Monthly Archives: January 2018

The Catch


In 1954, Arnold Hano, a recently retired editor-in-chief at Lion Books in New York who had decided to try and make it as a freelance writer, took the D train to the Polo Grounds in Manhattan to attend the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians. Purchasing a two dollar and ten cents ticket, he sat in the bleachers and took notes during the game. His account of the game was published in 1955 by Bantam Books as A Day in the Bleachers.

The following is an excerpt from the book describing a defensive play by Giants center fielder Willie Mays in the top of the eighth inning which has come to be known as “The Catch.”



And like wolves drawn to our fresh prey, we had already forgotten him [Giants starter Sal Maglie], eyes riveted on [relief pitcher Don] Liddle, while off to the side of the plate Vic Wertz studied the new Giant pitcher and made whatever estimations he had to make. Wertz had hit three times already; nobody expected more of him. He had hit one of Maglie’s fast balls in the first inning, a pitch that was headed for the outside corner but Wertz’ s bat was too swift and he had pulled the ball for a triple. Then he hit a little curve, a dinky affair that was either Maglie’s slider or a curve that didn’t break too well, and drove it into left field for a single, Finally, he had pulled another outside pitch that–by all rights–he shouldn’t have been able to pull, so far from the right-field side of the plate was it. But he had pulled it, as great sluggers will pull any ball because that is how home runs are made. Wertz hadn’t hit a home run on that waist high pitch on the outside; he had rifled it to right field for another single.

But that was all off Maglie, forgotten behind a door over five hundred feet from the plate. Now it was Liddle, jerking into motion as Wertz poised at the plate, and then the motion smoothed out and the ball came sweeping in to Wertz, a shoulder-high pitch, a fast ball that probably would have been a fast curve, except that Wertz was coming around and hitting it, hitting it about as hard as I have ever seen a ball hit, on a high line to dead center field.

For whatever it is worth, I have seen such hitters as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Jimmy Foxx, Ralph Kiner, Hack Wilson, Johnny Mize, and lesser-known but equally long hitters as Wally Berger and Bob Seeds send the batted ball tremendous distances. None, that I recall, ever hit a ball any harder than this one by Wertz in my presence.

And yet I was not immediately perturbed. I have been a Giant fan for years, twenty-eight years to be exact, and I have seen balls hit with violence to extreme center field which were caught easily by Mays, or Thomson before him, or Lockman or Ripple or Hank Leiber or George Kiddo Davis, that most marvelous fly catcher.

I did not–then–feel alarm, though the crack was loud and clear, and the crowd’s roar rumbled behind it like growing thunder. It may be that I did not believe the ball would carry as far as it did, hard hit as it was. I have seen hard-hit balls go a hundred feet into an infielder’s waiting glove, and all that one remembers is crack, blur, spank. This ball did not alarm me because it was hit to dead center field–Mays’ territory–and not between the fielders, into those dread alleys in left-center and right-center which lead to the bullpens.

And this was not a terribly high drive. It was a long low fly or a high liner, whichever you wish. This ball was hit not nearly so high as the triple Wertz struck earlier in the day, so I may have assumed that it would soon start to break and dip and come down to Mays, not too far from his normal position.

Then I looked at Willie, and alarm raced through me, peril flaring against my heart. To my utter astonishment, the young Giant center fielder–the inimitable Mays, most skilled of outfielders, unique for his ability to scent the length and direction of any drive and then turn and move to the final destination of the ball–Mays was turned full around, head down, running as hard as he could, straight toward the runway between the two bleacher sections.

I knew then that I had underestimated–badly underestimated–the length of Wertz’s blow.

I wrenched my eyes from Mays and took another look at the ball, winging its way along, undipping, unbreaking, forty feet higher than Mays’ head, rushing along like a locomotive, nearing Mays, and I thought then: it will beat him to the wall.

Through the years I have tried to do what Red Barber has cautioned me and millions of admiring fans to do: take your eye from the ball after it’s been hit and look at the outfielder and the runners. This is a terribly difficult thing to learn; for twenty-five years I was unable to do it. Then I started to take stabs at the fielder and the ball, alternately. Now I do it pretty well. Barber’s advice pays off a thousand times in appreciation of what is unfolding, of what takes some six or seven seconds–that’s all, six or seven seconds–and of what I can see. in several takes, like a jerking motion picture, until I have enough pieces to make nearly a whole.

There is no perfect whole, of course, to a play in baseball. If there was, it would require a God to take it all in. For instance, on such a play, I would like to know what Manager Durocher is doing–leaping to the outer lip of the sunken dugout, bent forward, frozen in anxious fear? And [Cleveland manager Al] Lopez–is he also frozen, hope high but too anxious to let it swarm through him? The coaches–have they started to wave their arms in joy, getting the runners moving, or are they half-waiting, in fear of the impossible catch and the mad scramble that might ensue on the base paths?

The players–what have they done? The fans—are they standing, or half-crouched, yelling (I hear them, but since I do not see them, I do not know who makes that noise, which of them yells and which is silent)? Has activity stopped in the Giant bullpen where Grissom still had been toiling? Was he now turned to watch the flight of the ball, the churning dash of Mays?

No man can get the entire picture; I did what I could, and it was painful to rip my sight from one scene frozen forever on my mind, to the next, and then to the next.

I had seen the ball hit, its rise; I had seen Mays’ first backward sprint; I had again seen the ball and Mays at the same time, Mays still leading. Now I turned to the diamond –how long does it take the eyes to sweep and focus and telegraph to the brain?–and there was the vacant spot on the hill (how often we see what is not there before we see what is there) where Liddle had been and I saw him at the third-base line, between home and third ( the wrong place for a pitcher on such a play; he should be behind third to cover a play there, or behind home to back up a play there, but not in between).

I saw Doby, too, hesitating, the only man, I think, on the diamond who now conceded that Mays might catch the ball. Doby is a center fielder and a fine one and very fast himself, so he knows what a center fielder can do. He must have gone nearly halfway to third, now he was coming back to second base a bit. Of course, he may have known that he could jog home if the ball landed over Mays’ head, so there was no need to get too far down the line.

