Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

an exchange about (Russian, American literature) – UPDATED




Between me and my Russian collaborator Nataliya this morning. We are working together on translations of Pitirim Sorokin’s early works from Russian into English.






I don’t see a problem with the translation of the poem.* I know that there are many good translations of nineteenth-century Russian poetry into English. I myself saw such publications in the Library of Valdosta State University.

Lermontov is a great Russian poet of the nineteenth century, the second after Alexander Pushkin. Unfortunately, he did not live long. He was killed in a duel when he was only twenty-seven years old. Of course, his poems were translated into English.

We just need to find these translations. If I could go to Moscow or St. Petersburg, I would find them in the library, but this is not possible yet. Let’s not rush it. This is not the only poetic quote in Sorokin’s book. While we can find translations on the internet, then we will check and search in high-quality and reliable publications. We don’t need professors for that.


*Дума (Mediation), a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, from which Sorokin quotes several lines







Thanks for the message and wishes, Natalia.

An internet friend of mine, Elisabeth van der Meer, has a site in English devoted to Russian literature. I like her site. She always reads my stuff. She had a recent post about Lermontov:




Of course, I had heard of Lermontov but knew very little about him, and still do (know little).

I will get back to Sorokin soon.

You might like this post of mine:




I became engrossed in Tolstoy in my mid-twenties. I read his major novels pretty much in a row. When I read the passage about spring at the opening of Воскресение [Resurrection], it made a powerful impression on me. Around that time, I also got into Chekhov, briefly — but, again, I found his works unforgettable.**

All of this was in English translation.

The thing about the passage about spring (Tolstoy’s) that impresses me greatly is how Tolstoy is the great realist, descriptive novelist — nothing is fanciful — “All is true,” as Balzac said at the beginning of one of his most famous novels novels, Père Goriot — yet there is always a weighty level of deep philosophical meaning.

Herman Melville comes closest to achieving this among the great American writers.


** Especially, in my case, a lesser known Chekhov work:  Остров Сахалин (translated as The Island: A Journey to Sakhalin); not the most artistic of Chekhov’s works, but I found it very powerful.







Dear Roger,


Elisabeth has a wonderful website. Her post about Lermontov is great. I knew about Lermontov’s Scottish roots, but she told about it so interestingly and beautifully. I’m going to the North Caucasus in the summer, just in those places that are associated with the biography of Lermontov and his death. There are very beautiful museums and monuments there. I’ll send you photos.

I also love Leo Tolstoy and believe that at every age, at different stages of life, people discover new content in his works. He is a child of his own time and at the same time timeless. That makes him great.







Tolstoy is the best novelist ever! Competitors? I would say Herman Melville (one great book), Victor Hugo (same), Charles Dickens. And, yes, Tolstoy is timeless.

P.S. The House by the Dvina by Eugenie Fraser is an interesting book. I bought it in London during a trip overseas.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   March 7, 2021; updated March 10


traveling from Boston to New York in 1842; a Charles Dickens letter



In the 1970’s, when I was living in New York City, I frequently took the train from New York to Boston to visit my family in Massachusetts.

Around 1972, a one way ticket cost $12.00. The price was lowered to $9.90 to encourage more travel. Trains were not in fashion then.

The train meandered slowly, passing through some parts of Connecticut with beautiful coastal scenery. The trip took five hours.

Compare (below) the same trip (in reverse) which Charles Dickens took in 1842, except that, besides train travel between cities (there were trains even back then), there were steamboats and detours.

Dickens left Boston on February 5, 1842, and arrived in New York City on February 12, a trip of seven days. He was traveling with his wife, Catherine Thomson (Hogarth) Dickens.






We left Boston on the fifth, and went away with the governor of the city to stay till Monday [February 7] at his house at Worcester [Massachusetts]. … The village of Worcester is one of the prettiest in New England. …. On Monday morning at nine o’clock we started again by railroad and went on to Springfield [Massachusetts], where a deputation of two were waiting, and everything was in readiness that the utmost attention could suggest. Owing to the mildness of the weather, the Connecticut river was “open,” videlicet not frozen, and they had a steamboat ready to carry us on to Hartford [Connecticut]; thus saving a land-journey of only twenty-five miles, but on such roads at this time of year that it takes nearly twelve hours to accomplish! The boat was very small, the river full of floating blocks of ice, and the depth where we went (to avoid the ice and the current) not more than a few inches. After two hours and a half of this queer travelling we got to Hartford. There, there was quite an English inn [The City Hotel in Hartford]; except in respect of the bed-rooms, which are always uncomfortable … We remained in this town until the eleventh [Friday, February 11]: holding a formal levee every day for two hours, and receiving on each from two hundred to three hundred people. At five o’clock on the afternoon of the eleventh, we set off (still by railroad) for Newhaven [i.e., New Haven, Connecticut]. which we reached about eight o’clock. The moment we had had tea, we were forced to open another levee for the students and professors of the college [Yale] (the largest in the States), and the townspeople. I suppose we shook hands, before going to bed, with considerably more than five hundred people; and I stood, as a matter of course, the whole time. …

Now, the deputation of two had come on with us from Hartford; and at New­haven there was another committee; and the immense fatigue and worry of all this, no words can exaggerate. We had been in the morning over jails and deaf and dumb asylums; had stopped on the journey at a place called Wallingford [Connecticut], where a whole town had turned out to see me, and to gratify whose curiosity the train stopped expressly; had had a day of great excitement and exertion on the Thursday (this being Friday); and were inexpressibly worn out. And when at last we got to bed and were “going” to fall asleep, the choristers of the college turned out in a body, under the window, and serenaded us! We had had, by the bye, another serenade at Hartford, from a Mr. [Isaac Hull] Adams (a nephew of John Quincey Adams) and a German friend. They were most beautiful singers: and when they began, in the dead of the night, in a long, musical, echoing passage outside our chamber door; singing, in low voices to guitars, about home and absent friends and other topics that they knew would interest us; we were more moved than I can tell you. …

The Newhaven serenade was not so good; though there were a great many voices, and a “reg’lar” band. It hadn’t the heart of the other. Before it was six hours old, we were dressing with might and main, and making ready for our departure: it being a drive of twenty minutes to the steamboat, and the hour of sailing nine o’clock. After a hasty breakfast we started off; and after another levee on the deck (actually on the deck), and “three times three for Dickens,” moved towards New York.

I was delighted to find on board a Mr. [Cornelius Conway] Felton whom I had known at Boston. He is the Greek professor at Cambridge, and was going on to the ball* and dinner. … We drank all the porter on board, ate all the cold pork and cheese, and were very merry indeed. …

About half past 2 [on February 12], we arrived here [New York].** In half an hour more, we reached this hotel [the Carlton Hotel on Broadway], where a very splendid suite of rooms was prepared for us; and where everything is very comfortable, and no doubt (as at Boston) enormously dear.


