In Praise of Semicolons

Buss, Robert William, 1804-1875; Dickens's Dream
Robert William Buss, Dickens’s Dream, 1875 (via)

Literary influence is usually amorphous, which is why an influence-obsessed critic like Harold Bloom has to bring in words like clinamen, tesserae, and apophrades as well as esoteric schools of thought like gnosticism, kabbalah, and psychoanalysis to explain it.

Even when you can identify what one writer took from another, it is often a matter of “sensibility” or some other indefinable; when Borges reverses time to propose that Kafka influenced Browning, he’s referring to an air of menace hovering over a quest and not some more specific gleaning. More narrowly, writers may borrow archetypes or registers, as with the mad king/captain/judge done up in apocalyptic, archaic English that passes from Shakespeare to Melville to McCarthy, or the inward young middle-class woman whose inwardness morally redeems her world that we find in Richardson, Austen, James, and Woolf. But influence is not usually much more precise than that: a tone of voice, a heroic ideal, a vision of nature or humanity.

On the other hand, I know precisely who gave me my immoderate love for the semicolon: John Irving. It was not so much his practice as his outright advocacy that drew me to imitate his punctuation habits. I may not have noticed how semicolon-laden his sentences were if I hadn’t encountered a few interviews with the author where he expressed his faith in the compound sentence; I remember copying into a notebook, at the age of 15 or 16, a few lines from a TV appearance where he mocked (I quote from memory) “the one comma, one period, and you’re out Hemingway bullshit.”

I must have associated what I then found to be his novels’ enveloping atmospheres and knotted plots with his punctuation. In each of his sentences he joins two separate independent clauses, just as in each of his novels he joins his disparate and far-flung characters into one overwhelming destiny. Insofar as I aspired to write fiction that felt as densely fated as his, both complex and unified, it seemed useful to adopt the mark of punctuation that stood for complexity and unity. This is an after-the-fact reconstruction of what were more inchoate teenage impulses; all I know for sure is that I began writing semicolon-studded prose around the 10th grade.

As he always insisted, Irving himself was inspired by Dickens. In his essay on Dickens, “The King of the Novel,” which I read in high school as the foreword to the Bantam Classics edition of Great Expectations and which is more readily available today in his collection, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, Irving writes of the 19th-century novelist:

It was relatively late in his life that he began to give public readings, yet his language was consistently written to be read aloud—the use of repetition, of refrains; the rich, descriptive lists that accompany a newly introduced character or place; the abundance of punctuation. Dickens overpunctuates; he makes long and potentially difficult sentences slower but easier to read—as if his punctuation is a form of stage direction, when reading aloud; or as if he is aware that many of his readers were reading his novels in serial form and needed nearly constant reminding. He is a master of that device for making short sentences seem long, and long sentences readable—the semicolon!

There are two assumptions worth specifying in this passage. First is that punctuation is an aesthetic matter, not a question of correctness: most creative writers aren’t grammarians. Dickens used commas and semicolons to give direction to breath, a script for performance. Over the course of the last century, however, we have split text from speech, literature from orature. Poetry and fiction may trace their roots to song and stage, but modern technology and reading habits have removed the voice from literature. We read silently, whether in public or private.

Both of the 20th century’s major artistic-intellectual movements, oversimplified as modernism and postmodernism, converged on this point, or at least their chief theorists did: think of Hugh Kenner’s observation that modernist poetry is written for the eye in an era when the typewriter democratizes print over script; or Jacques Derrida’s thesis that language in all its iterations is scored by structural failure, and that therefore speech no more than writing can guarantee meaning, value, or authenticity.

Have you ever heard deconstructionists read literary texts aloud? They give the same weight to every word, including a, an, and the, often pausing in pregnant befuddlement after prepositions or conjunctions, as if permanently baffled by every last signifier. (I believe, but cannot prove, that this academic style is the origin of “poet voice.”) Given these assumptions, Dickens’s use of semicolons and other punctuation to give directions for a shapely rhetorical performance can only seem naïve; hence the belief that the semicolon is aesthetically outdated, whatever its grammatical function.

The second of Dickens’s assumptions as explained by Irving is that an excess of punctuation should make a text easier to read. Semicolons, like commas, are clues in the labyrinth of the text: they help you find your way.

The modern conviction, though, is that a text should not be a labyrinth. It should be simple, direct, transparent, and “impactful,” both in its meaning and its design. Think of everything from Strunk and White’s journalistic rulebook to the midcentury popularity of the Helvetica font (as explained by the excellent film on the topic). This is corporate modernism; simplify everything so it is easier to manage. Thoreau may have said “simplify, simplify,” to resist being ensnared by a commercial culture, but over a century and a half later, simplification is one of that culture’s devices to disarticulate (literally) resistance.