Rosen was as near to second as Doby, it seemed. He had come down from first, and for a second–no, not that long, nowhere near that long, for a hundred-thousandth of a second, more likely–I thought Doby and Rosen were Dark and Williams hovering around second, making some foolish double play on this ball that had been hit three hundred and thirty feet past them. Then my mind cleared; they were in Cleveland uniforms, not Giant, they were Doby and Rosen.

And that is all I allowed my eyes on the inner diamond. Back now to Mays–had three seconds elapsed from the first ominous connection of bat and ball?–and I saw Mays do something that he seldom does and that is so often fatal to outfielders. For the briefest piece of time–I cannot shatter and compute fractions of seconds like some atom gun–Mays started to raise his head and turn it to his left, as though he were about to look behind him.

Then he thought better of it, and continued the swift race with the ball that hovered quite close to him now, thirty feet high and coming down (yes, finally coming down) and again–for the second time–I knew Mays would make the catch.

In the Polo Grounds, there are two square-ish green screens, flanking the runway between the two bleacher sections, one to the left-field side of the runway, the other to the right. The screens are intended to provide a solid dark background for the pitched ball as it comes in to the batter. Otherwise he would be trying to pick out the ball from a far-off sea of shirts of many colors, jackets, balloons, and banners.

Wertz’s drive, I could see now, was not going to end up in the runway on the fly; it was headed for the screen on the right-field side.

The fly, therefore, was not the longest ball ever hit in the Polo Grounds, not by a comfortable margin. Wally Berger had hit a ball over the left-field roof around the four-hundred foot marker. Joe Adcock had hit a ball into the center-field bleachers. A Giant pitcher, Hal Schumacher, had once hit a ball over the left-field roof, about as far out as Berger’s. Nor–if Mays caught it–would it be the longest ball ever caught in the Polo Grounds. In either the 1936 or 1937 World Series–I do not recall which–Joe DiMaggio and Hank Leiber traded gigantic smashes to the foot of the stairs within that runway; each man had caught the other’s. When DiMaggio caught Leiber’s, in fact, it meant the final out of the game. DiMaggio caught the ball and barely broke step to go up the stairs and out of sight before the crowd was fully aware of what had happened.

So Mays’ catch–if he made it–would not necessarily be in the realm of the improbable. Others had done feats that bore some resemblance to this.

Yet Mays’ catch–if, indeed, he was to make it–would dwarf all the others for the simple reason that he, too, could have caught Leiber’s or DiMaggio’s fly, whereas neither could have caught Wertz’s. Those balls had been towering drives, hit so high the outfielder could run forever before the ball came down. Wertz had hit his ball harder and on a lower trajectory. Leiber–not a fast man-was nearing second base when DiMaggio caught his ball; Wertz-also not fast-was at first when …

When Mays simply slowed down to avoid running into the wall, put his hands up in cup-like fashion over his left shoulder, and caught the ball much like a football player catching leading passes in the end zone.

He had turned so quickly, and run so fast and truly that he made this impossible catch look–to us in the bleachers –quite ordinary. To those reporters in the press box, nearly six hundred feet from the bleacher wall, it must have appeared far more astonishing, watching Mays run and run until he had become the size of a pigmy and then he had run some more, while the ball diminished to a mote of white dust and finally disappeared in the dark blob that was Mays’ mitt.

The play was not finished, with the catch.

Now another pet theory of mine could be put to the test. For years I have criticized baserunners who advance from second base while a long fly ball is in the air, then return to the base once the catch has been made and proceed to third after tagging up. I have wondered why these men have not held their base; if the ball is not caught, they can score from second. If it is, surely they will reach third. And–if they are swift–should they not be able to score from second on enormously long flies to dead center field?

Here was such a fly; here was Doby so close to second before the catch that he must have practically been touching the bag when Mays was first touching the drive, his back to the diamond. Now Doby could–if he dared–test the theory.

And immediately I saw how foolish my theory was when the thrower was Mays.

It is here that Mays outshines all others. I do not think the catch made was as sensational as some others I have seen, although no one else could have made it. I recall a catch made by Fred Lindstrom, a converted third baseman who had bad legs, against Pittsburgh. Lindstrom ran to the right-center field wall beyond the Giants’ bullpen and leaped high to snare the ball with his gloved hand. Then his body smashed into the wall and he fell on his back, his gloved hand held over his body, the speck of white still showing. After a few seconds, he got to his feet, quite groggy, but still holding the ball. That was the finest catch I can recall, and the account of the game in next day’s New York Herald-Tribune indicated it might have been the greatest catch ever made in the Polo Grounds.

Yet Lindstrom could not have reached the ball Wertz hit and Mays would have been standing at the wall, ready to leap and catch the ball Lindstrom grabbed.

Mays never left his feet for the ball Wertz hit; all he did was outrun the ball. I do not diminish the feat; no other center fielder that I have ever seen (Joe and Dom DiMaggio, Terry Moore, Sammy West, Eddie Roush, Earle Combs, and Duke Snider are but a few that stand out) could have done it for no one else was as fast in getting to the ball. But I am of the opinion that had not Mays made that slight movement with his head as though he were going to look back in the middle of flight, he would have caught the ball standing still.

The throw to second base was something else again.

Mays caught the ball, and then whirled and threw, like some olden statue of a Greek javelin hurler, his head twisted away to the left as his right arm swept out and around. But Mays is no classic study for the simple reason that at the peak of his activity, his baseball cap flies off. And as he turned, or as he threw–I could not tell which, the two motions were welded into one–off came the cap, and then Mays himself continued to spin around after the gigantic effort of returning the ball whence it came, and he went down flat on his belly, and out of sight.

But the throw! What an astonishing throw, to make all other throws ever before it, even those four Mays himself had made during fielding practice, appear the flings of teen-age girls. This was the throw of a giant, the throw of a howitzer made human, arriving at second base–to Williams or Dark, I don’t know which, but probably Williams, my memory says Dark was at the edge of the outfield grass, in deep shortstop position just as Doby was pulling into third, and as Rosen was scampering back to first.



This is a marvelous piece of writing. What impresses me most is how Hano was able — so successfully — to do something that he had been advised (as he notes) by broadcaster Red Barber to do: “take your eye from the ball after it’s been hit and look at the outfielder and the runners.” In other words, take in the whole field. This is something that one can do at the ballpark, but not while watching a game on television.