— Charles Dickens, letter to John Foster, February 17, 1842, IN The Letters of Charles Dickens, The Pilgrim Edition, Volume Three: 1842-1843, edited by Madeline House, Graham Storey, and Kathleen Tillotson; associate editor, Noel C. Peryton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974), pp. 67-70

*The Boz Ball, held on February 14, 1842, in Dickens’s honor, at the Park Theatre in New York City. Boz was a nickname Dickens had become known by — he employed it as a pseudonym in his early years as a writer.

**The final leg of Dickens’s journey was on the packet New York from New Haven, which docked at South Street in lower Manhattan. Dickens would have then traveled uptown to his hotel by stagecoach. The hotel charge was two dollars a night.



— posted by Roger W. Smith

   December 2019

Roger W. Smith, “my writing; a response to my critics”




‘my writing; a response to my critics



Downloadable Word document of this post is above.




In this post, I would like to consider and respond to criticisms of my writing which have been made by readers of this blog from time to time. In responding, I have used my own writing and writing of acknowledged masters as a basis for drawing conclusions about matters such as verbosity, big words versus little ones, simplicity versus complexity in style, supposed pomposity, when one is entitled to have an opinion, and so on. By explaining what I feel are legitimate reasons for writing the way I do, I hope to be able to shed some light on the writing process.






You have stated, “concision is a desideratum in writing.” Sounds pompous. Using “desideratum” is not as clear as saying “concision is essential to good writing.”

I stated, responding to one my critics, “Concision is a desideratum in writing.” The critic pounced on this. He said it sounded pompous and that it would have been clearer if I had said, “Concision is essential to good writing.”

English happens to have lots of fancy Latinate words. There is nothing wrong with using them when appropriate. Connotation as well as tone is important here. Desideratum and essential mean essentially the same thing, but they are not exact equivalents. The connotation I was striving for was embodied by the choice of a word meaning something that a writer seeks to achieve, a sort of authorial ideal.

Saying that concision is essential would not convey my meaning as well, since I happen to feel that while concision usually is desirable, it is not always essential. This point has been made by composition theorists such as Brooks Landon, a professor of English at the University of Iowa, who has stated, in a series of lectures for the Great Courses series, that “in many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.” In view of this, I am wary of saying, as a general proposition, that concision is essential to, is a sine qua non of, good writing.

Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. My critic, in his eagerness to “lay down the law” in Strunk and White fashion, did not perceive that there may have been a good reason for my using the “fancy” word desideratum.

In a novel by Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience, the term “a porcine martyr” is used to describe a drowned pig. A barely educated woman character has been eagerly telling a story in which a pig which her husband was trying to get out of its pen was swept away by a deluge and drowned. Alcott’s use of the fancy phase is humorous — ironic; her wry authorial voice contrasts with the speaker’s raw narrative tone. The irony is clever and appropriate.






Sometimes, your writing appears to be pompous and self centered. The pomposity comes through in the frequent use of highfalutin outmoded phrases, such as “as it were” (usually adding no apparent value to whatever you are saying); or “may I interject a comment here?” (as if the reader were in a conversation with you).

The critic objected to my writing, in one of my posts, “may I interject a comment here?” He felt as if I were guilty of being supercilious. What the critic fails to appreciate is that I want the reader to get the feeling that we are having a conversation.

A conversational tone and the use of “highfalutin outmoded phrases” do not necessarily amount to pomposity. And, a conversational tone is often (depending upon context) desirable.

The critic thinks that by affecting to directly address the reader I am guilty of pomposity or conceit. It is conceit of a sort, a rhetorical conceit — or, more precisely, a rhetorical device.

The best writers often adopt a conversational tone. This is to be desired and is not an indication of affectation or pomposity.

Consider the following complex sentence of mine, from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.

Note the deliberately conversational tone.

Similarly, in my post “I am not the center of the universe,” I address the reader directly, in the second person, as follows:

Did you ever have an experience in the course of life, at a particular moment on a particular day — something seemingly inconsequential — that permanently altered your fundamental outlook on life?

The intent is to draw the reader in, to suggest that perhaps the reader may have had a similar experience, which would help or encourage him or her to “get” the piece.

One has the feeling, with the best writers, that you, the reader, are being privileged by having a conversation with the writer, or, to put it another way, that the writer is conversing with you, his or her interlocutor. There is no off-putting pretense or stuffiness. And, the writing seems to flow naturally the same way a good conversationalist or raconteur can keep his or her listener riveted. It is not surprising that the best writers have often been good conversationalists and, plain and simple, good communicators. “Good writing invites interaction,” in the words of Professor Dorsey Armstrong in her series of lectures “Analysis and Critique: How to Engage and Write about Anything” for The Great Courses.

I want the reader to be able to feel that he can share and follow my thoughts and thinking. So, when I say “may I interject a comment here?” or “did you ever have such an experience?” I am inviting the reader in, so to speak, drawing him or her in, as Walt Whitman did when he would write, for example, in his poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (addressing the reader in the second person), “Closer yet I approach you.”

And, in his great poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman says:

The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,
I tuck’d my trowser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.

Again using the second person and increasing the power and impact of the poem and its message by addressing the reader directly, as if it would have been possible for the reader to share the experience with him. He invites readers, current and future, to join him, figuratively, using a rhetorical conceit by which he fuses his personality and enthusiasm with an imagined reader’s.

Talking to your audience is not equivalent to talking down to them.

The following is an example of Charles Dickens addressing the reader directly in a fashion which suggests that he and the reader are having an actual exchange:

It was on a fine Sunday morning in the Midsummer time and weather of eighteen hundred and forty-four, my good friend, when—don’t be alarmed; not when two travellers might have been observed slowly making their way over that picturesque and broken ground by which the first chapter of a ‘Middle Aged’ novel [by which reference Dickens meant to evoke the typical opening of a historical novel in the manner of one by Sir Walter Scott, in which the narrator/observer would be seen viewing things from a distant vantage point with respect to space and time] is usually attained; but when an English travelling-carriage of considerable proportions, fresh from the shady halls of the Pantechnicon near Belgrave-square, London, was observed (by a very small French soldier; for I saw him look at it) to issue from the gate of the Hotel Meurice in the Rue Rivoli at Paris [by which assertions Dickens styles himself as a narrator observing things, as a journalist would be, at close range]. — Charles Dickens, The Daily News (London), January 21, 1844

If Dickens can do it, why can’t I?

