I’m not sure that anyone has used that word since Stephen Crane used it to describe artillery in The Red Badge of Courage. It appears that the last time that word was in vogue, writing styles were thus: “And it came to pass that the awful thing thrust upon the lad was indeed a frightful thing, a thing beyond any mortal reproach – and yet in its vile nature there was found to be a redeeming quality”.
I mean, really.
And yet, to be able to craft such sentences would be marvelous. In fact, it would be downright liberating. Such linguistic formulas as the aforementioned wouldn’t merely be limp-noodle, pedestrian sentences we hastily toss together these days. No sir. Those sentences were downright thick with quality, like a genuine Persian rug. They didn’t simply say, “Something scared the poor kid”. They were constructed, through cognitive processes gone the way of surreys and bowler hats, by writers who needed to spend enough time to justify penning out wondrous works of art.
They were often quiet works. It’s one thing to share with the reader, “He embraced his love tenderly in his arms, protecting as though cradling the gift of Life itself.” It’s quite another to be exposed to the same situation from another angle: “He set upon the other suitor presently, with both fisticuffs and several vile oaths of fear that his love for the woman might prove vulnerable.” There was a time when such writing styles were viewed as formally appropriate. Real black tie kinds of sentences. What’s missing these days isn’t so much such a thick writing style. (Imagine texting this stuff: “The felo set cors 4 the ile of a sted – e volishn”.)
The stories written in those days always seemed quiet somehow. Ever notice that? Even the Civil War seems, in old writings, to have been a series of quiet battles meandering through four years of a muted hell, as expressed by prevailing writing styles of the time.
Crane loved to use sentences far too long to capture succinctly the adrenaline, anger, fatigue, and total terror and horror of war. Though the quality of writing was wonderfully elegant, I sure wish the style was simpler in those days. Why not say something like, “He charged across the battlefield, terror be damned?” I’d much rather have read that than “At once the lad gathered himself, for the terrible engagement was thus thrust upon him as though delivered by the wings of eagles.” Parsimony has its privileges. The writing style retains a sufficiently thick quality. It doesn’t have to be reduced to some watered down approach like, “Dude kicked butt.” People read and they thought.
Nowadays, stories are loud. They’re in your face. Good guys have to find and diffuse bombs in major cities, rescue damsels in distress, and perform a whole host of other cliches within eighty-five minutes or so, or else we lose interest. Movies are loud. Television programs are loud. Even novels are loud. Everything now is stentorian, and let me tell you that word had a ton of dust when I found it on the shelf. Great word. It’s as though it mocks us. “Keep it down, you new millennium kids. You’re getting too dang stentorian again!” An admonishment from the past.
I sure would love to see a little of that grand old writing style reemerge. It takes awhile to sort through if you’re not used to such formal English. (And who is anymore?) Maybe we should at least take it out for a spin every now and then just to keep it fresh. You know, let horse and chariot run while mane and spirit soar like the autumn inspired winds of Camelot.
– Rob Adcox