A Longish Apologia for Long Sentences
Recently I read a book by a psychiatrist about Ernest Hemingway’s mental health (Andrew Farah, Heminway’s Brain, University of South Carolina Press, 2019). It was an interesting book. The thesis was that many, if not all, of the psychological symptoms (depression, paranoia, grandiosity, and exhibitionism) Hemingway exhibited in his final years, leading up to his suicide at the age of sixty-one, were largely caused by profound brain trauma, especially that which he suffered in two successive plane crashes in Africa.
There’s a lot of debate about whether a physician should render diagnostic opinions on people they’ve never met, but I see no reason to gainsay the good doctor, given that he had access to a lot of clinical information and first-person accounts of Hemingway’s behavior and demeanor. And, of course, no harm, no foul for Hemingway if the diagnosis is wrong, given that he has long been beyond the reach of any doctors for good or ill.
However, the psychiatrist apparently decided, at some point, that he had sufficiently garnered the confidence of the reader to opine about the mental health of other writers whose only evidence of “illness” was drawn from their writing. This is where I think Dr Farah goes off the tracks. For example, he writes that William Faulkner’s legendary long sentences were a sign of the author’s mental deterioration.
I only hope the doctor is – for the sake of his living patients – a better psychiatrist than he is literary critic.
But the doctor is not alone in his aversion to long sentences. We’re likely to be told by any number of people these days, including some editors, that long sentences are bad simply because they contain too many words.* Their critique reminds me of the daft comment of the Emperor in the play, “Amadeus,” who tells Mozart that the ear can only bear a certain number of musical notes in a single evening and that his compositions contain “too many notes.” “Just take out a few. Well, there it is.”
The analogy of music to writing is apt, I think. Good writing plays upon the ear and mind. Tempo and pace vary, as do keys. Moods shift, dark to light to subdued, cool to warm, exuberant to thoughtful to mournful. Rules are followed. Rules broken. All in the cause, not simply of communicating, but evoking, even provoking, emotional and intellectual responses in the reader.
Among the many tools a good writer has is the long sentence. And, although popular attention spans have shortened, there is still a place for them.
Three of my favorite writers are masters of the long sentence: John Leonard, Sir Isaiah Berlin, and William Faulkner. The first of these three was one of the finest culture and arts critics of all time, the second a brilliant philosopher and historian of ideas, and the third among the foremost novelists of the twentieth century. I have no intention in this small space to provide a full argument in favor of long sentences by giving chapter-and-verse examples from their voluminous writings, but I do want to note the value of long sentences by characterizing the use of such sentences by each of these profound and witty writers.
John Leonard’s writing career spanned five generations from his time as a student at Harvard College to his weekly column for The New York Times and his frequent appearances on CBS Sunday Morning. He was America’s Clive James: profound, funny, deeply and widely read, with a boundless curiosity. I don’t think anyone has ever assembled a better collection of essays than his 1979 Private Lives in the Imperial City. And the posthumous collection, Reading for My Life, has cemented his reputation as the finest cultural, literary and arts critic of his generation. One reason he was so important and so popular was that he treated his readers as intelligent adults.
However vigorous Leonard’s prose, however punchy his punchlines, he never skimps in inviting his readers into his own complex and brilliant mind, analyzing, reflecting, observing minutiae, while all the time expanding the view. In his review of Gay Talese’s book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, Leonard could write a long sentence reflecting on Talese’s analysis of those who made the “sexual revolution possible” (I will include the sentence following the long one to complete his thought: “Since Mr. Talese parajournalizes so promiscuously — reaching into their minds, reading their thoughts, scratching their itches — one would expect to emerge from his book, as if from a novel, with some improved comprehension of what they stand for and a different angle on the culture that produced them. One emerges instead as if from a mediocre movie in the middle of the afternoon, reproached by sunlight and feeling peripheral to the main business of the universe.”**
The secret, if there is a secret, to John Leonard’s use of long sentences is his skillful employment of subordinate clauses to support and nuance his principal argument. He wants us to understand that any idea that can be stated baldly without qualification is suspect. There is genuine simplicity in the world, and it should be revered. But between the simplistic and the genuinely simple lies a deep and unbridgeable chasm.
Sir Isaiah Berlin’s use of long sentences is a variation of Leonard’s. But they are not identical, and the distinction is important.