Which brings me to the controversial polemic against semicolons, published almost a year ago but now making the social media rounds, that inspired these reflections:

This goes back to that Kurt Vonnegut quote at the top of this story. The semicolon is a flashing red light that says, “Hey, reader, I know things.” And flashy writing isn’t accessible writing.

Consider that roughly 88% of Americans have high school diplomas, but only around 32% have finished college. So along with avoiding what I like to call “$10 words,” like braggadocio, schadenfreude and despoil, sentence length is critical.

I’ll return to the point about class and education shortly, but the Kurt Vonnegut quote alluded to goes like this:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

It’s true that you can’t attend or teach college with that attitude: the ideology implied in the slur “transvestite hermaphrodites,” whatever it means exactly, probably qualifies as gender-based harassment under Title IX. And there is probably a point to made about how the fear of linguistic impurity may reflect a fear of “social impurities” at large: see, for instance, Ezra Pound (“Use no superfluous word”; “Consider the definiteness of Dante’s presentation, as compared with Milton’s rhetoric”).

Moreover, though, note the presumption that formal educational attainment alone gives a person a taste for aesthetic ardor or complexity. This would have been very foreign to Dickens, a reformer and liberal who lacked the classical education once thought to qualify a man of letters. The anti-semicolon article makes an example of H. G. Wells, whose class origin was lower than that of Dickens. Or consider a contemporary writer: Gerald Murnane, also of working-class origins, who is an ardent champion of the long sentence. Or recall the many noted testimonies out of the African-American tradition, from slavery to Jim Crow, from Douglass to Ellison to Baldwin to Wilson to Morrison, about how serious reading and writing may free a person’s mind though the body may be oppressed.

The pseudo-democratic argument that complex thought and expression are fit only for the social-economic elite is bigotry disguised as enlightenment, like so much of what is today called “identity politics” on the left and “populism” on the right, both of which uphold marks of deprivation as signs of authenticity or superior perception, and both of which regard so many of humanity’s treasures and pleasures as the property only of “white males” or “the global elite,” as you like; whereas my credo is not Lorde’s “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” but Borges’s “the universe is our patrimony.”

The semicolon, anyway, is not replaceable by the period, as the author of the above article argues. This idea is corporatist-totalitarian ideology that sees every individual as a fungible element of the labor process. The period separates, but the semicolon separates as it joins. Its push-pull suggests the tense relationship of the clauses it both marries and divorces. Christian Thorne, prefacing his own summa against a more rarified strain of elitist populism, one that favors the exclamation point, puts it this way:

It is through punctuation marks that even ordinary writing overcomes its own ingrained positivism, its tendency to reduce the world to rubble, static things and discrete events. Commas introduce relation to the simplest sentences, as periods do disjunction. Dashes and semicolons establish relation and disjunction at once; they sunder even as they join, which makes them the typographical face of dialectical thought.

Punctuation is often the last thing I do when I write. My tendency is to put a semicolon after every sentence to announce that each element of the text is both irreplaceably itself and part of a discernible if complex structure. (There is an implied social vision here.) Why should a period fall until that structure is completed?

Today we read with our eyes, not our ears, scanning blocks of text as they scroll past for keywords to inform us or, more likely, to support our pre-fabricated idea-identities; we collaborate with the system’s desire to be comprised of predictable component parts. The eliminationists of the semicolon, who want everything bullet-pointed, wish to aid this process. But I aim to disrupt it; I desire my writing to so arrest you in your scan that you must pause and read it again, or aloud. And if I fail, I will only try again tomorrow.

John Irving sometimes comments on the oddity that Kurt Vonnegut was his teacher, given their diverging ideas about semicolons. I’m sure Vonnegut was the wonderful teacher Irving says he was, but at the same period of my life when I was possessed by Irving’s novels, I was repelled by Vonnegut’s. Between the ages of 12 and 20, I started three and failed to finish any; I still haven’t finished one. I was personally affronted by their prose; they were written in an infantile idiom, by a man obviously capable of writing in other registers, so that I felt simply patronized. What does this man who addresses me with babytalk, or, worse, with crude drawings of anuses, think of me?

Irving, by contrast, with his brain-twisting plots and compound sentences, seemed to consider me adult enough to handle whatever came my way. It would be an immeasurable cultural improvement if we all began to have enough self-respect to be offended not by unfamiliar arguments or the treatment of painful subject matter but by oversimplification, condescension, and talking down.

