the wholesome atmosphere of american life

“By the time Joseph Pulitzer’s charge to the fiction jury reached it, Nicholas Murray Butler had inserted the word ‘some’ in a discreet though critical spot (he called the addition ‘insubstantial’), so that the jury’s charge read, ‘novel . . . which shall best present the wholesome atmosphere of American life . . .’ instead of ‘whole atmosphere,’ the words that were there originally. The jury could not find a winner the first year, wholesomeness being in short supply even among the mediocre, and they would fail again two years later. Butler also fussed about the word ‘manhood’ because he wanted it clearly understood that women writers would be eligible for the prize, so long, of course, as their work presented ‘the highest standard of American manners and manhood.’ ‘Wholesome’ was dropped in 1929 (a poor year for it anyway) and ‘whole’ restored, but ‘wholesome’ answered the bell again the next round, only to be knocked out for good in 1931. Meanwhile, ‘manhood’ and ‘manners’ were also eliminated. In 1936, ‘best,’ which had been allowed to wander back in front of ‘American novel,’ was softened to ‘distinguished.’ Throughout all this, and from the beginning, the short story was given . . . well . . . short shrift. There can be no question that part of the problem with the Pulitzer was the early wording of the award’s conditions.”

(William Gass, “Pulitzer: The People’s Prize,” p. 8 in Finding a Form.)

sentence: the problem with the irish

“But we have observed amongst the generality of the Irish, such a declension of Christianity, so great credulity to believe ever superstitious story, such confidence in vanity, such groundless pertinacy, such vitious lives, so little sense of true Religion and the fear of God, so much care to obey the Priests, and so little to obey God: such intolerable ignorance, such fond Oathes and manners of swearing, thinking themselves more obliged by swearing on the Mass-Book than the Four Gospels, and S. Patricks Mass-Book more than any new one; swearing by their Fathers Soul, by their Godsips hand, by other things which are the product of those many tales that are told them; their not knowing upon what account they refuse to come to Church, but onely that now they are old and never did, or their Country-men do not, or their Fathers or Grandfathers never did, or that their Ancestors were Priests, and they will not alter from their Religion; and after all, can give no account of their Religion, what it is; onely they believe as their Priest bids them, and go to Mass which they understand not, and reckon their beads to tell the number and the tale of their prayers, and abstain from eggs and flesh in Lent, and visit S. Patricks Well and leave pins and ribbands, yarn or thred in their holy wells, and pray to God, S. Mary and S. Patrick, S. Columbanus and S. Bridget, and desire to be buried with S. Francis’s chord about them, and to fast on Saturdays in honour of our Lady.”

(Jeremy Taylor, from The Golden Grove, pp. 35–36, cited by William Gass in his lecture on baroque prose at Columbia.)

gass on elkin on work

Vocation: that is no trade-school word for him. What is your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Among those who survey the habits of Americans, there are many who find these questions, which are likely to be among the first beckoning blanks we fill in on forms, and the first we put to strangers, indicative of our indifference to the essential self. Should men and women, after all, be defined in any important way by their work? The answer is, of course, yes; otherwise, the activities that largely support our lives and consume our time would be unfriendly, foreign, and irrelevant to us. Our occupation should not be something we visit like the seashore in summer or a prisoner in prison, despite the fact that the work may be unpleasant and dangerous and hard, like that in a mill or a foundry or a mine. Even if it is like speaking a foreign language we haven’t mastered, that incapacity itself is totally defining.”

(William Gass, “Open on the Sabbath”, in A Temple of Texts: essays, pp. 246–247)