Notebook, 1993-


James Thurber

"How should you answer if I should ask you, What is the Nation? Where is it? Show it to me. Does it look like the statue in New York Harbor? Is it the fleet that recently went round the world, with peaceful guns and with dancing on the decks? Is it the flag, is it the capitol, has it the President's many-caricatured countenance? Where and what is the Nation? Is there such a thing? You would answer that the Nation exists only in the minds and hearts of men. It is an idea. It is therefore more real than its courts and armies; more real than its cities, its railroads, its mines; its cattle; more real than you and I are, for it existed in our fathers, and will exist in our children. It is an idea, it is an imagination, it is a spirit, it is human art. Who will deny that the Nation lives?" [Taylor/Thurber]

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I will always remember my first view of Joseph Russell Taylor, on one of his English classes at Ohio State, more than thirty-five years ago. He was round of face and body, with yellow hair, pink cheeks, and fine bue eyes. He usually wore a brown suit, and he always brought to class the light of the enchanted artistic world he lived in, of whose wonders he once said, "It is possible that all things are beautiful . . . . "

When Joseph Russell Taylor was forty-one, Henry Holt published "Composition in Narration," his only textbook [if you could call it that] -a small volume of lyric essays on the art of writing, whose serenity has survived like a flower in a book. It came out in 1909, a year remembered by most men as the year BlÚriot flew over the English Channel. To Joe Taylor, it was the year Meredith and Swinburne died. The book was written so long ago that it is filled with quiet, old-fashioned scenes: a gentleman calling on a lady and presenting his card at the door; beaux taking their belles to dancing parties in sleighs or horse cabs; a balloon dreamily drifting over central Ohio in the race that started during the St. L ouis World's Fair of 1904. 'There were voices of children on the quiet air, and there was the good smell of the fires of autumn leaves; things of immemorial familiarity; and on the south of the evening passed what a voyager, a portent, the first sail on a new sea, the angel of tomorrow!:

Joe Taylor's book darts and wanders, intensely or at a leisurely pace, down the hundred pathways of his agile thought, but his poetic prose is carefully disciplined. "Art is revision," he wrote, and he must have lit his pipe a thousand times in rewriting his chapters. He brought impulsive feeling, rather than cold mental analysis, to everything he touched--he goes so far as to call intellect "the conventionial part of imagining" -but he had the good writer's dissatisfaction with imperfect statement, and the book shows his constant wariness of certainties. "The only taste that is false is that which does not change," he wrote.

As a textbook, "Composition in Narration" must have puzzled professors looking for conventional rules and familiar rituals. It begins, "There are really only two kinds of writng: artistic, which is narration, and scientific, which is argument," and then starts off on a Taylor-guided tour of a hundred subjects. The author quotes from personal letters; talks about his father, who gave up teaching to become a minister; explores the difference between literal fact and literary truth; discusses painting and music; skillfully takes apart one of his own moods; describes a spectacular fire in Columbus, and the effect a small replica of the Venus de Milo had on him when he spent what must have been hours turning it slowly around in different lights. In the book's last section called "References," he talks about authors he liked at the time: Henry James, above all and at greatest length; de Maupassant; Daudet; Stevenson; Anthony Hope, for his "The Dolly Dialogues;" and, finally, "Mr. Wister." Joe must have loved "The Virginian," because the Far West always appealed to him; one of his long poems, called "Thirty Ponies," was about a tribe of western Indians. There is also this note in "References," which I can't get out of my mind and probably never will: "It is almost true also that the most perfect Stevenson story was not written by him, but by Mrs. Stevenson; 'The Nixie,' the story remains still, as far as I know, buried in a magazine of the Eightites." That wonderful "almost true" is pure Joseph Russell Taylor, copyright 1909. . . .

In spite of a critical taste that changed like the weather, Joe Taylor had his immutable convictions: that nothing genuine need fear the test of laughter [he thought the comic aspects of wearing a scarlet letter could have been exploited by Hawthorne]; that youth cannot hold a candle to maturity [he was never entranced by Keats' celebration of young, or trivial, love forever imprisoned in shallow April]; and that there is nothing prose can do that poetry can't do better. Since James' novel "The Ambassadors" seemed perfect to him, he actually perrsuaded himself that it was essentially poetry. [His contention that its dialogue was the very spit and idiom of its time was even more startling.] He also believed, all his life, that "the artist is the normal man," a cryptic judgment that none of his students who went on to write or teach has ever been able to follow very far without getting lost . . . .

[Thurber, James. The Thurber Album. New York: Simon and Schustser. 1942. pp. 167, 178-181, 183]



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