It is as if Hano had suspended time. How was he able to break a play which took only a few seconds, and which was spectacular, into its component parts, as it were, so one can appreciate its splendor fully: the situation, the flight of the ball, Mays’s pursuit, the base runners (where they were and how it was relevant to the play), Mays’s throw after the catch?

It has been said, by sportswriter Ray Robinson in a foreword to a 50th anniversary edition of A Day in the Bleachers, that Hano writes quickly. As Robinson says, “he wrote Bleachers in about the same time as it takes most people to run a marathon—yet he managed to turn a half-dozen hours on a bleachers pew into a tight-knit masterpiece. The book, in my mind, is a gem of clarity and honest observation, a tribute to Arnold’s reporting skills.”

Yes, indeed. Reporting as well as writing skills. He fashioned his hastily scribbled notes into a masterpiece. Based upon notes taken while sitting in the bleachers with ordinary fans, not in the press box.


— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018


cover - 'A Day in the Bleachers'.jpg

the catch.jpg


Arnold Hano.jpg

Arnold Hano

leave baseball alone!


This post is about baseball.

It’s a little out of date, since most of details refer to the 2017 season.

Well, anyway, it’s the Hot Stove League season, right?



First, about an adjustment that has been made in baseball’s rules.

A single game from last fall illustrates what I wish to discuss.

On September 14, 2017, in game 1 of the National League Championship Series, the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Chicago Cubs by a score of 5 to 2. An article about the game in the New York Times of October 15 discussed a key play.

The play occurred in the bottom half of the seventh inning. Charlie Culberson, a replacement for injured Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager, hit a double off Cubs starter John Lackey. The next batter, third baseman Justin Turner, singled to left field. Culberson was initially ruled out at home on a terrific throw from Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber and tag by catcher Willson Contreras. But after a replay review, Culberson was ruled safe because Contreras was deemed to have violated the collision rule by not leaving Culberson a path to the plate.

The ruling incensed Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who argued with the umpires and was ejected.

“It’s wrong,” he said. “I think anybody that’s played major league or minor league baseball will agree with me 100 percent on that.”

Maddon added, “All rules that are created and laws aren’t necessarily good ones.”

I agree with Madden. This rule takes a lot of drama out of home plate plays. It’s a pantywaist rule designed to project the catcher from collisions. Sorry! (Maybe the catcher should make a polite bow, doff his cap, and congratulate the runner.) They’re inevitable. They’re part of baseball. As are beanballs now and then.

The throw that nipped Culberson and the tag must have been beautiful to watch. A nitpicking rule propagated by fussbudgets should not have nullified them.



In July 2017, the New York Mets extended the netting at Citi Field halfway into the outfield. Many, but not all, fans expressed displeasure with the change.

As explained in a New York Times article by sportswriter Wallace Matthews (“Eyesore or Blessing? New Safety Feature at Citi Field Divides Fans,” July 23, 2017):

To some, [the netting] is an eyesore, a reason not to come to the ballpark and additional evidence of a Nanny State run amok.

But to others, it is an added layer of security that allows them to watch a baseball game — or not watch it, as the case may be — without the fear of being injured or the burden of constantly being on alert.

I’m on the side of the first group. Surprised?

I wrote a letter to the editor that was not published.


New York Times

July 24, 2017

Re: “Eyesore or Blessing? New Safety Feature at Citi Field Divides Fans” (July 23):

I grew up watching baseball games at Fenway Park in Boston in the 1950’s.

When one emerged from the stadium entrance into the stands, the first thing one noticed was the beautiful view of the landscaped field with (regardless of lateness of season) its deep green grass, which invariably would take my breath away. There was no annoying electronic scoreboard, only a PA system.

I thought Citi Field was nicely designed with good sight lines and that it was, without question, an improvement over Shea Stadium.

I won’t be attending any more games there.

Roger W. Smith

Then, on September 20, 2017, a girl at Yankee Stadium was injured by a foul ball off the bat of Yankees third baseman Todd Frazier. A couple of weeks ago, in January 2018, the Yankees announced that they will extend protective netting far down the foul lines next season at Yankee Stadium in the hopes of preventing fans from being struck by hard-hit foul balls.



What does the “philosopher” and baseball fan Roger W. Smith think about all of this?

Risks are inherent in all of life. Accidents happen. If we wanted to avoid all possibility of them, we would, for example, never let anyone get behind the wheel.

Leave baseball alone. It’s a beautiful sport and is not inherently violent.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

bedside manner


Today, I had a routine checkup with a doctor in Manhattan.

I was told at one point to get partially undressed and wait for the doctor’s “epiphany” (for him to appear and examine me).

The doctor told me to sit on the examining table. He put a stethoscope on my back and told me to breathe in and out.

Then, he put the stethoscope on the front of my chest. “Should I breathe in and out?” I asked.

“Be quiet,” he said, testily.

Why should I be expected to know what would be obvious to a doctor: that you must be still when he is listening to your heart but not one’s lungs? Or be blamed for getting mixed up when he was just telling me to breathe in and out?

How many times over the years have I experienced this kind of rude, abrupt treatment from overbearing doctors? Their training does not include how to deal with people as PERSONS. Actually, I think they are wary of people and don’t particularly like them. They want as little human interaction as possible.

I worked in a couple of hospitals for several years as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. I realized that the most important thing in taking care of people in a medical setting is treating them like people and not rushing them or ignoring them. (And, listening to them.)


 — Roger W. Smith

   January 27, 2017



If I whet My glittering sword,
And My hand takes hold on judgment,
I will render vengeance to My enemies,
And repay those who hate Me.

— Deuteronomy 32:41


He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

— Isaiah 53:3


The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”


A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.

— William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”



This post is about yesterday’s news stories about the sentencing of “monster doctor” Larry Nassar to a term of 40 to 175 years for sexual abuse.

Before I get to my main point – actually, points — I would like to mention some of my deep feelings about human suffering and sympathy.

My mother used to say to me that she had always wished one of her children would become a doctor. She used to say how much she admired our pediatrician, Dr. Cohen, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was the type of caring, humane physician she most admired. He was the type of doctor who was always on call.

I would always say to her, “I couldn’t be a doctor. I can’t stand the sight of blood.” And, indeed, the sight of people or animals suffering, just the thought of it, was something that deeply upset me. Once, I observed boys torturing frogs in a local reservoir with their pocket knives. This greatly upset me. It also struck me that there was no reason for such cruelty, and I couldn’t understand what motivated the boys or why they enjoyed it. I had such feelings about suffering in general, including emotional pain, even minor emotional hurts.