Here is an example from the opening paragraph of George Gissing’s novel Workers in the Dawn:

Walk with me, oh reader, into Whitecross Street. It is Saturday night, the market-night of the poor; also the one evening in the week in which the weary toilers of our great city can devote to ease and recreation the sweet assurance of a morrow unenslaved. Let us see how they spend this ‘Truce of God;’ our opportunities will be of the best in the district we are entering.

Note how Gissing deliberately, at the very beginning, adopts a conversational tone, addresses the reader directly, which works and draws the reader in.






“By Jove” is an archaic word no other writer has used in a hundred years. You used it in the USA is the greatest country piece. The word “indeed” would have sufficed.

I used the expression “by Jove” in my post “the greatest country in the world.” The critic suggests the use of a more common word/expression and implies that I am putting on airs.

The word “indeed” could have sufficed, along with many other choices. The critic missed the point that words are used in context and must be taken that way. “By Jove” was used playfully by me for effect, not pompously. If you read the blog, you can see that I was almost making fun of myself, the jejune fellow with a new idea striking like a thunderbolt. In this context, “By Jove” is actually a better choice than the more neutral word indeed.

This is consistent with thoughts about writing that the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham expresses in his Style: An Anti-Textbook:

American pragmatism insists that words are for use, not enjoyment. … Surely we ought to move in the opposite direction from such moral earnestness, stressing not words as duty but words as play. …. “Speech in its essence,” Kenneth Burke tells us, “is not neutral”; it is full of feeling, attitude, emotion. Drain this out in the name of useful unmistakability and you end up with composition class prose, a dismal grayness.






Why not “indigenous” instead of “autochthonous” in the Dreiser post? The two words mean essentially the same thing and your readers would have more easily gotten your point with the more commonly used word.

To the critic’s “Why not,” I would reply: Why?

Words should be used carefully, of course, and more often than not, the plainest word is the best. But not always. The use of arcane or highfalutin words is not necessarily a sin.

Big words and archaic ones should not, a priori, be avoided. It depends on the context. An example would be my use of autochthonous to describe Theodore Dreiser as a writer in my post “On Reading Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy.” It’s the perfect word. It takes years of reading and of looking up words to know and be able when appropriate to use such words.

Words are not equivalent and cannot be substituted, as is the case with substitution in an equation, as the critic seems to think. This was made clear by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four. In the novel, a language, Newspeak, is invented that is intended to replace English, getting rid of supposedly superfluous words, so that a word such as bad would be replaced with ungood and, “if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ [the character Syme tells Winston Smith] what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning, or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still.”

Similarly, consider a phrase from the New Testament (Matthew 7), as translated in The New English Bible: “do not throw your pearls to the pigs.” Do you think this is an improvement on The King James Version: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine”? I don’t. Yes, pigs and swine mean the same thing, and pigs is the commonly used word nowadays. But, the antiquated word sounds better, whereas the commonly used one makes the passage sound flat to the ear, if not idiotic, as if a rapper were saying it.

What my critic does not fully understand is that words are not only fun to use; they have an extra-literal dimension. It is not as if your journeyman writer is a sort of processor of words working on an assembly line, with the words being components or parts lined up on a “vocabulary conveyor belt” from which one selects words needed and slots them into the constituent piece (e.g., a sentence) in assembling the writer’s end product, a piece of prose. With the choice of words being dictated by some theoretical framework, so that the one chosen must be not only the closest fit conceptually but the most readily available. So that the writer selects the common word original because it is in the inventory, but is not allowed to deviate from “production constraints” and choose a less common word such as autochthonous.

The reality with the best writers, as they actually write, is that it is not a case of interchangeable parts. The writer should actually enjoy and exercise great freedom in choosing words. My ear told me that autochthonous was the right word. It is the one that came to me, and it fit perfectly.







Frequently, the phrases you use make you sound pompous. A good example is the ironic “sans redundancy” comment in one of your emails. Is there something wrong with the word “without”?

What I said, in response to a critic’s remarks about supposed pomposity in my writing, was that I promised henceforth to write “sans pedantry.” The French word sans (without) was used playfully by me. Using another word than the usual one unexpectedly can sometimes enliven a piece, amuse the reader, perhaps help to keep him or her awake, and sometimes help to emphasize or make a point. The critic was tone deaf and completely missed the irony.

Note that great writers sometimes use foreign words for no apparent reason. For example, there is a famous soliloquy in Shakespeare’s As You Like It (Act II, Scene 7), where Shakespeare describes old age, the final stage of life, as “second childishness, and mere oblivion,— / Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It has been said that Shakespeare himself wasn’t perfect. Was he guilty of showing off when he used sans?

Walt Whitman used foreign words for novelty and effect. For example, in the line “Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs [French for sidewalks; italics added]!” in his poem “Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun.” And, in “Song of Myself,” Whitman wrote: “no dainty dolce affetuoso I,” using Italian terms. Should he be accused of affectation? After all, he could have said: “I am not an effete snob.”

As James Perrin Warren points out in his book Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment, Whitman in his poems used the following foreign borrowings: kosmos, debouch, Americanos, Libertad, programme, philosoph, finale, evangel-poem, en-masse, omnes, camerado, ma femme, ensemble, adobie, sierras, dolce affettuoso, vistas, and arriere.

And in Whitman’s poem “Song of the Open Road,” we find the line: Allons! whoever you are come travel with me! [italics added].

Here’s an example of me doing the same thing in one of my posts, “writers: walkers”: “I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.” And then said, “Por favor, read on!” I used the Spanish por favor (meaning please, or kindly) for no special reason other than variety. And, perhaps, to stimulate the reader, to wake him or her up!






Your writing is laden with filler phrases such as “so to speak,” “say,” “as it were,” etc.

Qualifiers are not necessarily bad. They actually, quite often, serve a purpose, syntactically speaking.

As it were is neither pompous nor superfluous. It is a qualifier that conveys the idea that an assertion should be taken in a certain sense — not exactly or precisely — as, for example, in the clause they discussed areas that had been, as it were, pushed aside in previous discussions.

As it were means in a way, or in a certain sense, but not literally. It is used by a writer who wants to be less precise. (So to speak is an equivalent phrase which I also often use.) A writer uses as it were to make what is being stated less definite, to avoid absurdities in meaning if the statement were taken literally. An example would be the following statement by Henry David Thoreau in Walden: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a little world all to myself.”

As it were is not a highfalutin, outmoded, or superfluous phrase.

