March 1, 2010


Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower, c. 1850, oil on canvas, 40 x 32.5 inches

After finishing a second Beckett novel, Malone Dies (oh, how I love his writing!), I turned again to Willa Cather, who I wrote about here: her 1915 novel The Song of the Lark. Surprisingly, I didn't feel an aesthetic jolt going from one to the other, as both are masters of clear, simple, direct prose. In my copy of The Song of the Lark is a brief essay by Cather "On the Art of Fiction", which sets forth an essential attitude:
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole––so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader's consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page. Millet had done hundreds of sketches of peasants sowing grain, some of them very complicated and interesting, but when he came to paint the spirit of them all into one picture, The Sower, the composition is so simple that it seems inevitable.
In his Journal, Henry David Thoreau wrote of the clarity that memory brings, a similar searching for that which is most important:
I would fain make two reports in my Journal, first the incidents and observations of today; and by to-morrow I review the same and record what was omitted before, which will often be the most significant and poetic part.

Often I can give the truest and most interesting account of any adventure I have had after years have elapsed, for then I am not confused, only the most significant facts surviving in my memory.
And, saying something a bit different about writing, which still amounts to a call for simplicity, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
All writing should be selection in order to drop every dead word.
The inevitable, the most significant, the cutting out of all dead wood; all this seems to me to be something to aim for, whatever our art.


  1. Splendid! Essence!!! A wonderful post :-)

  2. I was just thinking about that, Altoon. I'm reading two histories of Spain. One is written by an academic, the other by a journalist. The academic's book contains more information, but is so verbose and indirect that it's hard to glean the scholarship from the tangle of syntax. The journalist is trained to separate chaff from wheat (continuing the Millet imagery!) and I, for one, am ingesting more of his information.

    There is the question of complexity of language as style (think Henry James, or Shakespeare). An editor could pare their writing down to the essence of their meaning--but that would be like paving over a wheatfield with asphalt.

  3. I certainly take your point about writing style, Susan. Henry James happens to be one of my very favorite writers, especially his late novels, which some might call convoluted and opaque. But he does cut to the heart of human character, so I might say he gets at the essential, in prose that is both rich and refined.

  4. I find Willa Cather and Gertrude Stein to have the "American voice" -- direct and clear, limpid somehow. Must try Beckett again to see if he has it too, in an Irish mode.

  5. Helen, I remember that our art group once discussed whether there was a distinctly American painting. When looked at a certain way, it seems there is, but the outlines are iffy. I don't feel that I know enough about literature to make that claim there, for instance never having read Stein, but you may be right.

  6. Good to read this Altoon!
    Its peculiar how we can worry if we are doing enough, getting it right, seeking, searching ...when really it is allowing things to come to us at times that is so important. thank you for the runinations Altoon. Will ponder some more!