To repeat, I hate to see needless suffering: inflicted upon others; experienced by them.



Yesterday, on January 24, 2018, Dr. Lawrence Nassar was sentenced to a term of imprisonment of from 40 to 175 years by Ingham County (Michigan) Circuit Court judge Rosemarie Aquilina for molesting young girls and women. Larry Nassar, D.O., is a 54-year-old former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics team physician who has also been sentenced (in November 2017) to 60 years in federal court on child pornography charges.

Judge Aquilina, who had opened her courtroom to all the young women victims who wanted to address Dr. Nassar directly, forced him to listen when he pleaded to make it stop.

“It is my honor and privilege to sentence you,” she said yesterday, and noting the length of the sentence, added, “I just signed your death warrant.”

Given an opportunity to address the court before sentencing, Dr. Nassar apologized and, occasionally turning to the young women in the courtroom, said: “Your words these past several days have had a significant effect on myself and have shaken me to my core. I will carry your words with me for the rest of my days.”

Just before sentencing Dr. Nassar, the judge read parts of a letter that he had submitted to the court last week, in which he complained about his treatment in a separate federal child pornography case and wrote that his accusers in this case were seeking news media attention and money. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned,” he wrote in the letter. There were audible gasps from the gallery when the judge read that line.

Dr. Nassar was accused of molesting girls as young as six, many of them Olympic gymnasts, over a period of many years under the guise of giving them medical treatment. In November, he had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing seven girls.

Judge Aquilina was a fierce advocate for the victims, often praising or consoling them after their statements.

“Imagine feeling like you have no power and no voice,” Aly Raisman, an American gymnast and Olympic gold medal winter, said in court. “Well, you know what, Larry? I have both power and voice, and I am only just beginning to use them. All these brave women have power, and we will use our voices to make sure you get what you deserve: a life of suffering spent replaying the words delivered by this powerful army of survivors.”



I hate to see anyone suffer. And that includes Larry Nassar. I wish he could be given some hope.

I hope I do not appear to be minimizing the horrors of what the girls who were abused by Nasar experienced. Perhaps I am. I don’t know what it was like.



A sad story. Horrible. So what do I think? And why should anyone care what I think?

That I wonder: is anyone completely beyond redemption?

Should the purpose of punishment be to humiliate and make an example of the victim? To make a statement? I think that that is what the judge was doing. The trial has given her the stage, a platform; she is in the spotlight. She is making the most of this opportunity to impose a draconian sentence on Nassar.

Is anyone so horrible that they cannot still be considered part of the human race? Perhaps amenable or susceptible to making amends and reforming themselves? Nassar is clearly a pedophile. The evidence of his guilt is overwhelming. Is there treatment for such persons?

To repeat: I hate to anyone suffer, and that includes the worst of the worst, the most lowly and depraved.



The Nassar trial was like an orchestrated Orwellian “hate,” with the judge the conductor. Public outpourings of hate seem to be common nowadays. Consider the Women’s March 2018.

I was looking at some photos shared with me by an acquaintance who attended the march on January 20, 2018 in Washington, DC. Here’s what I saw:

A woman holding a poster aloft with what appears to be a doctored close up photo of Trump. Two arrows are pointing to Trump’s mouth. Trump’s lips have been altered and colored brown, so that it appears that his mouth is an anus. On the sign, in big letters, “‘THE ONLY SHITHOLE” is written.

A woman with raised fist, a tattooed forearm, half closed eyes, and pursed lips holding a sign that reads “Kicking Ass & Taking Over the World” with a cartoon Rosie the Riveter type flexing her muscles.

A woman holding aloft a sign that reads “the EMPEROR HAS NO TAX RETURNS.” There is a cartoon drawing of a fat man’s midsection. Where his penis would be, a blank piece of paper is covering it up, with only “1040” written on it.

A young woman with a pink knit cap holding aloft a sign that reads “HELL hath No FURY LIKE SEVERAL MILLION PISSED OFF WOMEN” with the female gender symbol.

Two women sitting on a low stone wall (with another woman between them). Both have large signs on their backs. One sign reads: MY SUPER POWER IS THAT I CAN LOOK AT SOMEONE WITH GETTING A BONER.” The other sign reads “I’D CALL HIM A CUNT BUT HE LACKS BOTH DEPTH AND WARMTH.”

Two guys with broad grins standing on top of a stone wall. They are holding aloft a sign that reads “THE ONLY xxxHOLE IS IN THE WHITE HOUSE.”

An elderly man with a funny hat and aviator sunglasses, holding aloft a sign reading “TRUMP: Racist. Sexist. Fascist. PSYCHO”

Most of the hate is directed at President Trump, and, by extension, to sexual predators.

Much of it seems crude and uncalled for. And, actually, disrespectful. Yes, I do think public figures deserve some kind of respect. As was true of authority figures and adults when I was growing up.

There is a swell — threatening to become a tsunami — of meanness, and a lack of a modicum of decency, in our culture nowadays, in the public square.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 25, 2018



In an up email to close friends on February 28, 2018, I wrote:

I wrote on my blog last month: The Nassar trial was like an orchestrated Orwellian “hate,” with the judge the conductor. Public outpourings of hate seem to be common nowadays.

That’s what I disliked about the trial. I know Nassar was guilty of doing awful things.

To know what such a “hate” is, you have to have read “Nineteen Eighty-Four.”


Judge Aquilina & Nassar

Judge Rosemarie Aquilina; Larry Nassar

is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?


‘is it possible to hold two divergent opinions at the same time’


“I may indeed contradict myself now and then; but truth … I do not contradict.”

— Michel de Montaigne



“I suppose you have forgotten that many weeks ago I promised to send you an account of my companions at the Wells [a city in England]. ….

“One of the greatest men of the society was Sim Scruple, who lives in a continual equipoise of doubt, and is a constant enemy to confidence and dogmatism. Sim’s favourite topick of conversation is the narrowness of the human mind, the fallaciousness of our senses, the prevalence of early prejudice, and the uncertainty of appearances. Sim has many doubts about the nature of death, and is sometimes inclined to believe that sensation may survive motion, and that a dead man may feel though he cannot stir. He has sometimes hinted that man might, perhaps, have been naturally a quadruped; and thinks it would be very proper, that at the Foundling Hospital some children should be inclosed in an apartment in which the nurses should be obliged to walk half upon four and half upon two legs, that the younglings, being bred without the prejudice of example, might have no other guide than nature, and might at last come forth into the world as genius should direct, erect or prone, on two legs or on four.