Here are a few more examples of acknowledged masters using as it were:

“… I confess I once or twice fancied that I caught glimpses of bliss round the corner, as it were; but, before I could decide, the glimpses vanished, and I was very sure I was conceited coxcomb to think it for a moment.” — Louisa May Alcott, Work: A Story of Experience

“The things he invented were as real to [Balzac] as the things he knew, and his actual experience is overlaid with a thousand thicknesses, as it were, of imaginary experience.” — Henry James, “Honoré de Balzac,” in The Art of Criticism: Henry James on the Theory and the Practice of Fiction

“In general, one’s memories of any period must necessarily weaken as one moves away from it. One is constantly learning new facts, and old ones have to drop out to make way for them. … But it can also happen that one’s memories grow sharper after a long lapse of time, because one is looking at the past with fresh eyes and can isolate and, as it were, notice facts which previously existed undifferentiated among a mass of others.” — George Orwell, “Such, Such Were the Joys …”

“The most entertaining of these numbers have always been burlesques of bourgeois musical taste, which were the more charming for their being purged, as it were, of bitterness by the optimism of the final patriotic and military passages.” — Virgil Thomson, “Shostakovich’s Seventh,” New York Herald Tribune, October 18, 1942

And, in a book review of mine, published in The New York Sun, I wrote: “In true Johnsonian spirit, [the author] has mined every conceivable scrap of information about [the subject of his biography], bringing him as it were back to life.” Should my editor have blue-penciled “as it were”?

So to speak is another qualifier that I often use which the critics of my writing object to, finding it to be another filler phrase that amounts to padding. An example would be my post “I am not the center of the universe,” in which I wrote: “One should not assume that people one meets in public, so to speak, are that interested in or focused upon you.”

The same observations apply here.

Similarly, in a blog post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?” I used the often overused filler phrase the fact that:

I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen.

The fact that seems to work here, notwithstanding the fact that (!) Strunk and White and my high school English teacher would not have hesitated to edit it out. It acts as a sort of “divider.” Sometimes the writer and reader need to be able to pause and “catch their breath.”






My guess is that a high school English teacher would do a good bit of editing on some of your longer posts. Some of your posts could be shortened without losing context or texture or meaning.

I would tend to respond to this comment by saying: Shrinkage may or may not be desirable. It depends.

In his series of lectures for the Great Courses, “Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft,” Professor Brooks Landon says:

Unless the situation demands otherwise, sentences that convey more information are more effective than those that convey less. Sentences that anticipate and answer more questions that a reader might have are better than those that answer fewer questions. Sentences that bring ideas and images into clearer focus by adding more useful details and explanation are generally more effective than those that are less clearly focused and that offer fewer details. In practice, this means that I generally value longer sentences over shorter sentences as long as the length accomplishes some of those important goals I’ve just mentioned.

Many of us have been exposed over the years to the idea that effective writing is simple and direct, a term generally associated with Strunk and White’s legendary guidebook The Elements of Style, or we remember some of the slogans from that book, such as, “Omit needless words.” … [Stunk concluded] with this all important qualifier: “This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.” [italics added] … Strunk’s concern is specifically with words and phrases that do not add propositions to the sentence [e.g., “owing to the fact that” instead of “since”].” …

[S]imple does not mean simplistic. Direct does not mean short. And, simple and direct does not mean that we should all write like Ernest Hemingway in a hurry. “Omit needless words” is great advice, but not when it gets reduced to the belief that shorter is always better, or that “needless” means any word without which the sentence can still make sense. …

Strunk and White do a great job of reminding us to avoid needless words, but they don’t begin to consider all of the ways in which more words might actually be needed. … [I]n many cases, we need to add words to improve our writing … rather than trying to pare our writing down to some kind of telegraphic minimum.

There is a pleasure, as the critic Kenneth Burke notes in his book on rhetoric Counter-Statement, in writing which “in all its smallest details … bristles with disclosures, contrasts, restatements with a difference, ellipses, images, aphorism, volume, sound-values, in short all that complex wealth of minutiae which in their line-for-line aspect we call style and in their broader outlines we call form.” What Charles Dickens calls “the indispensable necessity of varying the manner of narration as much as possible, and investing it with some little grace or other.” In other words, rich writing, showing a pleasure taken in using words. The opposite of a corporate memo studded with bullet points.

The goal of Newspeak, the language of the totalitarian state in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was yo get rid of words. Doing so has the effect, as another rhetorician, Richard A. Lanham notes in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, of paring away not only words, but paring away “all sense of verbal play.” Paraphrasing the famous slogans of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have a couple of my own:

We don’t all have to write like Hemingway.

Complexity of syntax is not forbidden.

The key is not amount of words or, necessarily, syntax. It’s clarity.

Consider the following sentence of mine from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

There is something edifying, would you not agree? (it’s a basic human need), about having one’s personhood recognized and about being so acknowledged in a business establishment.

Or the following sentence from a post of mine about Israel, “a better, stronger country?”:

I have — politically naive as I am — been harboring a thought. As follows: That if Israel absorbed the population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and became a true democracy, notwithstanding the fact that Arabs would predominate population-wise, something miraculous would happen. (I have a dream, one might say.)

From my recent post “Beethoven; nature,” about music and poetry devoted to pastoral themes:

With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution.

The last sentence may or may not be too long. Perhaps it could have been broken up, simplified. But, as Professor Brooks Landon says, we don’t have to always write (or ever write!) like Hemingway. Sometimes, long, convoluted sentences can be intriguing to read — just plain fun.

And from a published book review of mine:

[The author] has made excellent and creative use of miscellaneous source materials and personal reminiscences (O’Connor was notoriously averse to letter writing) to unearth details about O’Connor’s student days at Notre Dame, his early career as a radio announcer and writer, his Boston years and haunts, his newspaper experience (which included a stint as a television critic for the Boston Herald), the circle of literary friends he made at The Atlantic Monthly and Wellfleet on Cape Cod (where he spent his summers), and the writing process as O’Connor practiced and experienced it.

A long, convoluted sentence or two, but I think they work. And skillfully pack a lot of information, embed it, within a sentence.

Which raises the question: Does a long sentence necessarily mean convoluted syntax? It depends what you mean by convoluted. The above sentences of mine are convoluted, but they are clear. You will find this in the prose of many good writers whose sentences are dense and tightly packed with meaning — not diffuse, they are tightly constructed — but dense and complex. (See appendix.) Complexity in syntax can challenge and (yes) delight the reader. The good writer can do this without sacrificing clarity or becoming incomprehensible. The writing should be clear, not opaque. Or, as the composition theorist Richard A. Lanham puts it, clarity in writing means simple, not plain.

And here’s a passage from a book I have been reading:

The greatest defect in the SEASONS, respects the cast of its moral sentiments; but in this respect it is not the less adapted to the more numerous class of the readers of poetry. The Religion of the Seasons, is of that general kind which Nature’s self might teach to those who had no knowledge of the God of Revelation. It is a lofty and complacent sentiment, which plays upon the feelings like the ineffable power of solemn harmony, but has no reference to the quality of our belief, to the dispositions of the heart, or to the habitual tendency of the character; still less does it involve a devotional recognition of the revealed character of the Divine Being. But on this very account “the Seasons” was adapted to please at the time that Pope ruled the republic of taste, and to the same cause the poem is still indebted for at least some of its admirers. — John Sharpe, “Critical Observations”; introduction to James Thomson’s The Seasons, 1816 edition

Writing such as this consists of passages that are dense and packed with meaning. Should one require of such passages that they be written in telegraphic or perhaps even outline form, so that no one is confused and everyone gets the point or points?

