Written English

Social media informs me that it is David Foster Wallace’s birthday.

My first contact with DFW’s intoxicating, muscular and amusing intelligence was the essay collection Consider the Lobster. The whole book was a revelation but “Authority and American Usage” knocked me flat.

Now one can look at a PDF of the original Harper’s article from 2001.

There’s a lot to unpack in what starts out as a simple book review. Perhaps I no longer think every conclusion is a slam dunk. Repeated descriptions of how nerdy and annoying he was a kid is a bit distracting to the main argument. (On the other hand, considering how his story sadly ended, who am I to complain about how this profound genius wrestled with his demons?) Political correctness is a topic that has only gotten more rife since 2001, and, if given the chance, I suspect Wallace would want to re-edit the scene where he lectures his black students.

At any rate, for better or for worse, “Authority and American Usage” is unquestionably a big influence on DTM. If you’ve liked anything I’ve written here in the last ten years, some of the credit goes to DFW.

And, I’m just realizing with rereading tonight, now that I’m teaching jazz piano at NEC, “Authority and American Usage” is freshly relevant.

Issues of tradition vs. egalitarianism in U.S. English are at root political issues and can be effectively addressed only in what this article hereby terms a “Democratic Spirit.” A Democratic Spirit is one that combines rigor and humility, i.e., passionate conviction plus sedulous respect for the convictions of others. As any American knows, this is a very difficult spirit to cultivate and maintain, particularly when it comes to issues you feel strongly about. Equally tough is a D.S.’s criterion of 100 percent intellectual integrity — you have to be willing to look honestly at yourself and your motives for believing what you believe, and to do it more or less continually.