Sunday, August 05, 2007

Literary Sketch

This is a very well-written post. It reminds me, in a general way, of Nathaniel Hawthorne's sketches. For an example, see "A Night Scene" here. The sketch is a literary genre that should be appreciated more than it usually is. If blogging brings it back, it thereby proves its worth a thousandfold. The reason, of course, that sketches fell so wholly out of favor -- almost no one writes them anymore -- is that it is a non-narrative genre -- any narration is incidental and usually only part of the frame, although of course in biographical sketches it occupies a larger place. It is an evocative description of the impressions of a mind of sensibility -- in effect, a sketch of mundane life -- and it so happens that many people find extended description in literary prose boring, having precious little sensibility. This, I am convinced, ranks almost up there with our distaste for didactic poetry as the most serious aesthetic flaw in the mind of the age; and that is saying quite a bit. It is possible to err in the opposite direction; but there are very few Mariannes left in the world, and, unfortunately, that lack is not even made up by a surplus of Elinors.

The basic point of a literary sketch is, in the words of Washington Irving, to observe "with the sauntering gaze with which humble lovers of the picturesque stroll from the window of one print shop to another, caught sometimes by the delineations of beauty, sometimes by the distortions of caricature, and sometimes by the loveliness of landscape." The writer of sketches is the literary equivalent of an artist on the Grand Tour (whether amateur or professional, it does not matter) drawing sketches of ruins, sculptures, people, and the like -- things that are 'picturesque', i.e., things he or she comes across accidentally or quasi-accidentally that admit of being observed with a leisurely and reflective eye and given a description evocative to those with sensibility. It is not a moralistic genre, but, as can be seen in some of Dickens's sketches, it can be designed to evoke thoughts about virtue or judgment or (as in Jack's sketch at the link) death. In the hands of a master it can be quite imaginative; one of Dickens's most famous sketches, and, indeed, one of the most famous literary sketches ever, is "Meditations in Monmouth Street," in which Dickens describes the clothes in the window of a secondhand store by imagining that they all belonged to one man, and reading that man's story off of them. Of course, this is a descriptive device; it is highly unlikely that the clothes all belonged to one man. But by treating them as if they did, Dickens is able to bring each suit into vivid outline. It is not a satirical genre, but a master writer of sketches can make the description evocative of a satirical, cynical, or ironic view of the world; some of Thackeray's sketches are notably good specimens of this. And it is not a fantastic genre, but someone like Hawthorne can (as in "A Night Scene") make the description evoke the wildest fantasies. If the picture is composed properly, the ordinary matter of life can intimate the highest and lowest things, evoke the fullest range of human sentiment and idea. Mundane things are shown to be, as Dickens's Boz puts it, "inexhaustible food for speculation," and we begin to see the world with new eyes.

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