The Charlotte News

SUNDAY, JULY 11, 1937


Cabell To Hemingway:

A Peculiarity Called Style

--A Stylish Discussion Of It, By W. J. Cash

Site ed. note: For further discussion of James Branch Cabell, see "Jurgen in the South" - June 20, 1937; for further discussion of Hemingway, see "Dr. Cash Holds Final Rites for Hemingway" - April 12, 1936, and "These Geniuses" - August 2, 1936.

The terms"style" and "stylist" cause a great deal of unnecessary confusion among the readers of books. Many of them acquire the notion that there is something esoteric implied in the words, and live in confused fear of being some day found out to know nothing about the awful mystery.

But, as a matter of fact, it is easy to construct out of John Ruskin's "Modern Painters" and Remy de Gourmont's "The Problem of Style" a definition of style, and so of course of the stylist, which at once covers the ground thoroughly and is simple enough for anybody to grasp. (Any definition that actually covered the essential truth would have to be simple, for it is only the imperfectly comprehended which is ever complex.) Ruskin, as I recall from memory, set it down in his dogmatic fashion that a style is determined by the subject, that it represents the only possible way to bring out the truth of the object. And de Gourmont had it--also as I recall--that it represented the only possible way to bring out the personality of the artist. And, of course, both were more or less right.

Putting them together, we arrive at something like this, that style is the only possible way of representing the peculiar reaction of a peculiar personality to a peculiar object--as conditioned by his general and peculiar vision of the peculiar and entirely personal world which he customarily and inescapably alone of all men, inhabits. And there you are, my dear little cunning reader, with what seems to me, in my modest way, to be a perfectly airtight definition of the thing.

If you want some examples, why let us take the obvious case of the gentleman who lives on Monument Avenue in Richmond in Virginia--the most complete stylist, by common consent, who has ever practiced in America, with the possible exception of Henry James, who after all did most of his practicing abroad. The peculiar object which obsesses the peculiar Mr. Cabell is, of course, the spectacle of humanity in the hours after the throes of the odd combination of passion and sentiment which we call love--the spectacle of man, and woman, remembering themselves in the transports of desire and what men name romance. And the world which he inhabits is a world of half-lights and strange melancholy repose. Its sunlight falls in soft chlaroscure through clouds and over mountains which never existed for other men in this world save in the paintings of forgotten medieval painters--into forests which are secret with a secret that now and then another man may have once glimpsed for a passing illuminated second of his childhood and upon castles that shine with a deeper inward translucence never boasted by any other castle save, perhaps, only Joyous Garde. With the creator of Joyous Garde, Mr. Cabell indeed probably has more kinship than with any other who ever lived.

The streams of this world flow in silver and not in gold, they tinkle merrily and yet a little sadly. Always somewhere in the distance there sounds the sudden breathless mirth of women falling and falling through the bottomless abyss of memory. Always there sounds too the echo of something that is most marvellously like a sort of muted belly-laugh--such a short, sardonic laugh as the old Silenus might give did he suddenly find himself entirely sober and in love. And always death peeps through the cadences of slow and more than earthly music, dying through the shadows and the long blue reaches.

There are people who imagine that Mr. Cabell is over-ornate and affected. But they are, I am afraid, people without too much discrimination. As a matter of fact nothing could ever more accurately catch the real Mr. Cabell, as distinguished from the Mr. Cabell who sits down to dinner with the Richmond bankers, than the slow, arresting, descending fall of his prose. It would be quite impossible to suppose the real Mr. Cabell existing at all and failing to write just like that.

And much the same sort of thing goes, with the necessary changes, for say Mr. Ernest Hemingway, who I hear is about to publish another book which I hope to God will be better than the last one. Mr. Hemingway, of course, is almost the exact opposite of Cabell. Though he has sometime paid more than casual attention to the question of man under the spell of sex, the peculiar object which really obsesses his unparalleled psyche is the spectacle of man among men. The private world in which he lives is a world done in brilliant reds and yellows and blacks. The sun comes straight down and blisters the hell out of your neck, as well as dazzling your eyes, if you can keep them open, with a vision of things as they are most shockingly composed all in straight lines. They eat raw beef there. They are perpetually skinning the cat, and guying the poor boob who can't. They are always perpetually charging heights, and expiring to the tune of blasphemies. And they are somewhat extensively obsessed by the subterranean fear that someday they will be found out of a gang of sissies a little afraid of God, and fearful to call a spade a blankety-blank spade.

And when you have heard all that, why of course it is plain that Mr. Hemingway is not affected, as some naive souls insist, but that he writes just like that because Mr. Hemingway--the real Mr. Hemingway, as opposed to the Mr. Hemingway who gets caught at literary teas--is like that. (Yeah, I know, I might as well as not be arguing in a circle here, but of course I'm not.)

So it goes. I might take you through a long list of our stylists. But that's enough to make the argument clear--or is it?

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