Diary of Charles Francis Adams, volume 1

Tuesday. July 20th. VI.

Thursday. July 22d. VI.

Wednesday. July 21st. VI. CFA


Wednesday. July 21st. VI. CFA
Wednesday. July 21st. VI.

Attended Prayers and, after employing the interval in getting my lesson, recitation in Topography. After breakfast I attended a lecture to Mr. Channing. It was addressed to us particularly, upon forming a style. The young are very often heard to say they are learning to write, a very incorrect expression, for they are more properly learning to express their thoughts not forming collections of words. They read classics and poets, they form their sentences in recitation, but this is improper, for in this way they only weaken an original manner and also original ideas. He would recommend youth to learn the proper and chaste use of language by studying it’s idioms, watching the changes of fashion, what words have become obsolete, gather variety of language from old English writers, from foreign nations, read other languages and compare the force of words. Our genius or the style of writing which we are prompted to, must not be thwarted. Style is the picture of a man’s mind and character. We cannot alter it without doing violence to our own natural powers. A man’s writing is dry, he has not read the poets, he has no imagination, therefore it would be 251exquisite nonsense for him to attempt what is entirely out of his kind. There always is a national strain running through authors of the same country, they have similar associations arising from early habits and education, and consequently express themselves in the same way.

Youth does not write well because it just begins to think, and the mind developes as we grow. Nothing is wanting for style but practice. Rules of rhetoric will not form it, they are only helps by which moderate men will obtain something like a good taste. They will be taught the construction of sentences, the proper application of figures and the way to avoid any ridiculous error, which they could not do with their own natural stock of taste. The desire to imitate great writers only weakens one’s own natural powers, there are great advantages in an original style and every man of good mind should indulge his peculiarities, if within the rules of good taste. A man will express his thoughts in his own way, to be sure he may be plain and without much effect, but his friends tell him of this, and that he has not the smoothness of Goldsmith and his easy flow, nor the sonorous and polished periods of Johnson, nor the well rounded, and easily finished declamation of Bolingbroke. He will then change his own style to imitate the beauties of those three, to combine them, and he will become a mere cypher having nothing of his own to recommend him and not capable of gaining those of his models. It is entirely wrong to break down the independent mind. A little that is all our own is better than borrowed abundance. He then made a few observations upon our literature and our attempts to be free from the charge of always imitating, which are in fair train for success.1 The lecture was a handsome one and I have detailed it considerably by means of some very good notes of Richardson’s.

I returned home and read Paley on Virtue, for recitation. At ten o’clock I attended recitation and was taken up but did not recite as I wished to. I nevertheless did very well. After recitation, I, not being obliged to read over Paley, wrote my Journal this morning. After dinner, I read a little more of Love’s Labour’s lost, read my lesson and attended recitation to Mr. Farrar in Trigonometry which finishes the troubles of this work. I have been amused today at the conduct of Cunningham, he was probably surprised at my sudden burst not expecting it from my smooth temper. I think this will do him good, as he will learn to treat me with a little more respect. A young man has many faults generally and those which he is most apt to fall into here are vanity and self conceit. These have been his lot and it will be long although he attempts now to correct them, before he has success. This 252afternoon, I read a life in Plutarch, that of Cimon, he does not appear to have had many of those marked characteristics about him which other of the Athenians possessed. Fortune favoured him full as much, I take it as he favoured himself. This was hardly enough to account for two hours, but I do not know what better to say for them.

After Prayers and tea I drilled my section and they performed very much to my satisfaction. This was the last time, and I with great satisfaction placed them in line and gave up all orders in the manual. It has been considerable trouble and more irritation than I usually wish to feel. They performed very well in line to night and I retired with the rest with great satisfaction. Our evening meeting was pleasanter tonight than last night but none of the superior officers were present. We remained here in conversation until very late this Evening, as it was the last Evening of the terrible part of our time. At ten o’clock I returned home and spent half an hour in drilling Mr. Richardson who it appears has decided to become a soldier although I recommended him not. Indeed he talked so much in his usual doubting way that I thought it would be better for a few harsh words to decide him in some way. I had a singular tremble which made me feel very sore this Evening. I read my Bible and went to bed. XI.


Channing referred to the movement to foster a distinctively American literature, avoiding “foreign ornament” and “images, allusions, and a metaphorical language . . . unmeaning and sickly from abroad” in favor of “nativeness.” See Benjamin T. Spencer, The Quest for Nationality, Syracuse, 1957, p. 63, 82, 160.