unwilling to pursue their sport even in their own bosoms.” He made fun of himself; he also made fun of those critics who disliked fine writing, pointing out that they have nothing to fear from it, since “the fever of perfection is not catching….” In any case, “If you write badly about good writing, however profound may be your convictions or emphatic your expressions of them, your style has a tiresome trick (as a wit once pointed out) of whispering ‘Don’t listen!’ in your reader’s ear.”

Presciently, Logan feared the insect world; and its possible analogy to ours. “I hate…their cold intelligence; their stereotyped, unremitting industry repels me.” Long before the DNA code was discovered, Logan feared a predetermined universe where “we are forced like the insects and can’t help it, to undergo all the metamorphoses preordained for our species.” But this laconic master is making me garrulous. Read him; and hear the chimes at two minutes, or whatever it is, to midnight. Listen.