George Orwell said, “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.” He achieves this. But does this mean that prose must be vitiated by overcutting?






Your writing can be needlessly redundant.

Repetition can be effective. As Richard A. Lanham has observed, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, “People, even literary people, … repeat things for the pleasure of repetition.” And, I would add, for emphasis.

In my post “thinking “too energetically,” I wrote as follows, about the writings of Ralph Colp Jr.:

They are all superb — superbly researched, crafted, and written. These include articles of his such as “Bitter Christmas: A Biographical Inquiry into the Life of Bartolomeo Vanzetti” and “Sacco’s Struggle for Sanity,” both published in The Nation.

Note the intentional, deliberate repetition by me of superb.

The following is a passage from my post “how to FAIL in business (small businesses, that is)”:

Some people have the human touch — in fact many, if not most, do, I would be inclined to say. One may not realize it, but I have found from personal experience that many service people in lower paying jobs actually enjoy being able to deliver and are eager for human interaction and reciprocity. I have found that, if I make it a point to ask how they are doing, or to thank them for the service — as I have been doing more frequently lately — they brighten up and let you know that they appreciate being appreciated and acknowledged. So, I will ask, for example, at the counter of a store or a restaurant, “how is your day going” or “how was your weekend?” And, if I can find something nice to say, truthfully, about good service, I try to do so. There is something very pleasant about being recognized at a business establishment.

I stopped briefly in a local restaurant the other day to purchase a takeout item. Two persons served me, one with respect to the item purchased and the other one being the cashier. They were all smiles and said, we haven’t seen you in a couple of days! Trivial perhaps and not uncommon, but it is remarkable how good such interactions can make one feel. Good business practice for them, but it’s more than that. It’s the pleasure of being able to share one’s common humanity with casual acquaintances, such as in this case. It helps to decrease feelings of alienation and the sense of powerlessness and insignificance that one often experiences when dealing with the business world, its advertisements, and its products.

The “good” businesspeople enjoy helping others, serving them, being able to ameliorate things for you while engaging in a business transaction. Knowing that they made you happy and gratified themselves at being thanked and appreciated. Feeling that being able to benefit mankind makes their life worthwhile. Showing their humanity.

There is repetition/redundancy here. I make a point that is more or less obvious, then make it again in different words, and restate it several times. To me this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because, in what was the peroration of the piece, I wanted to drive the key point home. Think of a concluding passage in a symphony, where the main theme comes back and often gets hammered home, so to speak.

Here is example of Walt Whitman using repetition:

I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way between me and the rest like curtains. I will have nothing hang in the way, not the richest curtains. — Preface to Leaves of Grass

He uses repetition/restatement for emphasis.






There is nothing wrong with arguing strongly to make one’s point, or using irony or highly critical language. But when it is embedded in a spirit of “I am the true intellectual and you (or they) are not” and when your conclusions are presented as definitive facts rather than opinions, and when your posts comment on how much smarter you are than the academics or editors you abhor, you come across as arrogant and positive.

When you are talking about others’ opinions in your blog, your strong feelings often come across as definitive conclusions rather than strong opinions, especially when you are talking about editors at the NY Times or academics with advanced agrees or other cohorts for whom you seem to have a special loathing. And sometimes you sound pompous and arrogant.

Opinions are just that. To express an opinion does not amount to arrogance. Even when one is being a contrarian.

Some people, it seems, don’t want or don’t feel that a writer is entitled to have an opinion about anything, with the possible exception of a cardiologist writing a book on heart disease, a psychiatrist a monograph on schizophrenia, or a geology professor writing a treatise on rock formations.

And that, if you should be so presumptuous or rash as to have one, you should begin (they seem to be saying) — wasting words and probably guaranteeing that few will read the piece — with a totally unnecessary introduction explaining (in the manner of someone writing advertising copy for a pharmaceutical company) that these are merely your personal thoughts which, you hope, will not unduly disturb anyone who happens to disagree and that you realize that some, if not many, readers will disagree, which (you hope they will realize that you realize) they are entitled to.

I let my thoughts take me where they may.

Consider George Orwell, whose essays are assigned to freshman composition students as models of excellence and clarity in writing, of burnished prose. Without fail, a strong opinion comes through, not only in Orwell’s essays and in short pieces such as his “Such, such were the joys …,” where he lays bare the injustices of the English boarding school system of the 1930’s, but also in novels such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Keep the Aspidistra Flying, where (in the latter work) he calls attention to the pettiness of middle class sensibilities. Should Orwell have begun with a prologue asking the reader to excuse him should the latter be inclined to disagree or (heaven forbid) take offense? Didn’t our English teachers instruct us not to keep saying “In my opinion,” “I think,” etc. over and over again, since it should be evident to the reader that you are presenting your opinion.






Sometimes, it sounds as if you consider yourself to be more knowledgeable than most people. Nothing wrong with having opinions, but sometimes it does sound like you are boastful or consider yourself intellectually a notch above “most people.” You appear to be talking down to your reader. As if you are the scholar expert and your reader should feel privileged to be learning from on high.

Sometimes, your style gives the impression that you are trying to impress your reader with your extensive vocabulary and depth and range of reading. This can get in the way of the point you are trying to make.

There are several criticisms (directed at my writing) embedded in these comments: bosting or showing off about what (allegedly) I regard as my superior knowledge, talking down to the reader, trying to impress the reader with my vocabulary and reading/scholarship. I will take them up all of a piece, so to speak.

Mustering all the learning one can is desirable.

I do, of course, draw, as is entirely appropriate, upon all the learning and knowledge I can muster. Would one counsel me to do otherwise? But, when I am unsure about something, or cannot claim to know it with certainty, I will say so. I do not pretend to experience or knowledge I don’t have. I make every effort I can to draw upon my experience, my reading, my learning (such as it is) and scholarship to flesh out and elucidate what I am saying, and to provide corroboration for my views.

I do think that when someone writes about something, such as literature and music, one should exhibit a modicum of intelligence and prior knowledge, as well as discernment, and a more than superficial knowledge. The writer should not just leap in midstream and go off half cocked.

Be that is it may, I have opinions that I am eager to share in the case of, say, music, one area of aesthetics I enjoy writing about, and even more so about literature, about which I know the most. I do not let the fact that I am not a musicologist or English professor stop me. Because, intuitively, or experientially, I may possibly have seen or perceived more than them.

