Friday, July 2, 2010

Parvum Opus 372: Spiksplinternieuw

Dulce, utile, et decorum est pro patria scribere


The Devil Amongst the Writers

I’ve started to read a new book by Sharyn McCrumb, The Devil Amongst the Lawyers, a novel based on a real murder case in 1930s Virginia and the journalistic circus that ensued. She prefaces the book with a quote from James Agee, author of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which was about southern sharecroppers (and which I have not read):

It seems to me curious, not to say obscene and thoroughly terrifying, that it could occur to an association of human beings drawn together through need and chance and for profit into a company, an organ of journalism, to pry intimately into the lives of an undefended and appallingly damaged group of human beings, an ignorant and helpless rural family, for the purpose of parading the nakedness, disadvantage and humiliation of these lives before another group of human beings, in the name of science, of "honest journalism" (whatever that paradox may mean), of humanity, of social fearlessness, for money and for a reputation for crusading and for unbias which, when skillfully enough qualified, is exchangeable at any bank for money (and in politics, for votes, job patronage, abelincolnism, etc.); and that these people could be capable of meditating this prospect without the slightest doubt of their qualification to do an "honest" piece of work, and with a conscience better than clear, and in the virtual certitude of almost unanimous public approval.

Note that this is just one sentence. But mostly note that he must be talking about his own reportorial invasion into the lives of this “appallingly damaged group of human beings”. Agee seems to have drunk and smoked himself to death at 45, but became a famous and much praised man himself.

Reporters so often seem to feel themselves apart from their subjects, and are prone to labeling them. They want to simplify life. They often tend to either despise or fawn over their subjects. Anyone poorer than them is “undefended, damaged, ignorant, helpless, naked, disadvantaged, and humiliated” even as the journalists themselves may be doing the attacking, damaging, and humiliating. Pity is just as offensive, dangerous, and dishonest as contempt or adulation. They distrust and hold in contempt the rich and powerful, or at least everyone a step above them on the ladder, leaving only the denizens of the Fourth Estate perfectly positioned to survey and judge the rest of benighted humanity above and below.

I haven’t been subjected to journalistic inquiry, but I’ve been labeled from time to time over the years, as have most of us. Sometimes the labeler means to be flattering, but it never is the truth and it always has to do with categorizing me in a group from which the speaker excluded himself or herself: “my hippy girlfriend” – “you’re so brave” – “you’re an elitist” – “you’re cold and hard” – “you’re afraid of swarthy people” – you don’t need to know the stories but you get the idea. This is what Agee is talking about in that long sentence and is what he did himself, and it’s what McCrumb is writing about in her novel.

Let’s All Be a Little Bit More Careful

Dave De Bronkart called to say that modifiers should modify. We can all agree with that. Here’s what he was talking about: After a company had mixed up 92 samples of something or other, someone said, “Maybe the industry should be a little bit more careful.”

Well, duh.

But we’ve all heard this phrasing before. Why do grownups say this? It sounds like something you’d say to a kindergartener. Imagine saying this about the BP disaster.

What is the rhetorical intent? Is it an attempt to soften an obvious criticism, which adults ought to be able to take straight, or is it sarcasm (I’m the adult, you’re the idiot)?

The modifiers in that sentence are “maybe”, “little”, “bit”, and “more”. The only necessary one is “more”. There’s no maybe about it. The modifiers of the main modifier pull their punches so badly that the speaker ought to end up punching himself. Or herself. Women tend to qualify their statements just a little bit more than men do. It’s a bad habit, it’s weak and indirect and dishonest, and it suggests that the speaker isn’t sure of what he or she is saying, or maybe doesn’t really mean it, or might retract it if it doesn’t get full agreement and approval. Don’t you think?

Worldish, Pinish, Romantish

Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22 (get it, Catch-22) is reviewed interestingly but oddly by B. J. Bethel:

Hitchens delights himself and his readers with his own duality, shaped from birth by an existence with his world-ish, tragic mother…

…his book is filled with romantic pines to his radical past…

The thing is, I’m not sure if Bethel is a bad writer or just a quirky writer. Is “world-ish” the same as “worldly” (and why use a hyphen there)? Did Bethel mean worldly or somewhat worldly (worldlyish)? Can you replace “pining for” with “pines to” plus a noun object? Is there anything to be gained in meaning or tone by using these peculiar neologisms?