“The next, in dignity of mien and fluency of talk, was Dick Wormwood, whose sole delight is to find every thing wrong. Dick never enters a room but he shows that the door and the chimney are ill-placed. He never walks into the fields but he finds ground ploughed which is fitter for pasture. He is always an enemy to the present fashion.

“He holds that all the beauty and virtue of women will soon be destroyed by the use of tea. He triumphs when he talks on the present system of education, and tells us, with great vehemence, that we are learning words when we should learn things. He is of opinion that we suck in errours at the nurse’s breast, and thinks it extremely ridiculous that children should be taught to use the right hand rather than the left.

“Bob Sturdy considers it as a point of honour to say again what he has once said, and wonders how any man, that has been known to alter his opinion, can look his neighbours in the face. Bob is the most formidable disputant of the whole company; for, without troubling himself to search for reasons, he tires his antagonist with repeated affirmations. When Bob has been attacked for an hour with all the powers of eloquence and reason, and his position appears to all but himself utterly untenable, he always closes the debate with his first declaration, introduced by a stout preface of contemptuous civility. “All this is very judicious; you may talk, Sir, as you please; but I will still say what I said at first.” Bob deals much in universals, which he has now obliged us to let pass without exceptions. He lives on an annuity, and holds that there are as many thieves as traders; he is of loyalty unshaken, and always maintains, that he who sees a Jacobite sees a rascal.

“Phil Gentle is an enemy to the rudeness of contradiction and the turbulence of debate. Phil has no notions of his own, and, therefore, willingly catches from the last speaker such as he shall drop. This flexibility of ignorance is easily accommodated to any tenet; his only difficulty is, when the disputants grow zealous, how to be of two contrary opinions at once [italics added]. If no appeal is made to his judgment, he has the art of distributing his attention and his smiles in such a manner, that each thinks him of his own party; but if he is obliged to speak, he then observes that the question is difficult; that he never received so much pleasure from a debate before; that neither of the controvertists could have found his match in any other company; that Mr. Wormwood’s assertion is very well supported, and yet there is great force in what Mr. Scruple advanced against it. By this indefinite declaration both are commonly satisfied; for he that has prevailed is in good humour; and he that has felt his own weakness is very glad to have escaped so well.”

— Samuel Johnson, “Scruple, Wormwood, Sturdy and Gentle” (The Idler No. 83), November 17, 1759



“The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, & breeds reptiles of the mind.”

— William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell



“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays: First Series (1841)



“Tomorrow we shall receive other hints; it may be an apparent contradiction to those of today, urged likewise as if they were the sole and central truth. … Thus, there is hardly a proposition in [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] poems, or his prose either for that matter, which you cannot find the opposite of in some other place.”

— anonymous reviewer, “New Poetry in New England,” The Democratic Review, vol. XX (May 1847), pg. 397; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 286



“His [Keats’s] mind had itself much of that ‘negative capability’ which he remarked on as a large part of Shakespeare’s greatness, and which he described as a power of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ ” This is the doubt of one “who prefers the broken fragments of truth to the imposing completeness of delusion. Such is that uncertainty of a large mind, which a small mind cannot understand.”

— Aubrey De Vere, “Modern Poetry and Poets,” Edinburgh Review, October 1849; quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 248-249



“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”



“Mother, one’s heart grows sick of war, after all, when you see what it really is—every once in a while I feel so horrified & disgusted—it seems to me like a great slaughter-house & the men mutually butchering each other—then I feel how impossible it appears, again, to retire from the contest, until we have carried our points—(it is so cruel to be tossed from pillar to post in one’s judgment).

— Walt Whitman, letter to his mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, July 7, 1863 (The letter refers to the Battle of Gettysburg.)



“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (1945)



“Like any writer worth paying attention to, [Philip] Roth turns out to be the sum of his contradictions.”

— Adam Gopnik, review of Philip Roth: Why Write? Collected Nonfiction 1960-2013 (The Library of America), The New Yorker, November 13, 2017



is it possible (or desirable) to hold two divergent opinions at the same time?

by Roger W. Smith


A friend of mine with whom I have had many deep conversations has asked me once or twice, do I think it is possible to hold two contrary, divergent opinions at the same time? Have I experienced this?

In an email, my friend summarized the topic brilliantly and lucidly in the following words:

Our conversation had to do with staking out a position or taking a position — not necessarily ardently — but stating or indicating a position outwardly while one is in fact holding a position inwardly that is more closely in touch with one’s truer feelings. Such a stance might belie one’s inner feelings, might be subtly or not so subtly meant to provoke or suggest inner conflict about which side of an issue one feels or takes … or, possibly, another meaning.

You hit upon this idea this morning (which I have clumsily attempted to recapture), which immediately caught my interest and attention both as it relates to you and because it is an idea that has broader importance. When you thought there might be a word or phrase to capture it, I thought that would be interesting and helpful.




“A word or phrase to capture it.” Is there, to my knowledge, my friend asked, a word or expression to convey such a notion?

I told him I would look it up.

I got back to him as follows:

You asked me: is there is a word in English for having or holding two contradictory opinions in one’s mind at the same time? It seems that there is not, really.

The idea seems to be encompassed by the term cognitive dissonance. But, as I see it, cognitive dissonance is a concept, not a word.

However, there is a definition of cognitive dissonance online at

“cognitive dissonance; noun; psychology — the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change”

There is a Wikipedia entry on cognitive dissonance at

In the article, cognitive dissonance is explained as follows:

In psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time; performs an action that is contradictory to their beliefs, ideas, or values; or is confronted by new information that conflicts with existing beliefs, ideas or values.

Note that, in psychological parlance, cognitive dissonance has the connotation of a mental state associated with discomfort or anxiety. I don’t quite view it that way. Read, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ringing words above. To him a mental state somewhat like what the Wikipedia article describes is a cause for celebration and admiration, not alarm, though Emerson does acknowledge that thinkers of such a mental cast, so to speak, are bound to be misunderstood and, perhaps, criticized and/or persecuted.