What about polemical pieces? I have written quite a few, on everything from the criminal justice system to (occasionally) politics.

A polemic is an essay where you argue strongly for something, often an unpopular position rather than the majority one. It should be clear to any reader that I am expressing my opinions. All good writing arises from personal experience or reflection, and writing without a point of view is bland and uninteresting. I do quite often find that I strongly disagree with the opinions of many persons who are regarded as authorities or who hold positions in academia and journalism. What’s wrong with that? It’s called thinking for oneself.

Regarding the charge of trying to impress the reader with my extensive vocabulary, I can only speak from my own experience, as a reader. Many of the best essay writers in the English language use big, recherché words where called for, as well complex grammatical constructions, and write long, convoluted sentences. And yet, they are admirably clear. They take great pains to be so. There’s nothing wrong with challenging the reader. I love it when writers such as Samuel Johnson (to mention one of my favorite writers) challenge me and increase my stockpile of words. It seems to me that the only criterion to be taken into account is the following: Was the word used correctly; does it fit?

Pomposity is not true of me in person or of my writing. A better word for what my critic describes as arrogance might be invective. Invective used where appropriate. In certain posts, that is. I will use irony and invective to try and make a point when I feel that they are appropriate.

Some of my posts, such as my posts about Janette Sadik-Kahn’s plan to remake Fifth Avenue, about the “cultural misappropriation” movement, about the protest against the Emmet Till painting at the Whitney Museum of Art, about the call for destruction of politically incorrect statues and monuments, and about the Anthony Weiner prison sentence, are polemical. To make one’s point — arguing often with fierce “winds” of contrary, often entrenched opinion blowing back at oneself — irony and invective are not inappropriate. Think of Swift writing “A Modest Proposal,” Tom Paine “Common Sense,” or Zola “J’accuse!” The thing is not to be mealy mouthed. A good writer has to say something, assert it.

I do often find myself strongly in disagreement with politicians, policy wonks, social engineers, judges, prosecutors, etc. Writing under such conditions should have an edge. A writer has to be clear and make points forcefully; also, it is hoped that one’s writing will stimulate and provoke the reader to perhaps look at things with a fresh eye.






You can be quite a good writer and have a decent memory, but your writing can be full of braggadocio and totally self-obsessed.

Self-centered (or, as the critic says, “self-obsessed”)? Because I use my own my own experience as fodder for my writings? A writer should not be afraid to write about himself or herself. Honestly. Braggadocio should not be a concern, as long as the writer is honest.

Any writer or writing instructor will tell the beginner: write about what you know best, beginning with your own experience. With yourself.

For some reason, the writings of Theodore Dreiser come to mind. Almost all of his writing drew, directly or indirectly, on his own personal experience.

Take his two autobiographical works, Newspaper Days (originally published as A Book About Myself) and Dawn. The books are notable for their candor, honesty.

For example, Dreiser talks about how he was eager to get a reporter job with a Chicago newspaper, with no experience — he had practically no hope. Then, he was given one or two spot assignments with one of the lesser daily papers and achieved a scoop that earned him immediate recognition. It makes a good story. Dreiser also tells about his personal insecurities and mistakes he made, such as quitting a reporter job with a respected newspaper in disgrace because he faked a theater review. The story about the scoop — it was about the 1892 presidential election — is well worth telling since it shows how Dreiser got a foot in the door as a reporter, leading to a short lived journalism career, and to his establishing a vocation as a writer.

In my autobiographical post “My Boyhood” and other posts of mine which are wholly or in part autobiographical, I discuss successes as well as failures. Personal successes and failures. Honestly. Showing my strengths, some of them noteworthy, as well as weaknesses. Almost all of them make good stories, and that’s what’s important. Examples: an exam I took in a high school history class in which I answered a question about Charles Dickens that no one else could, impressing the teacher; the time I did something similar in a college Spanish course; how I gave a lecture on Tolstoy in Russian from memory in a course at New York University when the professor thought I couldn’t do it and that I couldn’t have written the essay myself. (I noted, in my post: “To be honest, I myself was surprised that I could do it.”) I also discuss, in autobiographical posts and anecdotal material about myself, all kinds of mishaps and miscues in my early years. Embarrassing myself. Showing marked weaknesses in certain areas requiring aptitude or skill. And so on.

In the posts where I talk about my accomplishments and where I came of well, it is usually because there is a narrative interest to them. They reveal something about me, but they also make for good reading, since they are good stories.






I have a preference for the writing style of the essays of E. B. White over the essays of Johnson or Addison or Steele. Their essays are well worth reading and every bit as valuable as White’s but their style is clearly dated.  [A middlebrow comment from someone whose exposure to English letters did not go much beyond college English courses.] Sometimes your style sounds dated.

E. B. White is no Joseph Addison or Samuel Johnson. Samuel Johnson outdated? One can’t use Addison or Johnson as examples because they’re out of date? Or Edmund Burke?

I am not a priori inclined to give much weight to the views of a “critic” who prefers E. B. White to Samuel Johnson.

The works of great writers don’t become obsolete, and they are the best models. To improve my writing, at this advanced stage in my writing, I find it much more worthwhile to read Samuel Johnson’s essays. Or those of other great prose writers, such as Burke, Hazlitt, Emerson, or Thoreau.

To repeat, my maxim is study the greats.  You can’t go wrong. You can’t do any better.

Why would anyone advise elsewise?





A final thought. We all make judgments about literary and artistic productions, and have opinions about writers, ranging from whether we liked a novel to whether we agree with a magazine or op-ed piece or not, and how well it was written.

But, it’s probably not a good idea, when it comes to an avocation, to try to advise someone for whom the same activity is a vocation how to do it.

Many of the criticisms of my writing (e.g., those quoted above) come from readers of it who, because they majored in English or have read good books, think that makes them experts on writing. They may write well themselves. But such knowledge is, in a sense, passive, by which I mean to say that an active, professional writer will probably have a deeper knowledge of writing from the point of view of a practitioner; and of everything it involves, from style and usage to fine points of punctuation and grammar. I get communiques from English majors who write very well and are highly literate, but in which they make a mistake in usage or punctuation that a professional writer has been trained or has learned from experience (an editor looking over their shoulder, a publisher’s stylebook) to avoid. Some of their comments reveal actual ignorance, despite their educational background, of grammar and style.


— Roger W. Smith

    March 2018; updated October 2020








Appendix: Examples


The following are some examples of writing in which the writer uses long sentences and/or complex syntax that challenges the reader without being obscure.

