James J. Kilpatrick has been on my mind lately — partly because he figures in Nancy MacLean’s excellent history of economist James M. Buchanan’s role in the long-game political project of Charles Koch and his fellow travelers on the radical right, and partly because he figures in my own education, an early influence in my long apprenticeship as a writer.
When I was in junior high and high school, our local newspaper carried Kilpatrick’s syndicated column, “The Writer’s Art.” I read this with great interest – it was one of the first places where I encountered the idea of writing as a craft, a skilled practice requiring the mastery of tools and techniques. That was a very different conception of writers and writing than I had absorbed or experienced to that point: the Romantic notion of writing as a matter of inspiration, as the spontaneous outpouring of some inner impulse to creative expression through words on the page. That was what I knew of writing, and that was how I approached it – or how it approached me.
Kilpatrick’s workmanlike vision did not eclipse my earlier conceptions of what a writer does and is. Alas, I still believed in the Muses and their gifts. Sometimes I still do. But thanks to Kilpatrick and some other influences – Zinsser’s On Writing Well, a much more salutary guide, in my view, than the tedious Strunk & White; John Irving’s novel The Hotel New Hampshire (it’s a long story — I’ll explain later/elsewhere); my brusque, demanding, slyly empowering sophomore English teacher — I came to recognize that, even if such gifts were necessary, they were not sufficient.
So what were some of the practical lessons I took away from Kilpatrick’s syndicated column on writing?
The usual stuff: attention to word choice, avoidance of awkward constructions, properly sequencing items in a series for maximum rhetorical impact. Cadence. That’s a big one: silent words on a page have a rhythm, a sound. Write for the ear, not for the eye.
These insights were not unique to Kilpatrick, even then. And that last one especially – sound has a sense, sense has a sound – was, I think, already an instinct for me. But Kilpatrick spelled these truisms out, a few hundred words at a time, on the regular, in a forum that reached all the way to the flat, fertile farmlands of the San Joaquin Valley. And these were some of the lessons I took from Kilpatrick.
But Kilpatrick’s column conveyed more than simply his sense of a writer’s craft. Kilpatrick’s column reflected his ideas, his values, his political commitments, his economic views. Sometimes he was very straightforward in arguing for a particular policy stance. In a column that ran on April 8, 1984 in the Pensacola News-Journal and elsewhere, Kilpatrick railed against a 1982 U.S. District Court decision requiring the state of Washington to equalize pay for women and men employed by the State in the same job grade and classification.
Kilpatrick rhetorically conceded that a court-ordered solution to the problem of unequal pay would be a great idea, if the problem were so simply solved. But, he wrote, “[t]his is the problem: The apparent inequities could not be thus resolved without wholesale abandonment of the principles of a free marketplace. The idea is superficially plausible. It is fundamentally implausible. It could not work in either public or private employment unless both labor and management were to abdicate their functions. That Orwellian day may come. It is not here yet.”
I’m not sure that column had anything at all to do with the craft of writing, beyond running in Kilpatrick’s usual slot. Anybody who opened the paper that day looking for tips on how to write a smooth transition or what makes for a good metaphor might have been a little disappointed. I don’t recall whether I read that particular column or not. If it did run in our paper, then I probably looked at it.
I would have been far more likely to read one of Kilpatrick’s frequent jeremiads about the corruption of the English language, the faddish coinage of new words, and – significantly, given the cultural conflicts of the time that have since become the focus of my research – the sad decline of higher education (“Maybe John can’t write because his teacher can’t,” Jan. 2, 1982, [Binghamton] Press and Sun-Bulletin) or the pernicious effects of sex-inclusive language (“Obsession with sexism weaves linguistic briers,” Feb. 20, 1982, [Binghamton] Press and Sun-Bulletin). In that column, Kilpatrick bemoaned the use of the term “freshpersons” in a Montclair State College orientation manual:
Freshpersons? The strained formation offers one more melancholy example of the offenses that often are committed in an effort to avoid offenses. One imagines the plight of the poor dean: on one side the importunities of the egalitarians, on the other the sensibilities of those who love the mother tongue. The dean succumbed to the egalitarian demands, and out came ‘Freshpersons.’
The “plain meaning” of Kilpatrick’s language here, to use a term being bandied about in discussions of MacLean’s book, is clear enough: the term “freshpersons” and similar gender-neutral coinages constitute infelicitous innovations that degrade rather than strengthen the English language. But there’s much more in this brief passage, never mind the whole column, than a simple defense of current English usage. There is, first of all, the implicit devaluation of “egalitarianism.” In Kilpatrick’s formulation, one can either be “egalitarian,” or one can “love the mother tongue” – one cannot hold both positions at once. Moreover, Kilpatrick implies, love for the mother tongue is simply a sensibility; it makes no “demands,” it importunes no one. All the demands – such an uncivil practice, to make demands! – are coming from the “egalitarians.” Egalitarianism is a force for cultural decay.
To be sure, Kilpatrick deploys a “to be sure” – or at least its rhetorical equivalent – in order to anticipate the counterarguments of those who would point out that language and usage are not fixed forever but change over time.
I do know that our language changes, melds, yields to customs and to changing mores. It seems to me that those of us who write for a living have an obligation – up to a point – to accommodate the many persons who are genuinely offended by what they perceive as the sexism of our language…But there comes a point at which this deference becomes ridiculous.
The rest of Kilpatrick’s column consists of an elaboration of that idea — feminist demands have become ridiculous – and includes a rousing defense of “the essential genderless neutrality of ‘man.’”
Yes, these are judgments about language and usage; but they are also at the same time judgments about current politics, current cultural conflicts, crises (real or imagined) in higher education, the deleterious influences of “a vociferous minority of militant feminists,” among whom there is apparently no one who truly loves “the mother tongue.” Those ideas were certainly not the primary focus of Kilpatrick’s oeuvre throughout the full syndication of his column, “The Writer’s Craft.” But they were part of what he communicated through that column, little doses of right-wing politics (and plenty of sexism, which doesn’t seem to have a fixed political valence) embedded in paeans to good prose style. A young apprentice writer reading Kilpatrick’s column would certainly absorb those lessons too – would, and did.
Live and learn. I sure have.