“Simplicity in Art”

My dad loves the following essay. It comes from his first-year college writing textbook, Writing Prose, edited by Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters, both of whom were English professors at the University of Connecticut’s Waterbury campus. The essay itself is an excerpt from Frank Norris’s The Responsibilities of the Novelist.

These turn-of-the-century American literary manifestos make for interesting reading. I’m partial to Hamlin Garland’s Crumbling Idols and William Dean Howells’ Criticism and Fiction. My dad spoke so often about this essay that I thought it would be required reading when I got to college. It wasn’t, but maybe it should have been. I’ll always think of it as the story of the spoon, but in their textbook Kane and Peters call it “Simplicity in Art.” As I transcribed it, I realized I’d forgotten about the example Norris provides in its conclusion, and then decided it would make a perfect blog post for the holidays.

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“Simplicity in Art”

by Frank Norris

From Thomas S. Kane and Leonard J. Peters (Eds), Writing Prose: Techniques and Purposes (Second Edition), 1964 (p. 36; excerpted from Norris’s The Responsibilities of the Novelist, 1903).

Once upon a time I had occasion to buy so uninteresting a thing as a silver soup-ladle. The salesman at the silversmith’s was obliging and for my inspection brought forth quite an array of ladles. But my purse was flaccid, anemic, and I must pick and choose with all the discrimination in the world. I wanted to make a brave showing with my gift–to get a great deal for my money. I went through a world of soup-ladles–ladles with gilded bowls, with embossed handles, with chased arabesques, but there were none to my taste. “Or perhaps,” said the salesman, “you would care to look at something like this,” and he brought out a ladle that was as plain and as unadorned as the unclouded sky–and about as beautiful. Of all the others this was the most to my liking. But the price! ah, that anemic purse; and I must put it from me! It was nearly double the cost of any of the rest. And when I asked why, the salesman said:

“You see, in this highly ornamental ware the flaws of the material don’t show, and you can cover up a blow-hole or the like by wreaths and beading. But this plain ware has got to be the very best. Every defect is apparent.”

And there, if you please, is a conclusive comment upon the whole business–a final basis of comparison of all things whether commercial or artistic; the bare dignity of the unadorned that may stand before the world all unashamed, panoplied rather than clothed in consciousness of perfection. We of this latter day, we painters and poets and writers–artists–must labour with all the wits of us, all the strength of us, and with all that we have of ingenuity and perseverance to attain simplicity. But it has not always been so–At the very earliest, men–forgotten, ordinary men–were born with an easy, unblurred vision that to-day we would hail as marvelous genius. Suppose, for instance, the New Testament was all unwritten and one of us were called upon to tell the world that Christ was born, to tell of how we had seen Him, that this was the Messiah. How the adjectives would marshall upon the page, how the exclamatory phrases would cry out, how we would elaborate and elaborate, and how our rhetoric would flare and brazen till–so we should imagine–the ear would ring and the very eye would be dazzled; and even then we would believe that our words were so few and feeble. It is beyond words, we should vociferate. So it would be. That is very true–words of ours. Can you not see how we should dramatize it? We would make a point of the transcendent stillness of the hour, of the deep blue of the Judean midnight, of the liplapping of Galilee, the murmur of Jordan, the peacefulness of sleeping Jerusalem. Then the stars, the descent of the angel, the shepherds–all the accessories. And our narrative would be as commensurate with the subject as the flippant smartness of a “bright” reporter in the Sistine chapel. We should be striving to cover up our innate incompetence, our impotence to do justice to the mighty theme by elaborateness of design and arabesque intricacy of rhetoric.

But on the other hand–listen:

“Then the days were accomplished that she should be delivered, and she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

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