In an article entitled “Writing, an essay” in the December 1907 Harper’s Magazine, Edward Martin, who was at that time a periodicals writer, later becoming the first editor of Life Magazine, counseled readers to watch for the conversational tone of the author in writing. “In good writing there is the sound of the writer’s voice,” Martin tells us, and goes on to adduce, of all people, Milton in Paradise Lost (whose voice, if Martin was paying attention, is miles away from the voice he assumed in “Animadversions upon the Remonstrant’s Defense against Smectymnuus” – or if not miles away, at least in a different neighborhood. Of course, Martin’s sentence has crept forward through the twentieth century and become a hydra headed monster, with a slithering tongue in every book nook, but back in 1907 the ‘writer’s voice” was not a commonplace. A few years after Martin published his essay, Henry James started writing prefaces for the standard edition of his works: the prefaces, collectively, were gathered together under the title ‘The Art of the Novel” because they collectively formed a sort of unique ocassion, an ars poetica by a major American writer. The only other book to which it can be compared for extensive knowledge of the novel and intelligence concerning same is EM Forster’s Aspects of Fiction. In these prefaces, James never uses the phrase, the writer’s voice – although he often speaks about voices. Voice is crucial to the novelist, but they are centrally, structurally outside the novelist. In a typical passage, writing about The Reverberator –not one of Jame’s best known novellas – he writes:
“After which perhaps too vertiginous explanatory flight I feel that I drop indeed to the very concrrete and comparatively trival origin of my story – short, that is, of some competent critical attribution of triviality all around. I am afraid, at any rate, that with this reminiscence I but watch my grease spot (for I cling to the homely metaphor) engagingly extend its bounds. Who shall say thus – and I have put the vain question but too often before – where the associational nimbus of the all but lost, of the miraculously recovered, chapter of experience shall absolutely fade and stop? That would be possible only were experience a chessboard of sharp black and white squares. Taking one of these for a convenient plot, I have but to see my particle of suggestion lurk in its breast, and then but to repeat in thhis connexion the act of picking it up, for the whole of the rest of the connexion straightway to loom into life, its parts all clinging together and pleading with a collective friendly voice, that I can’t pretend to resist: “Oh, but we too, you know; what were we but of the experience?” Which comes to scarce more than saying indeed, no doubt, that nothing more complicates and overloads the act of retrospect than to let on’s imagination itself work backward as part of the business.”
James’ image of the anecdote or the threads and themes of the story pleading, having a voice, goes back to the classical source of the voice as an inspiration, an externality, to the entranced poet, the overcome rhetor, or the living argument in the Socratic dialogues. Even when James comes close to Martin’s sense of the “writer’s voice”, the voice still retains that necessary externality – as for instance, when James writes of the “human rumble” of Picadilly that it and other London neighborhoods “speak to me almost only with the voice, the thousand voices, of Dickens.”
To explain how the writer’s voice supplanted the voice of the written, the voice of the suggestion, the conversation, the place and its genius - how in fact it became the writer’s ‘self’ that was in question in James’ “grease spot” – is to track the rise of what Cyril Connolly calls, in The Enemies of Promise, the “vernacular style” as opposed to the mandarin one in modern Anglophone lit. Interestingly, Connolly associates the conversational with the mandarin style, full of complex sentences in the folds of which one finds the interjective energy of conversation. Vernacular, with its flatness, takes its cues first from newpaper reporting – with a leveling that is less conversational than photographic.
However, the writer’s voice, in Martin’s sense, was still not quite something one found in oneself. Milton found it in the Bible and in the poets and the modernist poets like William Carlos Williams found it in the mouths of the patients he visited in Rutherford New Jersey (Williams, coming from a bi-lingual household, Spanish and English, wasn’t tricked by the convention that American English was English). In a sense, what these people were doing was finding a way of tearing down the rhetorical scrim that kept them from hearing these voices.
In 1984, another writer, Eudora Welty, published a book of essays, or lectures, on writing, or perhaps more precisely, on writing and her life: One Writer’s Beginnings. It was a Harvard University Press book, and it made the NYT bestsellers list, the first Harvard Press book to do so. Only one of Welty’s previous books had gone that high. Since 1984, it might have sold more than any of her short story collections or novels.
One of the divisions is called “Finding a Voice”, which would seem to make it cousin to the kind of cliché that I am trying to swat, here. If this is so, I’m in bad straits, opposing the great Eudora Welty. Here I was having a good time battering Edward Martin, who nobody cares about any more, poor soul. But Welty? Surely the sappiness I have been seeing in the conjunctions of “finding” and “writer’s voice” is redeemed if the great Welty puts herself behind it.
So how do I get out of these straits? Eventually I think I need to to backtrack a little to reflect on the geneology of “voice”. There is an ideological line of descent I have so far ignored, and that is the idea of a people or a group having a “voice.” Like all things in modernity, the “voice” begins in politics and ends up in art. It ends up in ways I sympathize with. I think crossed the border in American literature sometimes in the 1920s, with the Southern “renaissance”. So let’s put that in the background and see what “finding a voice” is about.