The Charlotte News



Writer's Title Falls On Some Odd Shoulders

Mr. Cash Takes A Fling At Professors,
And Concludes That Poets Are Preferable.

By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: A fortiori, moderns, claiming to be "writers", take ample note and profit. Alas, there is a greater dearth, it would seem, today, of that thing called "writing" than merely 60 years ago in Cash's day--though not so, the publishers supplying the supermarket checkouts and, symbiotically in titles, though not in the hardness of the binding, those circulating library "Newly Published" racks, (not to mention the dollar bins at "Bargain Books"), would have us believe. After all, why can't the TV guy give us the history of the century in illuminating prose with a vision? He reads to us indefatigably the indisputable story of what's happening every night at 6:00 on the dot with precision non-pareil. And that actress-writer--what's her name--no doubt, has both a poetic power and a brightly lit vision. Then there's the baseball fellow writer with his E.R.A., or, as the case may be, his R.B.I.'s (heck, why not both) to relate in poesy, and the comic-writer full, no doubt, of éclaircissement as to Elizabethan quippies, and the rock and roll novelist--(formerly very anti-establishment, now bank-rolled with roadies)--with lots of words with way cool, wowy-Maui awesome meaning and...well, it's all relative. So why worry, be happy.

More than a century ago, old William Hazlitt was growling in his "Table Talk" about "these preposterous unfounded claims of mere scholar's" to participation and even to "precedence in the commonwealth of letter." And a little later on both Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Neitzsche loosed some bitter words about it. And even a great while before that, Father Aristotle had some more or less celebrated things to say concerning the difference between the poet and the historian. But it is a distinction which, none the less, somehow seems never to sink home in the minds of most people, including even those of superior education and general discrimination.

Nearly everybody in these United States habitually speaks and apparently thinks of a writer as simply a person who puts words down on paper with pen or typewriter and finds a publisher desperate enough to bind them into a book and print them. Every professor who has a monograph to his credit on the use of the semi-colon in Spenser's "The Shepherd's Calendar," or the incidence of pellagra among the hillbillies of north Georgia, every hack who performs in the Saturday Evening Post or the Delineator or True Confessions or Capt. Billy Whiz Bang, every last soul of the vast army which keeps the circulating libraries supplied--all these are immediately wreathed with the bay and set into the company of Parnassus--all these come in for the title of writer.

Peripatetic Poets

But that, of course, is very great nonsense. The old Peripatetic philosopher had the true root of the thing. The writer in any proper meaning of the term is only and exclusively the man who is in some sense a poet. That, as I need hardly tell you, does not in the least mean that he had to be a maker of verse or that he must deal in the kind of dubious prose called lyrical, or that he must go around without a haircut and swoon at the sight of roses. God help us all, no. But it does mean that he must have imaginative power. "I love," says the creator of Zarathustra, "only that which is written in blood," and says it better than it has ever been said elsewhere. It means that he must somehow have in himself the power to weave out of himself a vision of the world or a fragment of the world which is unique, and the power also to communicate to others that vision in all its peculiarity and uniqueness, with all its angles and curves and warts and wens preserved and rendered in perspective (which is what we mean by style): to open up, with the effect of sudden illumination, to the minds of others vistas dimly sensed before but never penetrated fully: to leave the reader feeling that here is a distinct portion of a distinct man, that here has been said something that could never have been said so by any other human creature.

Makers of Fiction

There are people who get vague wind of that doctrine and proceed to hop to the opposite extreme from the common confusion--who will have it that it means that, aside from the makers of verse, about the only people who are genuinely to be reckoned writers are the makers of fiction--and very often of only the particular kinds of fiction they happen to like; who make it the excuse for a highbrow disdain of everything which does not fit in their narrow notion. But that is nonsense, too--and of course.

History, sociology--what you will, may very properly be the concern of a genuine writer (though it might be argued with a good deal of force that the chances for the survival of his vision as fully valid are inevitably less.) Gibbon was a true writer of an exceedingly high order, and to come down a great many pegs, there are people who would maintain with more or less good ground that Grote and Mommsen and Dean Milman and William Hickling Prescott and Francis Parkman and even John Richard Green were authentic examples. Jeremy Taylor was a proper writer, and Sir Thomas Browne and Richard Hooker and Jakob Boehme. So were John Stuart Mill and T. Carlyle. So were Richard Burton and the author of "Arabia Deserts." And so were Lyell and Huxley, and (as it seems to me, though I find a great many people disagreeing) Darwin and the Herbert Spencer of "First Principles" and the "Principles of Sociology." And finally to get down to our time, such also is the case with Oswald Spengler and his "Decline of the West," with Henri Bergson, with Ludwig Lewisohn in his non-fiction efforts, with H. L. Mencken, and, to end with a North Carolinian, with Gerald Johnson and his capital short biographies.

Up From Post.

What is more, it obviously doesn't matter a whoop where a man writes or what his occupation may be. Sinclair Lewis and Cabell came out of the Sat. Eve. Post. Dreiser began with the Sunday supplements. Dickens, Thackeray, Hardy, and Meredith (until he got tired and led a revolt) all wrote for the circulating libraries, and the thing has been done more than once in this country. One may even be a professor with a monograph standing against him, and still be an actual writer. Tom Wolfe began as one. Paul Green remains one, and so does Howard Odum whose sociological treatises, I must admit, and despite an interest in the subject, leave me cold, but who fully establishes his claim as a writer in the saga of Black Ulysses.

But, in every case whatever, the matter comes back to the ground I have said. Either the power and the vision are there, or no amount of knowing, no possible command of data can redeem their verdict. Either the power and the vision are there or one remains simply a scholar, or, if he deals in fiction, a manufacturer of amusement--respectable and worthy of honor in general, no doubt; often greatly admirable; but without any rightful claim to the name of writer.

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