Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Adjectives He Keeps

In the chapter "Clio: A Muse" of Teacher in America, Jacques Barzun wrote that
An historian is known by the adjectives he keeps, and textbook writers would become better historians if they got rid of most of theirs, or at least replaced them with more strongly felt ones.
A book that I have just read brings this to mind, The Epic of Latin America  by John A. Crow. It weighs in at a bit more than nine hundred pages, and I kept thinking that an historian with better discipline as a writer might have brought it in nearer five hundred. Really, though Crow overdid the adjectives, the weakness is a general lack of feeling for the language. Every dozen pages, I found a passage such as
When the century drew to a close it left a maze of overlapping institutions, race fusions, social classes, architecture, feelings, and thought, all hammered together into a single frame. Generally speaking, this framework did not change greatly in succeeding years.
On page 910 there appears the paragraph
"The English language itself," [Américo Castro] add sadly, "is being impoverished in the cultural circle of the United States, because the university man, caught by the spirit of the masses, does not dare avoid triviality." He might have added that widespread radio and television broadcasts and high pressured business dealings have lowered considerably the level of American speech because the best examples are no longer held up before us, and because a correct knowledge of the English language is no longer considered necessary for success.
Fair enough: but after nine hundred pages of the book's prose, this is like being lectured by Falstaff on clean living and body-mass index.

The Epic of Latin America is published by the University of California Press. The sometime director of that press, August Frugé, wrote in his memoir A Skeptic Among Scholars of drastically cutting back on the copy editing of the manuscripts. I was ready to blame Frugé's policy for the bagginess of the work, which might have made a better book at half its size. But I find that Frugé had barely started at Berkeley when the first edition came out in 1946.

The book will serve well enough for reference for one wishing to remember the progress of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, or of the succession of governments in the Latin American countries since. I don't think anyone will read it for the cultural insights, though they are there to be found: it is just too much work to find them, and it is not clear to me that the author recognized the difference between communicating insights and passing on current cliches. A reader comfortable in Spanish might make a good thing of the references, though she will have to locate them in the notes.


  1. I'm late in commenting, but I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and got a nice laugh out of the Falstaff line.

    I've noticed that more than a few books about Latin American history tend to give anvils a run for their money. The Medieval Heritage of Mexico is more than 800 (highly repetitive) pages long.

    1. Jeff, thank you for your good words.

      I don't object to long histories: Gordon Craig's Germany 1866-1945 is right around 800 pages, Elkins and McKittrick's The Federalist Era is over 800, though the end notes take up a lot of that; and just looking at Peter Green's Antioch to Actium left me too tired to pull it off the shelf and check. But Craig, Elkins, McKittrick, and Green can write.