An often seen term that expresses such an idea is George Orwell’s coinage doublethink. Doublethink has been adapted into our language, but it is not an autochthonous word. And, in Orwell it is used with a particular slant or twist, with a connotation somewhat like brainwashing.

Some words that kind of hit upon the idea of a person perhaps expressing or having contrary opinions simultaneously are ambiguity, ambivalence, dichotomy, duplicity, equivocality or equivocation, evasion, and two-faced (adjective).

And, then, of course, there is oxymoron, defined as a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction.

And, paradox and paradoxical. The definition of paradox is as follows:

a seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true;

a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory; a situation, person, or thing that combines contradictory features or qualities.



The Key Question

So much for definitions. But, what about the notion of holding contrary opinions simultaneously, as it pertains to thought in general? My thought patterns. Perhaps yours.

I would answer, YES. Undoubtedly. It is a common practice — but not one that violates common sense — for a thinking person to entertain contrary, opposing notions simultaneously.

Under what conditions does this happen, and is it propitious?



Hot Button Issues

One causal or underlying factor for ambiguity in thought seems to be entertaining or coming face to face with contentious issues. I am thinking of issues that are always (endlessly; and, one might say, ad nauseam) being debated in public forums and that never get resolved. It seems as if on some of the most contentious, emotionally charged issues which are debated publicly there will never be anything like agreement. For example:

capital punishment;


war and peace.

It appears that this may be, in part, because there are no good answers. Each side may have some right on their side, and neither side is totally wrong. The same arguments and counterarguments are made over and over again.

The real test — the hard part — is when one is dealing with actualities and specific cases. For example:

I am against capital punishment, but when I saw and read news items about beheadings of hostages by ISIS terrorists, I felt that I would like to see the executioner(s) publicly beheaded.

Despite being in sympathy with positions taken by the pro-choice side of the abortion debate, I have always felt unsure and uncomfortable thinking about the issue.

I have historically been a pacifist, or at least a dove, yet I feel that some wars are necessary. About a bloody conflict such as the Civil War, I have never known what to think.

When faced with such issues, I may find myself thinking first one way and then the next. I will tend to lean more one way than the other, but I am never certain about what I think.



Another Hot Button Issue

Another example of a contentious issue which, over the course of time, caused me to doubt my initial, unquestioned views was the controversy over the issue of school busing in Boston, which lasted for a couple of decades following reforms resulting from the civil rights movement.

I remember the controversy well, although for much of the time I was not living in Massachusetts and it did not affect me or members of my family. (My mother was, however, very pro civil rights and volunteered to tutor students from minority neighborhoods.)

Like most liberals, I was initially pro busing, which was natural since I was pro civil rights and supported integration. In the North, that meant integration of neighborhoods formerly all white.

There was a high profile spokeswomen for and champion of the “other side,” Boston School Committee chairwoman Louise Day Hicks (1916 –2003). She was completely against busing and denied that segregation existed in city schools. She was pudgy, did not seem that articulate, and was belittled by liberals, who regarded her as an anathema, an embarrassment, and also (perhaps unfairly), an idiot. I myself thought she and her positions were retrograde, narrow minded (also bigoted), and ridiculous and volunteered (for a very short time) to work for a candidate opposed to her.

Over the years, I have reflected upon busing, which now seems to be in abeyance as a strategy. (I am not sure of this.) It occurred to me as an afterthought as an apt example for this essay because of a discussion I had this week with a liberal professor who said he fully supported busing at the outset, but changed his mind when it was about to occur in the case of his own daughter (now an adult), who was having some problems adjusting to school socially and did not want to have to attend a non-neighborhood school.

I think the busing issue illustrates something that often happens in cases where “social engineering” is involved and is being visited upon the public by policy wonks in the ranks of academia, NGO’s, and government. It illustrates a general point I was making above, that we may think a certain way in the abstract, and then, when it comes down to actual cases, may find ourselves wondering what we really think.



Gut (Emotional) Issues

Then there are gut issues — partly public and political, partly personal — that involve one’s core emotions, sometimes base or elemental ones:

My wife. I love and respect her. Yet, I thoroughly disagree with some of her views on essential matters. (I suspect that I am not alone in this regard and that this is the case with many intimate relationships.)

Two politicians. I am excited about and interested in the campaign. I want one to lose but I don’t want the other to win.

I harbor prejudices, some that I am only dimly aware of and some more overt. Yet, I have seen evidences in the behavior of persons I have known that contradict and undermine my biased views. There are parallels, too, in many of my cherished beliefs, which, like most people, I stubbornly adhere to. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes, if not often, another person can puncture them with repartee, contrary evidence, and counterarguments.



Reflection and Research

On an intellectual level, I find that encountering and considering views that may cause confusion at first can be a very good thing, as seems to have been the case with great thinkers who were not afraid to do this.

When I had to come up with a topic for a term paper in college, what I found worked and resulted in a good paper was to try and identify something I myself found to be unclear to me and unresolved in my mind — that, additionally, did not seem to have been resolved by scholarship — and which was muddled or confusing as regards its presentation in lectures, readings, or discussions. Then, investigate and write about it. I have always liked to be challenged to investigate something and think it through for myself. As I explained in a letter to my sister (who was then in college), written when I was in my twenties: “When I had to research papers in school, I always found it best to pick a topic where I had some doubt or unresolved conflict in my mind and then write to resolve that conflict. I often found that that areas where I was in doubt or had some misunderstanding turned out to be a significant one to explore.”

I continue to find this kind of mental effort and “intellectual exercise” productive. It may result from reading something — say, in a newspaper — or from a discussion. It sometimes, if not often, happens that I find myself confused or dismayed, and not sure how to respond or of what I think. Such a situation, I have realized, can provide an opportunity. It often results in reflection and can lead to mental productivity, new insights, and perhaps a new piece of writing.

A similar phenomenon. Sometimes one entertains, is struck by a thought which runs counter to one’s previous thinking, what might be called a heuristic or “pregnant” thought. Heuristic or pregnant means for me: revelatory, inducing reflection and modification of thought and opinions I hadn’t questioned. An idea which makes me think anew about something — not always right away.

Heuristic (adjective): enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.



