William F. Buckley

One reads on, even if internally apprehensive at the prospect of a multiple increase in reading matter, and numb after completing "The American." "Not that efficiency has always been dictation's prime selling point," Powers writes. "In dictating his own last few baggy monsters, Henry James perfected such fluid elocution that, according to Edith Wharton, he couldn't even ask directions without releasing a torrent of 'explanatory ramifications.'"

Henry James! In his travel books James demonstrates his extraordinary powers of discrimination. Geneva suffers from "the want of humor in the local atmosphere, and the absence, as well, of that aesthetic character which is begotten of a generous view of life." OK. But what about the Swiss in general? They have, James found, "an insensibility to comeliness or purity of form -- a partiality to the clumsy, coarse, and prosaic, which one might almost interpret as a calculated offset to their great treasure of natural beauty, or at least as an instinctive protest of the national genius for frugality."

One or two mechanical points should be made here. One of them is that James' "The American," lionized in American literary history, was written in 1877 -- which was before he took to dictating his work. A second mechanical point is that transcribers didn't have the skill, in the 19th century, to record as fast as people could speak. Another, non-mechanical point: It is the responsibility of men and women who seek an audience for their writing beyond the family to instruct or entertain, or to die trying. The ratio is not definitively established, between skills disposed of and weight of literary production.

The grand meaning of this lesson being that eminent people can write eminently awful books and get away with it, and that medical science falls short of shielding us from bad books.


William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley, Jr. is editor-at-large of National Review, the prolific author of Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography.

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