He was chosen again this Parliament to serve in the same place, and in the beginning of it declared himself very sharply and severely against those exorbitancies which had been most grievous to the State; for he was so rigid an observer of established laws and rules that he could not endure the least breach or deviation from them, and thought no mischief so intolerable as the presumption of ministers of state to break positive rules for reason of state, or judges to transgress known laws upon the title of conveniency or necessity; which made him so severe against the earl of Strafford and the lord Finch, contrary to his natural gentleness and temper: insomuch as they who did not know his composition to be as free from revenge as it was from pride, thought that the sharpness to the former might proceed from the memory of some unkindnesses, not without a mixture of injustice, from him towards his father.

— Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (begun in 1641; published 1702-1704)



Among the many inconsistencies which folly produces, or infirmity suffers, in the human mind, there has often been observed a manifest and striking contrariety between the life of an author and his writings; and Milton, in a letter to a learned stranger, by whom he had been visited, with great reason congratulates himself upon the consciousness of being found equal to his own character, and having preserved, in a private and familiar interview, that reputation which his works had procured him.

— Samuel Johnson, “The difference between an author’s writings and his conversation” (Rambler no. 14; May 5, 1750)


When Persia was governed by the descendants of Sefi, a race of princes whose wanton cruelty often stained their divan, their table, and their bed, with the blood of their favourites, there is a saying recorded of a young nobleman, that he never departed from the sultan’s presence without satisfying himself whether his head was still on his shoulders. The experience of every day might almost justify the scepticism of Rustan. Yet the fatal sword, suspended above him by a single thread, seems not to have disturbed the slumbers, or interrupted the tranquillity, of the Persian. The monarch’s frown, he well knew, could level him with the dust; but the stroke of lightning or apoplexy might be equally fatal; and it was the part of a wise man to forget the inevitable calamities of human life in the enjoyment of the fleeting hour.

— Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776)


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




a lover of humanity awash on a sea of words



Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, Chapter II:


Mr. Pickwick and his companions visit the towns Stroud, Rochester, Chatham, and Brompton:

“The principal productions of these towns,” says Mr. Pickwick, “appear to be soldiers, sailors, Jews, chalk, shrimps, officers, and dockyard men. The commodities chiefly exposed for sale in the public streets are marine stores, hard-bake,* apples, flat-fish, and oysters. The streets present a lively and animated appearance, occasioned chiefly by the conviviality of the military. It is truly delightful to a philanthropic** mind to see these gallant men staggering along under the influence of an overflow, both of animal and ardent spirits;*** more especially when we remember that the following them about, and jesting with them, affords a cheap and innocent amusement for the boy population. Nothing … can exceed their good humour.”

“The consumption of tobacco in these towns (continues Mr. Pickwick) must be very great; and the smell which pervades the streets must be exceedingly delicious to those who are extremely fond of smoking. A superficial traveller might object to the dirt which is their leading characteristic; but to those who view it as an indication of traffic and commercial prosperity, it is truly gratifying.”



* hard-bake — a sweetmeat of sugar or molasses and almonds

** philanthropic — meant sarcastically; read naïve

*** ardent spirits — most likely, gin






Charles Dickens:

a tremendous appetite for life

which he loves and never abhors

actual human life (vices included), free from meddlers’ eyes and hands

drunk on language

awash on a sea of words, flowing from the brain of a master storyteller and literary genius



posted by Roger W. Smith

   January 2018

writers: walkers



In a previous post of mine


“on walking (and exercise)”



I wrote that “walking, as is well known, is conducive to thinking and creativity, which is why so many writers and intellectuals have always been walkers.”

Por favor, read on!



— Roger W. Smith








Dickens was a man of abundant, restless energy. His chief exercise was walking, and his “daily constitutionals,” as he referred to his long walks, could extend as far as twenty to thirty miles each day. He once wrote, “My only comfort is, in Motion,” and told John Forster that “if I couldn’t walk fast and far, I should just explode and perish.” — gallery text, “Charles Dickens and the Spirit of Christmas,” exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum, New York, November 2017








I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least–and it is commonly more than that-–sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields, absolutely free from all worldly engagements. … When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them–as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon–I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

“Walking” (The Atlantic Monthly, June 1862)








“Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?”

“Song of the Open Road” (1856)


I too walked the streets of Manhattan Island, and
bathed in the waters around it,
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they
came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my
bed, they came upon me.

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” (1860)


My joys in the open air—my walks through the Mannahatta

“To My Soul” (1860)


I continually enjoy these streets, planned on such a generous scale, stretching far, without stop or turn, giving the eye vistas. I feel freer, larger in them. Not the squeezed limits of Boston, New-York, or even Philadelphia; but royal plenty and nature’s own bounty—American, prairie-like. It is worth writing a book about, this point alone. I often find it silently, curiously making up to me the absence of the ocean tumult of humanity I always enjoyed in New-York. Here, too, is largeness, in another more impalpable form; and I never walk Washington, day or night, without feeling its satisfaction.

In my walks I never cease finding new effects and pictures, and I believe it would continue so if I went rambling around here for fifty years.

Walt Whitman, Letter from Washington, New York Times, October 4, 1863


GIVE me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-
dazzling; ….
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers,
where I can walk undisturb’d; …
While yet incessantly asking, still I adhere to my city;
Day upon day, and year upon year, O city, walking
your streets, …
Give me faces and streets! give me these phantoms incessant and endless along the trottoirs! …
Give me such shows! give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give
me the sound of the trumpets and drums! …
Give me the shores and the wharves heavy-fringed
with the black ships! …
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions,
Manhattan streets, with their powerful throbs, with the
beating drums, ….
Manhattan crowds with their turbulent musical chorus
—with varied chorus and light of the sparkling
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.

“Give Me The Splendid Silent Sun” (1865)


NIGHT on the prairies;
The supper is over—the fire on the ground burns
The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets;
I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars,
which I think now I never realized before.

Leaves of Grass (1867)


My little dog is stretched out on the rug at full length, snoozing. He hardly lets me go a step without being close at my heels—follows me in my slow walks, & stops or turns just as I do.

letter from Whitman to his friend Pete Doyle, 26–27 March, 1874


SKIRTING the river road, (my languid forenoon walk, my rest,)

“The Dalliance of the Eagles” (1880)


I came down yesterday amid sousing rain & cloudy weather—but this forenoon it is sunshiny & delightful—I have just returned from a two hours ramble in the old woods—wintry & bare, & yet lots of holly & laurel—& I only wish I could send you some cedary branches thick with the china-blue little plums, so pretty amid the green tufts— … We had a flurry of snow last evening, & it looks wintry enough to-day, but the sun is out, & I take my walks in the woods.

letter from Whitman to Herbert Gilchrist, 30–31 December 1881


Thy windows rich, and huge hotels—thy side-walks wide;
Thou of the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!
Thou, like the parti-colored world itself—like infinite, teeming,
mocking life!
Thou visor’d, vast, unspeakable show and lesson!

