Stylistic successor to William James
November 5, 2011 9:29 AM   Subscribe

William James was an astounding prose stylist, but seems to have come from a school of rhetoric long since lost. Does anyone today write in an analogously formally beautiful, dense yet lucid, naturally learned, opinionated, and wry style anymore? (see for just one entrancing example his essay on PhDs in academia)
posted by shivohum to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It is likely impossible to recover the precise magic of 19th century American prose, of which James is one of the greatest exemplars. But there are great writers today, who simply write in a different register. If you want learned material, I'd recommend Stephen Jay Gould's Ontogeny and Phylogeny. David Foster Wallace's non fiction is of a high caliber. I can't really think of much more, since I'm pretty well steeped in the technical side of things these days, but a further question: why not just read the writing of James' era? There are enough good books from 1850 to 1915 to last a lifetime.
posted by dis_integration at 9:54 AM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't like either of these writers, because their style reflects learning worn quite heavily rather than worn lightly, but Christopher Hitchens and Gore Vidal strain mightily for a kind of Olympian tone that might be the contemporary counterpart of that style.
posted by jayder at 9:56 AM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: I agree with the David Foster Wallace mention.

William Gass is another interesting stylist. I find his style overbearing at times but I like some of his work.

Edward Dahlberg is deceased, but his style was the quintessential "gnomic" prose style. He's worth looking into. His writing is not for everyone.

Janet Malcolm.
posted by jayder at 10:02 AM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: It's a much different kind of formal beauty (one based on sparseness -- but no less beautiful for it, I think), but I'd nominate John McPhee as a candidate (and as a National Treasure). He is a wry, keenly curious writer who is erudite but not showoffish, and who has an uncanny knack for finding just the right words to describe a phenomenon so that it is both tersely and fully explained. But he does share with James the quality of lucidity.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:44 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I've been reading Richard Hofstadter, and while I don't think I'd compare his writing directly to James', I think he meets most of your criteria. At least, I'd say he's "naturally learned, opinionated, and wry". Also, you might look at the under-appreciated Frozen Desire, by James Buchan.
posted by lex mercatoria at 1:06 PM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: The Underground Grammarian, Richard Mitchell.
posted by timeo danaos at 1:21 PM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: I'm sorry, but there is nothing like William James. I have never read anything that has that exact kind of oratorical, yet literary style to it. I love David Foster Wallace, but it is not the same thing - it does not have the same oratorical style.

I haven't read it in a while, but maybe Richard Feynman's _QED_ qualifies.
posted by billjings at 1:34 PM on November 5, 2011

Best answer: This will sound like blasphemy, but I think David Sedaris has a similar style. Dense, lucid, learned, opinionated, and wry. He also comes at his points from a long way off, the way James does in the piece you linked to. Um, totally different content....
posted by cocoagirl at 7:07 PM on November 5, 2011

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