Crime and Punishment

Yesterday (April 22, 2017), I read with dismay that convicted felon and former Weather Underground member Judith Clark has been denied parole after thirty years in prison. An article in The New York Times resulted in comments being posted by readers; there were over 500 of them. The comments made me think earnestly about my own preoccupations about crime and punishment. I didn’t change my views, but I found myself thinking anew about, weighing, and wrestling with, if not changing, them.




Being able to see what the other side has to say is not a sign of weak thinking or of an inferior, easily swayed mind. It is to be desired, on the contrary. I have found that some sanctimonious readers of this blog, convinced of the rightness of their views, often cannot see or appreciate this, nor do they seem to be inclined to do it themselves.


— Roger W. Smith

   April 2017; updated February 2019




A reader of this post emailed me as follows.

I read your personal essay, and enjoyed it. The famous Emerson quotation is on the mark, as are all of them; but I wonder if the idea that a great mind has nothing to do with consistency defines what his critics accuse Trump of nowadays? That is, the inconsistencies of saying one thing one day and contradicting himself the next?

Couldn’t help thinking about this throughout your piece.

The reader has made an excellent and interesting point. In reply, I would be inclined to say that this is intended to be an essay about a mentality where a person has deeply held beliefs, and then finds himself or herself entertaining/considering contrary beliefs and perhaps questioning one’s initial beliefs. Despite this reader’s welcome and pungent comment, I do not believe that the type of thinking described above applies to someone such as Donald Trump, who does not seem to be a profound thinker (I guess I should say, is not) and who changes his views, as one might change one’s shirt, from day to day, tweeting one thing one day and another the next.


— Roger W. Smith, May 1, 2017




Regarding the never ending debate over abortion, the following comments seems to illustrate well what I said above about feeling ambivalent over the issue:

Americans are collectively pro-choice and anti-abortion. You ask Americans, how do you feel about abortion, they don’t like it.

But a woman forced to make a decision under difficult circumstances, in consultation with her confessor, her conscience and her physician, they’re not going to — they’re not going to criminalize it. …

Abortion is an issue that Americans, quite bluntly, have never resolved. I mean, it remains in every Gallup poll every year the plurality Americans think abortion is immoral. At the same time, they do not want to criminalize it.

— Mark Shields. PBS NewsHour, February 1, 2019

Carl Nielsen, “Helios Overture”



Posted here is the Helios Overture by the Danish composer Carl Nielsen. The Helios Overture, Opus 17, is a concert overture which was first performed in Copenhagen in 1903.

A Wikipedia entry provides background information about the piece.

Carl Nielsen wrote many short orchestral works, one of the most famous being the Helios Overture.

In 1902, Nielsen signed a contract with the publisher Wilhelm Hansen which allowed him to go to Athens, Greece to join his wife, Anne Marie Carl-Nielsen, who was one of the first sculptors allowed to make copies of the bas-reliefs and statues in the Acropolis Museum.

Anne Marie was studying Greek art, while Nielsen, being a man of many interests, was interested in archaeology. The local conservatory placed a study room with a piano at Carl Nielsen’s disposal. Here he could sit and compose when he was not on excursions in the surrounding mountains with or without Anne Marie.

Nielsen’s stay in Athens gave him the inspiration of a work depicting the sun rising and setting over the Aegean Sea, an overture which he called Helios. He began work on it in March 1903 and finished it on April 23 of the same year.

The score is written for three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, and strings.

The work begins as the sun ascends over the Aegean Sea, while strings, divided horns and woodwind sound a melody. This rises out of the darkness to a full orchestra, where fanfaring trumpets begin a striding theme, which returns later in the piece. From there woodwinds begin a graceful tune, from which brass sound. Strings begin to play, which draws the orchestra into a reprise of the striding theme and its fanfare. In the final measures, the music subsides as the sun sinks over the horizon of the sea.

On the score, Nielsen wrote:

“Silence and darkness,
The sun rises with a joyous song of praise,
It wanders its golden way
and sinks quietly into the sea.”


— Roger W. Smith

   January 2018



See also:

Haydn, symphony No. 6 in D major (“Le matin”)

Haydn, symphony No. 6 in D major (“Le matin”)


Carl Nielsen in 1901.jpg

Carl Nielsen in 1901

a baseball story


My high school English teacher, Robert W. Tighe, was, for some reason I never knew, a New York Yankees fan.

This, despite the fact that, as far as I knew, he was raised in Massachusetts.

He used to argue, for the fun of it, with my older brother, who also had him for a teacher, about all sorts of things, such as baseball, religion, and the Civil War.

He told my brother, who was a Red Sox fan (as was I) and was sympathetic to the South, that he was “the patron of lost causes.” (Mr. Tighe had a mordant wit. He also prided himself on being able to see things clearly through the fog of idealism, much like one of his intellectual heroes, Samuel Johnson.)



Mr. Tighe was an avid baseball fan.

He told my brother a story.

He was at a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. I think he said Red Ruffing was pitching for the Yankees.

One of the pitchers may have been pitching a no hitter. I don’t remember exactly what our teacher was said to have said. But, anyway, the game was tied at 0-0 through around six innings, and suspense was mounting. It was a true pitcher’s battle.

In the middle of the game, a woman who had arrived very late made her way to her seat. Everyone had to stand up in the middle of the inning to let her pass.

She asked someone what was the score.

“Nothing to nothing,” they replied.

“Oh, good, I haven’t missed anything,” she said.


— Roger W. Smith

    January 2008



Thanks, and a tip of the hat — with a nod to the late American cartoonist Jimmy (“a Tip of the Hatlo hat”) Hatlo — to my brother A. W. (Pete) Smith, Jr. for relating this story to me. I wonder if he recalls telling me it!

prevarication; institutionalized cruelty


Two news stories caught my eye this morning.


“This way madness lies”

by Dana Milbank

Washington Post

January 16, 2018




“Michigan Father Deported After Living in U.S. for 30 Years”

By Christina Caron

New York Times

January 16, 2018




Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank is a good and perceptive writer. He states:

I knew that Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, when she appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would deny that Trump said what the whole world knows he said: that he wants immigrants from Norway rather than from “shithole” countries in Africa.

Nielsen … was now under oath, and she wiggled every which way to excuse Trump without perjuring herself: “I did not hear that word used. … I don’t dispute that the president was using tough language.”

