On How You Had To Be Really Cool To Not Be a Victorian Writer In 1937

I am in the middle of reading E. T. Bell’s Men of Mathematics. It was written in 1937, but frankly, it could have been written in 1887. The thinking and style are so Victorian. I’m sure I will have more to say about Bell’s thinking at a later time—for now, take my word he has a simplistic, highly romantic view of people and history. (In its way, it is charming.) Today, I would like to talk just a little about the writing style.

Here is an example of Bell’s style taken almost at random:

In spite of his demonstrated genius the harassed boy was not even now left to himself at school. The authorities gave him no peace to harvest the rich field his discoveries, but pestered him to distraction with petty tasks and goaded him to open revolt by their everlasting preachings and punishments.

Yes, this in itself is not horrific, but I challenge you to put up with hundreds of pages of it. This is why I was pushed to check the book’s copyright. When I bought it, I thought it was recent—in the last few decades. After reading some of it, I started to get that P. A. Motteux feeling. But both thoughts were wrong; it was written well into the Modern period when so much great—and above all, crisp—writing had been done. Ten years before Bell wrote the above quotation, Gertrude Stein wrote this for Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts:

Pigeons on the grass alas.
Pigeons on the grass alas.
Short longer grass short longer longer shorter yellow grass. Pigeons large pigeons on the shorter longer yellow grass alas pigeons on the grass.
If they were not pigeons what were they.
If they were not pigeons on the grass alas what were they. He had heard of a third and he asked about it it was a magpie in the sky. If a magpie in the sky on the sky can not cry if the pigeon on the grass alas can alas and to pass the pigeon on the grass alas and the magpie in the sky on the sky and to try and to try alas on the grass alas the pigeon on the grass the pigeon on the grass and alas. They might be very well very well very well they might be they might be very well they might be very well very well they might be.
Let Lucy Lily Lily Lucy Lucy let Lucy Lucy Lily Lily Lily Lily Lily let Lily Lucy Lucy let Lily. Let Lucy Lily.

Or I could have quoted something from The Sun Also Rises—but that’s not nearly as fun.

The point of all this is that Bell was not a writer; he was a mathematician. Had he written fifty years later, Stein would doubtless have had an effect on him—even (or perhaps especially) if he had never read her. It takes such a long time for the cutting edge to become “less work around the house!” I know Bell understood that about math. I can’t say whether he understood that about writing. But it doesn’t matter; such knowledge would not have changed how he wrote.

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