Berlin was one of the towering public intellectuals of the past generation. His Jewish family immigrated from Latvia to England early in the twentieth century. While Berlin was regarded by many as an insider (indeed an insider’s insider) in the British establishment (educated at prestigious schools, ascending to a Fellowship at All Souls College Oxford and the position of founding-President of a college for post-graduate students at Oxford, serving in the administration of Winston Churchill as a key figure in the British Foreign Service during World War II, and knighted by the Queen), Sir Isaiah always considered himself an outsider in his adopted homeland. Fluent in several European languages, an expert in the philosophical traditions of Western civilization, a brilliant political mind, and a cultivated student of the arts, Berlin developed some of the most crucial cultural and political theories of his time, particularly with reference to pluralism and the incommensurability of values.
As with John Leonard, Sir Isaiah used long sentences to convey complex ideas. He marshaled his words into regiments to drive forward his arguments, wave upon wave of words crashing upon his opponents until he breached the walls of their keeps. But, even more, (if I may abruptly change metaphors), his long sentences flowed like a mighty rushing stream from an uncontainable mind.
A dear friend who now teaches at Stanford University studied under Berlin at Oxford in the nineteen-sixties. She tells me that she and the other students loved to attend his lectures just to see “the show.” Without notes Berlin would wheel freely around the lecture hall speaking extemporaneously in full paragraphs hardly pausing to breathe. Words and ideas tumbled one after another like schoolchildren rushing from the classroom to the playground.
Anyone who has read Berlin has been startled by his erudition, by his clarity, by the power of his argumentation, but also by the beauty and wit of his language. He seems to say to his readers, “If I can hold the entire wisdom of the world in my head, so can you.” I will provide only one example: a single, long sentence that encapsulates his argument against the “alleged relativism in eighteenth century European thinking.”
“The fact that the values of one culture may be incompatible with those of another, or that they are in conflict within one culture or group or in a single human being at different times — or, for that matter, at one and the same time — does not entail relativism of values, only the notion of a plurality of values not structured hierarchically; which, of course, entails the permanent possibility of inescapable conflict between values, as well as incompatibility between the outlooks of different civilizations or of stages of the same civilization.”***
The fact that all of this can be said between the capital T of The and the period or full-stop as they say in Britain implies that a reasonably Intelligent person can comprehend the argument. That, in itself, is a crucial point worth making.
In 1945, all seventeen of the novels William Faulkner had written to that point, were out of print and he was well on his way to literary oblivion. In 1949 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Among other things that occurred between 1945 and 1949, and the most significant for Faulkner’s literary resurrection, was the publication in 1946 of an anthology of selections from Faulkner’s writings by the respected literary critic Malcolm Cowley. What others had missed in Faulkner, Cowley discerned: an entire world rich in mythologies and legends capable of making sense of the Southern soul lay in Faulkner’s prose.
Faulkner is known for his use of long words and even longer sentences. The careful reader will discover, however, that the words he chooses are the right words for his purposes. And there’s just no way to conjure the soul of a people, their virtues and vices, their self-deceptions and outright lies, the truths they cannot admit and the contradictions they represent, without allowing sentences to build, sometimes spiraling ever higher upward, but often descending a spiral staircase to some hell where the night crawlers never die.
It is believed by many that long sentences, like longish words, slow the pace of a book. Not necessarily so. There’s a sentence I recall from Faulkner’s The Unvanquished (1938) that runs to something like four pages. The sentence leans forward with every perfectly chosen word, propelling the reader forward with every new clause. These pages could not be re-written into shorter sentences without loss to depth, meaning or pace.
Hemingway famously said, probably of Faulkner, that you don’t have to use big words to express big feelings. I’m sure that’s true. But sometimes it’s not only feelings you’re expressing, although what you are saying will evoke feelings in the reader. And in those cases, you will want the fullest armory of words you can muster to say what needs to be said.
Well. Nuff said.
*Long sentences, simply by virtue of being long, we are often told by any number of editors these days – including the arm chair variety – are not: (a) stylish; (b) readable by “ordinary people” (whoever they are); (c) clear; or (d) good English.
For those seeking the right answer to this criticism: (a) is BS; (b) is pure arrogance; (c) is a deficiency in a writer’s competence in the use of his or her sentences not a deficiency in the length of said sentences; (d) a lie.
**This is not my favorite sentence in the review, however. My favorite sentence in this review reads: “The First Amendment, in my opinion, protects even the toads in the erotic garden, but it doesn’t oblige us to admire them.”
*** This passage is from one of the most often read collections of Isaiah Berlin’s essays, The Crooked Timber of Humanity, edited by Henry Hardy.