Buckley’s Highfalutin Words (Plus Some Jibes at Faulkner)

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UPDATE: I wish I had written the below email of SC’s myself, because any short bit of prose that disses both Buckley and Faulkner at once is a small masterpiece. Now, reader  JS reminds me that Joe Sobran was a fan of Hemingway, precisely for his efficient use of language. I might also note that Ann Douglas in her book on the 1920s, Terrible Honesty, looks briefly at Faulkner’s raging alcoholism, and even when it came to choosing a locale in which to be drunk, Hemingway was superior. Neither author spent much time in New York, but, according to  Douglas, when in Manhattan, Faulkner enthusiastically enjoyed the place in his usual drunken manner, while Hemingway “loved to boast that he spent little time in New York.” Douglas notes in passing that H.L. Mencken (who mostly avoided the New York scene and lived in Baltimore) was indeed one of the very few great writers of the 1920s who was not an alcoholic.

In his diary (the one edited by Charles Fecher), Mencken writes in New York on December 16, 1931:

William Faulkner, the Southern  author who has been visiting New York for six or eight weeks past, has gone home at last, leaving a powerful odor of alcohol behind him. Judging from stories I hear on all sides, he was drunk every night he was here.

Among those who entertained him was Alfred Knopf. The other night Knopf was invited to a dinner somewhere else, with Faulkner as the guest of honor. Knopf took a couple of copies of Faulkner’s books and asked him to autograph them. Faulkner replied about as follows: “I am sorry, but I don’t think I can do it…I believe that it is a mistake for an author to make his signature too common. However inasmuch as it is you, I think I might very well autograph one of the books.” This extraordinary boorishness to a man who had been hospitable to him struck the whole assemblage dumb. Knopf himself made no reply, and did not mention the books again.

Faulkner’s publisher, Harrison Smith, wrote to me a week ago saying that Faulkner would stop off in Baltimore on his way South. Fortunately, he did not do so. The town is full of tales about his incessant boozing. he had a roaring time while he was here and will go back to Prohibition Mississippi with enough alcohol in his veins to last him a year.

Original Post:

Speaking of speeches by Buckley,  SC writes:

I attended a speech by Buckley in a university setting in Conway, Arkansas, in the late 1980’s.

I call myself quite literate, owning a fairly broad vocabulary and I tend to be quick verbally.  I spent most of his hour long speech trying to extricate my mind from the muddy field created by his endless choice of words that almost no normal person would offer in everyday communication.

His high flying lingo did a great disservice to the topic of his talk.  I was very distracted; forced to wade through his words and phrases seeking to understand what he was saying.  I think Buckley could likely be termed a Sesquipedalianist.  

Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), the 1954 Nobel prizewinner for literature, defended his concise style against a charge by William Faulkner that he “had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary.” Hemingway responded by saying, “Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”


2:35 pm on January 25, 2014