Writers who shaped the consciousnesses, and influenced the styles, of Scholars and Rogues.
Hermann Hesse, especially for Narcissus & Goldmund: His study of the tension between reason and emotion as told through the 14th century lives of these two protagonists has served as a backdrop for my enduring awareness of this often troubling juxtaposition — throughout culture and in my own life. I grew up as cool Narcissus — a means to cope with a childhood fraught by chaos — and have been wrestling ever since with how to handle my inner Goldmund.
Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: Here, too, I found myself immersed in the struggle between what is conventional and proper versus passion and yearning. Maybe this book fostered my lifelong anglophilism, which has always been drawn more toward the wild moors of the North than the sedate farmland of Sussex.
C.S. Lewis: For his masterful use of argument, love of myth and its power, and rich insight into the heights and depths of human character. The Great Divorce in particular, where Hell is a tired, gray suburb peopled with self-absorbed denizens consumed with their own pettiness, has provided a context within which I think about much human weakness and failings.
T.S. Eliot: Postmodernists will have a hey-day with me for putting Eliot right after Lewis, won’t they? (I could throw Matthew Arnold in, too, and really get in trouble!) Tackling “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” in my 11th grade honors English class brought me face to face with existentialism, and fomented perhaps my first crisis of meaning. “The Wasteland,” which I read subsequently, didn’t help matters any. But the “Four Quartets” later came to frame a view of the world and our perplexing place within it that still holds for me today. My hope when I pass on from this material life is that I will indeed come to where I started from and know the place for the first time.
Speaking of poets, and here thinking very much of the sheer beauty of language when adeptly wielded, I have to add Gerard Manley Hopkins to my list. “God’s Grandeur” and “Pied Beauty” remain for me a gorgeous study in rhythm, alliteration and what I find to be truth, that the sacred is revealed in the material. Rather than being at odds, I find them paradoxically of a piece.
That last thought is a segueway to Terry Tempest Williams, whose “Refuge” was a deeply moving story in that vein. Her simultaneous telling of the flooding of a bird refuge on the Great Salt Lake, and her mother’s gradual demise from cancer, frames the way I think about loss and responsibility, and the possibility of redemption on some plane. I love her voice of poetry and moral passion, enlisted in the service of environmental preservation — and in the latter, our self-preservation as well.
I should add a few lines about Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi but I have 33 papers to grade and the mundane is going to get the better of me today. But that’s a start.
Oh, and I would be remiss — seriously — if I didn’t extend a nod to fellow Scrogue Denny Wilkins here. His post on this subject made note of many of his own professional mentors, whose names would not be known to the wider public, and I will add him to my own list. My writing sadly does not reflect Denny’s marvelous ability to say a lot with less, but he is the editing conscience on my shoulder when I struggle with how to cut, trim, omit, condense and otherwise tighten up my overweight prose. Imagine what I’d produce if it weren’t for Denny’s subtle voice! I so admire his talent in saying only what’s essential, and not losing anything in the process (see, that’s redundant right there: if it’s “only what’s essential,” then you can’t lose anything when you eliminate anything else. Sheesh, Wendy, you’re wordy.).
I used to operate under the assumption that my writing style was influenced by the books I’d read in my youth. It was as if their authors convened in a faceless phantasm that hovered over me as I wrote. A couple of years ago, though, it occurred to me that I couldn’t pick out any faces. I was unable to zero in on writers who had influenced my style.
My writing had long been marked by a commitment to just the right word (I’ve since become slack) and, when I finally switched from fiction to nonfiction, a veneration for the essay form. But not only couldn’t I remember any special writers, I could recall no essays that had inspired me.
Nothing by Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, Ralph Waldo Emerson, or George Orwell. Why the amnesia? Oh, maybe because I never read them. Consisting of only two years of indifferent college, my education, like that of many auto-didacts, is full of gaps.
I can only conclude that I must have read great essays in a previous life (belief in reincarnation is second nature to a Buddhist, however secular, like me). Apparently, my bias toward the form was teleported to this life. As for my quest for the perfect word, though, I was finally able to identify not one, but two sources.
Many have sung the praises of William Strunk and E.B. White’s The Elements of Style. But, as I learned over the years, much of that was lip service. It’s almost impossible to find a writer who adheres to the principles of the style section of the book — which have been summed up as, “Do not overwrite, avoid qualifiers, don’t over-explain, and avoid adverbs.”
But at the time I wasn’t aware that, to most, Strunk and White’s principles were as unrealistic as a mystic’s asceticism. In fact it was probably for just that reason — I was soon to become a Zen student — that I swallowed Strunk and White whole. Clearing your mind of clutter and stilling your internal noise were prerequisites for not only realization (as the American Buddhist community now calls enlightenment), but good prose.
A style book may seem like an unimaginative choice for an influence on style. I was, however, able to identify an author who shaped, if not my style or consciousness, the form of my writing: Norman Mailer. Not the novelist (though he produced some fine fiction), but the author of Miami and the Siege of Chicago: An Informal History of the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. Though Mailer wrote other books as a pioneer of New Journalism, Miami and the Siege of Chicago was the equivalent of what Hunter Thompson and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 were to some of the other Scholars & Rogues.
It wasn’t New Journalism’s intrusion of the author onto the scene of reportage that appealed to me. It was re-assigning the creativity and less-constrained language of fiction to journalism –- none were better at it than Mailer. (Actually his influence on the my writing form lay dormant for over three decades until I finally undertook commentary and then journalism itself.)
Unlike Thompson, Mailer didn’t use the facts as a starting point for the action, just for his discursiveness. No disrespect intended to Thompson (one of my favorite writers — all the way to the end at ESPN.com). But, to me, no viler words exist in the English language than “creative nonfiction.”
Oh, and thanks Norman, wherever you are, for that infernal litote tic with which you bequeathed me — “not unlike.”