[Senator Patrick] Leahy moved on to Trump’s wish for more Norwegian immigrants. “Norway is a predominantly white country, isn’t it?” he asked, rhetorically.

“I actually do not know that, sir,” Nielsen replied. “But I imagine that is the case.”

Kirstjen Nielsen doesn’t know Norwegians are white?

Milbank goes on to say:

Now the federal government is hurtling toward a shutdown, entirely because of the president’s whim. Democrats and Republicans presented him last week with exactly the bipartisan deal he said he would sign — protecting the immigrant “dreamers” while also providing funding for his border security “wall” [italics added] — but Trump unexpectedly exploded with his racist attack and vulgar word.

That’s what brought to mind the second article, in The New York Times, and the whole topic of Trump’s wall.



Here’s what I would like to know.

Why is a “bipartisan deal” under consideration to provide funding for Trump’s wall? Have Democrats lost their spines or minds?

We don’t need it! As I explained in a previous post:


“Walt Whitman, immigration policy, and Donald Trump’s wall; or, the Berlin Wall redux”


It’s not in any sense just a matter of the wall being unnecessary or too expensive, or an eyesore. Or whatever. It’s bad policy and it smacks of Iron Curtain style statism verging on totalitarianism.

The Times article concerns Jorge Garcia, an immigrant from Mexico who has been living in the United States for a period of slightly less than thirty years. The basic facts: he is married to an American citizen; he and his wife have two children; he has no known criminal record and was employed (until a day or two ago) as a landscaper; he has cooperated over the years with immigration authorities. You can read the rest of the sad story and about the bureaucratic quagmire he got caught in over technicalities.

On Monday, immigration agents put Garcia on a flight to Mexico, with his wife and 15-year-old daughter (both in tears) and his 12-year-old son standing by and looking on. “We’re devastated. We’re sad, we’re depressed,” his wife, Cindy Garcia, said.



Here’s what I think, and I know I’m right.

Ours is a country of immigrants. We are all descended from immigrants. God knows how they got here and what they underwent (both emigrating and in making a life in The New Land).

To pursue and harry immigrants (regardless of their immigration status in the eyes of the law, which is at best imperfect) who are law abiding and hardworking and have done no harm – in fact, the opposite — is cruel and, in fact, unjust. It belies and betrays our foundational and civic principles. If the purpose is to prevent terrorists and malefactors from entering our country, what is the point behind expelling immigrants such as Mr. Garcia and “dreamers”?

You know what actions such as this particular one remind me of? When slaves, who were considered property, were sold away and separated from their families — spouse, parents, or children – by being sold to a different master.

We have so much to gain from immigrants, as I see every day in New York. If they were allowed to come, economic and other factors, such as possible overcrowding, allocation of social services, etc. would take care of themselves, naturally. Things reach their own level and will adjust themselves without government intervention. They always have.


— Roger W. Smith

   January 17, 2018




A quote from William Blake comes to mind: “He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer. … .”

— William Blake, “Jerusalem”


Looking at this from another angle — or from several — what Blake is saying is, don’t try to ameliorate the human condition by instituting policies designed to achieve this or to rectify some perceived flaw, say, in the law or policy, but pay attention to the effect of actions taken upon individuals. How does an initiative towards improving the human condition (or preventing adverse consequences, so deemed) affect them?

Or, better yet, don’t even think about generalities; think about the effect upon actual living, breathing people. If you’re harming them, it’s a certainty that you are doing no general or larger good.




My friend from high school days Jan Brady posted the following on Facebook on January 18:

QUOTE: “All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to immigration arrest, detention and, if found removable by final order, removal from the United States,” [Khaalid] Walls [a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] said in a statement.”

Where is the rationale?

I’ve lost sight of the “Why”. What greater good is gained by this action?

damning with faint praise


Consider … the most popular novelist in the English language–Charles Dickens. His characters are types, not people. With some honorable exceptions like Great Expectations and David Copperfield; his plots are unwieldy and ultimately uninvolving. He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of. His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day, are coming up on 150 years old and read like it; his sentimentality handed Oscar Wilde his best moment in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. (“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”)

— Ben Yagoda, The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing (HarperResource, 2004)

To be fair, Yagoda does proceed to praise Dickens for his style. He states: “So why could you roam the Contemporary Fiction shelves at Barnes & Noble for a year and still not find a writer as stirring and alive? Benjamin Disraeli suggested the answer when he observed, ‘It is style alone by which posterity will judge of a great work.’ ” He provides an example of the opening paragraphs of Bleak House.

Yagoda goes on to say:

Flaubert used to submit his sentences to what he called la guelade—the shouting test. He would go out to an avenue of lime trees near his house and proclaim what he’d written at the top of his lungs, the better to see if the prose conformed to the ideal that was in his head. Try that with Dickens’s words. Or, maybe better yet, type them out (as I just did), the better to fall under the spell of this mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.

I disagree (overall with Yagoda’s assessment, that is, not with the above paragraph). Charles Dickens is not still read (and, he will continue to be read, long after writers such as J K. Rowling, John Grisham, and Stephen King will be forgotten) because of style alone.




I agree with Yagoda about Dickens’s “mordant, funny, metaphor-mad, and itchily omniscient voice.” This is well put and totally on target. But, Yagoda has gravely underestimated Dickens. True, his characters are, in a sense, “types,” but in their “improbability” and eccentricity, they are exactly just the opposite of improbable; they are realer than real, completely believable.

Dickens’s plots may perhaps be described as “unwieldy”; they do seem at times contrived. (This was also true of many other great nineteenth-century novelists. Think Les Misérables.) But, “ultimately uninvolving”? No way.

“He exposed alarming social conditions, but these have, for the most part, been taken care of.” So what? The works of a great novelist involve us on many levels, and their function as social commentary/criticism does not wither away over time. (Again, think Les Misérables.)

“His comic set pieces, no doubt side-splitting in their day. …” This is uninformed criticism. A main reason to read Dickens is for his HUMOR. Still true. Completely.




The first rule for a newly minted MD is “do no harm.” The first rule for anyone purporting to opine on literature or writing is READ.

You cannot learn how to write or how to judge writing without reading.

This includes the greats. In fact, you will never fully comprehend the above parameters of writing and literature without reading the greats. This means to fully engage with them.

Charles Dickens, for example.


— Roger W. Smith

    January 2018