I’m don’t know if I’ll read Hitchens’ memoir though I often find him interesting in small doses. I did read Koba the Dread by Martin Amis, about Stalin, in which Amis calls out his old friend Hitchens for letting Stalin’s 20 million deaths slide. Hitchens’ duality is displayed in his occasional good sense, versus his long Marxist unwillingness to acknowledge Stalin’s guilt, and his vicious attack on Mother Teresa in The Missionary Position. Stalin gets some slack, Mother Teresa doesn’t.

This ‘n’ That

  • I didn’t record where I heard this, but the expression “spic and span” came from Dutch sailors who used spiksplinternieuw to mean new and bright and clean, like a new ship. Since we have both Spic’n’Span and Dutch Cleanser, I guess the Dutch were reputed to be very clean as well as rough (Dutch rub, Dutch uncle) and in trouble (in Dutch) and cheap (Dutch treat).

  • On bags of flour in the grocery store: Great for Recipes. This must be a tip for people who just buy flour to powder their wigs.

  • I saw a local cook on TV named John Tomain. Yep.

  • Re-noticed on my recent road trip to NE Ohio (all about family and food, food, food): Portage County, Portage Path (I used to live there), and Portage Lakes (my uncle lives there), which were all named for the old Indian portages, the routes where they rowed or carried their canoes.

Rebel Yell

The famous Rebel Yell of the Civil War was actually recorded by old Confederate soldiers. You can listen to it on YouTube.

Native Land

And now a poem for the Glorious Fourth:

BREATHES there the man with soul so dead,

Who never to himself hath said,

'This is my own, my native land!'

Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd

As home his footsteps he hath turn'd

From wandering on a foreign strand?

If such there breathe, go, mark him well;

For him no Minstrel raptures swell;

High though his titles, proud his name,

Boundless his wealth as wish can claim;

Despite those titles, power, and pelf,

The wretch, concentred all in self,

Living, shall forfeit fair renown,

And, doubly dying, shall go down

To the vile dust from whence he sprung,

Unwept, unhonour'd, and unsung.

The last five lines of his poem by Sir Walter Scott were quoted in the movie Groundhog Day, though the subject there was not patriotism.

Why not re-read the Declaration of Independence and maybe the Constitution to celebrate the Fourth?


Buy Sonny Robertson’s intro biography on CD, When Sonny Gets Blue, at CafePress. Also, four of his early pre-blues R&B dance songs are now on YouTube. Search for Sonny Robertson + The Tabs.



Buy Sonny Robertson’s biography on CD, When Sonny Gets Blue, at CafePress.

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I’m publishing for the Kindle digital reader with Amazon and on for download to computer and for printing. Amazon now has a downloadable Kindle reader so you don’t have to spend hundreds on the little handheld device. Most of these titles are available in both locations. Search for Rhonda Keith on Kindle store and

The Man from Scratch is about cloning, escort services, murder, and restaurants in Akron, Ohio, featuring Roxy Barbarino, writer for Adventuress Magazine. Novel.

A Walk Around Stonehaven is a travel article on my trip to Scotland. Short article with photos. ( only.)

The Wish Book is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues. Novella.

Carl Kriegbaum Sleeps with the Corn is about a young gambler who finds himself upright in a cornfield in Kansas with his feet encased in a tub of concrete; how would you get out of a spot like that? Short story.

Still Ridge is about a young woman who moves from Boston to Appalachia and finds there are two kinds of moonshine, the good kind and the kind that can kill you. Short story.

Whither Spooning? asks whether synchronized spooning can be admitted to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Humorous sports article.

Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cats: One woman's tale of menopause, in which I learn that the body is predictive; I perceive that I am like my cat; and I find love. Autobiographical essay.

Parvum Opus Volume I. The first year (December 2002 through 2003). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get PO’ed. Collection of columns.

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Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2010. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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