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That Old Middle Style

In response to:

Critics at the Top from the August 15, 1991 issue

To the Editors:

Denis Donoghue in his review of Minor Prophecies: The Literary Essay in the Culture Wars by Geoffrey H. Hartman [NYR, August 15] attributes to Coleridge the phrase “the middle style” as characterizing the prose of the familiar essay.

The phrase was first used by Samuel Johnson in his Life of Addison. The passage in which it appears is characteristic of Johnson’s genius as a literary critic. It reads in part:

His prose is the model of the middle style; on grave subjects, not formal, on light occasions not groveling; pure without scrupulosity, and exact without apparent elaborations; always equable, and always easy, without glowing words or pointed sentences. Addison never deviates from his track to snatch a grace; he seeks no ambitious ornaments, and tries no hazardous innovations. His page is always luminous, but never blazes in unexpected splendor.

Howard M. Ziff
Professor of Journalism
University of Massachusetts
Amherst, Massachusetts

Denis Donoghue replies:

There is no dispute. I didn’t claim that Coleridge invented the notion. The designation of three literary styles, each of them corresponding to a distinctive relation between writer, audience, and theme, goes back to classical rhetoric. The earliest version of it known to me is in the anonymous Rhetorica ad Herennium (c. 84 BC). In English, it has been current since Puttenham’s The Arte of English Poesie (1589) or even earlier, for all I know.

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