“Broadway” (1888)


Sunday, October 21, 1888.

7.20 evening. W. lying on the bed, dressed, I entered very quietly: stood there without a word. He had been dozing. Started up. “Come in! Come in!” After we had shaken hands he described his day: “… he [Whitman] asked: “And you—what have you done with the day?” I had been far in the country on a long walk. I said something about “the joy of going on and on and not getting tired.” This aroused him. “I can fully realize that joy—that untranslatable joy: I have known its meaning to the full. In the old days, long ago, I was fond of taking interminable walks—going on and on, as you say, without a stop or the thought of a stop. It was at that time, in Washington, that I got to know Peter Doyle—a Rebel, a car-driver, a soldier: have you met him here? seen him? talked with him? Ah yes! we would walk together for miles and miles, never sated. Often we would go on for some time without a word, then talk—Pete a rod ahead or I a rod ahead. Washington was then the grandest of all the cities for such strolls. In order to maintain the centrality, identity, authority, of the city, a whole chain of forts, barracks, was put about it and roads leading out to them. It was therefore owing to these facts that our walks were made easy. Oh! the long, long walks, way into the nights!—in the after hours—sometimes lasting till two or three in the morning! The air, the stars, the moon, the water—what a fullness of inspiration they imparted!—what exhilaration! And there were the detours, too—wanderings off into the country out of the beaten path: I remember one place in Maryland in particular to which we would go. How splendid, above all, was the moon—the full moon, the half moon: and then the wonder, the delight, of the silences.” He half sat up in bed as he spoke. “It was a great, a precious, a memorable, experience. To get the ensemble of Leaves of Grass you have got to include such things as these—the walks, Pete’s friendship: yes, such things: they are absolutely necessary to the completion of the story.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 2


Tuesday, November 20, 1888.

W. had another letter for me. He picked it up from the accustomed place on the table. “It’s from Rossetti,” he said: ” I’ve been reading it over: William Rossetti: full of wise beautiful things—overflowing with genial winsome good will: you ‘ll feel its treasurable quality.” I sat there and read. He said: “Read it aloud: I can easily enjoy it again.” When I got to the passage describing the walks W. interrupted me: “Oh! that’s so fine—so fine, fine, fine: he brings back my own walks to me: the walks alone: the walks with Pete [Doyle, Whitman’s friend]: the blessed past undying days: they make me hungry, tied up as I am now and for good in a room …

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Volume 3


AH, whispering, something again, unseen,
Where late this heated day thou enterest at my window, door,
Thou, laving, tempering all, cool-freshing, gently vitalizing
Me, old, alone, sick, weak-down, melted-worn with sweat;
Thou, nestling, folding close and firm yet soft, companion better than
talk, book, art,
(Thou hast, O Nature! elements! utterance to my heart beyond the
rest—and this is of them,)
So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing fingers on
my face and hands,
Thou, messenger-magical strange bringer to body and spirit of me,
(Distances balk’d—occult medicines penetrating me from head to foot.)
I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern lakes,
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself swift-
swimming in space;
Thou blown from lips so loved, now gone—haply from endless store,
God sent,
(For thou art spiritual, Godly, most of all known to my sense,)
Minister to speak to me, here and now, what word has never told, and
cannot tell,
Art thou not universal concrete’s distillation? Law’s, all Astronomy’s
last refinement?
Hast thou no soul? Can I not know, identify thee?

“To The Sunset Breeze” (1890)


Friday, February 14, 1890

On B[uckwalter]. expressing his pleasure that W. got out of doors, W. said: “I got out yesterday—today it has not been possible. Yesterday’s jaunt—and it was quite a jaunt—was a fine one. The sky, the river, the sun—they are my curatives.”

Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden , Volume 6


Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of
love within him, and freely pour’d it forth,
Who often walk’d lonesome walks thinking of his dear friends, his
lovers, …
wandering hand in hand, they twain
apart from other men,
Who oft as he saunter’d the streets curv’d with his arm the shoulder of his friend, while the arm of his friend rested upon
him also.

“Recorders Ages Hence” (1891)





— Roger W. Smith

   originally posted November 2017; updated December 2017




Note that Charles Dickens is said to frequently have taken long walks that could extend to twenty to thirty miles a day, and that Henry David Thoreau wrote: “I cannot preserve my health and spirits, unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that” walking. I wonder if Dickens really did thirty miles that often.

My record for a single day was two separate walks (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) of a combined total length of twenty-four miles. I try to take one very long walk once a week. This walk is usually about twelve miles, though sometimes I do around fifteen or sixteen miles.

However, it is noted in The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits by Les Standiford that Dickens went to work in a blacking factory at age twelve to support his family, which was in financial straits and that, after working all day, he would walk home every night, a distance of five miles.


— Roger W. Smith

thoughts about Gogol



Elisabeth van der Meer has another great post at


which is about the Russian author Nikolai Gogol.

I responded as follows.






Great post, Elisabeth. Very interesting and insightful.

A couple of things that come to mind.

The comparison to Dickens is very apt. The ability to create characters who are hilarious, idiosyncratic, total originals, and almost like distortions of real life, yet who — in their incongruity with what we think of us as “average” — are fully human and totally believable.

I read Henri Troyat’s biography of Gogol. I recall it as being very good.

Regarding Gogol’s sexuality, Simon Karlinsky’s monograph The Sexual Labyrinth of Nikolai Gogol (1976) is excellent. Karlinksy, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at UCal-Berkeley, was a top-notch scholar who produced another outstanding work on Chekhov (letters plus extensive commentary). I have read both books; they were well worth it.

The Wikipedia entry on Gogol contains the following paragraph:

In 1834 Gogol was made Professor of Medieval History at the University of St. Petersburg, a job for which he had no qualifications. He turned in a performance ludicrous enough to warrant satiric treatment in one of his own stories. After an introductory lecture made up of brilliant generalizations which the “historian” had prudently prepared and memorized, he gave up all pretense at erudition and teaching, missed two lectures out of three, and when he did appear, muttered unintelligibly through his teeth. At the final examination, he sat in utter silence with a black handkerchief wrapped around his head, simulating a toothache, while another professor interrogated the students. This academic venture proved a failure and he resigned his chair in 1835.

Troyat does a good job of describing this incident.

I will be eagerly awaiting your next post.





Ms. van der Meer’s site is one of the best sites devoted to literature I have found. If you happen to be interested in or love Russian literature, it bears checking out. I keep recommending it to friends, including those whose literary tastes I am not sure of, but who I feel would appreciate the site.

Her site, “A Russian Affair,” is at



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2017