I mentioned above the collaboration of certain modernists or modernisms with the standardization I decry, of which semicolon-eliminationism is a symptom. It was mainly the poets, philosophers, designers, and architects, not the novelists, who were responsible. Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner: each one is discernibly Dickensian. But then there was, as Irving mentioned, Hemingway, and before him Stein and Flaubert, to whom we might trace the MFA routinization of literary fiction. With all these things in mind, I conclude with another passage from Irving’s “The King of the Novel”:

And here’s another wonderful thing about [Dickens]: his writing is never vain—I mean that he never sought to be original. He never pretended to be an explorer, discovering neglected evils. Nor was he so vain as to imagine that his love or his use of the language was particularly special; he could write very prettily when he wanted to but he never had so little to say that he thought the object of writing was pretty language; he did not care about being original in that way either. The broadest novelists never cared for that kind of original language—Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Hawthorne, Melville…their so-called style is every style; they use all styles. To such novelists, originality with language is mere fashion; it will pass. The larger, plainer things—the things they are preoccupied with, their obsessions—these will last: the story, the characters, the laughter and the tears.

“The laughter and the tears” is a bit much—despite my censure of Vonnegut’s scrawled asterisk-asshole above, I am reminded of crude humorists popular in my youth who scatologically mocked “the laughter and the tears”-style advertisements for Oscar-bait movies: “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll hurl.” Nevertheless, Irving’s main point stands. A scientific ideology of progress applied to literary language serves the rationalization of all relationships, the confiscation of individuality, and the abolition of the psyche. Think before you delete that semicolon; they may be telling you to delete it because they do not want you to think very much at all.


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Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

David CopperfieldDavid Copperfield by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

[Spoilers below.]

I wanted to revisit Dickens after reading Jeanette Winterson’s Art Objects. Like other British critics who want to keep alive the modernist tradition—see also Gabriel Josipovici and James Wood—Winterson is vexed by Dickens, wanting to dispatch him as Victorian relic and also unable to deny his imaginative and emotional force. (In this, these critics are like the modernists themselves: Joyce, Eliot, Woolf, Kafka—all haunted by Dickens.) Winterson is, ultimately, generous, judging Dickens by his mightiest feats of language (she dismisses with the contempt it deserves the mindless cliche that such a master prose stylist would write TV shows were he alive today), even as she admits that nineteenth-century standards (moral, aesthetic, economic) often forced him to walk when he should have been flying, in her metaphor.

David Copperfield, Dickens’s own favorite among his novels and his most autobiographical fiction, largely confirms Winterson’s argument—more so, surely, than such other novels as the fragmented and sublimely apocalyptic Bleak House or the perfectly designed Great Expectations.

This long first-person narrative begins with the title hero’s birth to an economically insecure widow in the village of Blunderstone. From there, Dickens treats us lavishly to Copperfield’s life: his mother’s marriage to the cruel Murdstone; his filial love for his mother’s maid, Peggotty, and her seafaring family at Yarmouth; his time in a school run by the cruel master Creakle, where he meets the charismatic and privileged Steerforth, the great friend of his life who will later become an enemy; his mother’s death, after the murder of her spirit by Murdstone and his sister; his time in a blacking factory as a poor boy alone in London, where he meets the grandiloquent debtor, Mr. Micawber, and his loyal wife and family; his escape to his paternal great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who lives in Dover with the mentally handicapped Mr. Dick; his time in Canterbury, where attends school at Salem House and lives in the home of the widower Mr. Wickfield and his pure, good daughter Agnes, and where he also encounters the nasty, manipulative social climber Uriah Heep; his journey to London to become a lawyer; his reunion with Steerforth (and his meetings with Steerforth’s imperious mother and bitter cousin, the scarred Rosa Dartle) and their complicated involvement, ending in calamity, with the lives of the laboring Peggotty family; his delirious courtship of and unsatisfying marriage to the winsome, innocent, spoiled and naive Dora Spenlow; and the Dickensianly complicated disentangling and narrative re-knotting of all these relations with melodrama and good humor. Copperfield, like his creator, becomes a successful novelist, thus giving him the consummate ability to tell his own personal history. The novel ends happily (though not without a considerable body count and with much of the still-living cast of characters having emigrated to Australia), our now famous hero in a marriage of true minds to his childhood friend Agnes, who draws him on toward the ideal. (Note: the novel is spilling over with characters and stories; I have not accounted for them all.)

What are the novel’s flaws? It is just too long, for one thing, even allowing for narrative length as part of the project of telling a life story. Some of its variations-on-a-theme (the overall theme being love, marriage, and family relations, I think) go on forever while also going nowhere, such as the story of Dr. Strong and his almost-errant wife or the zany married life of Tommy Traddles. Arguably, even the devoted wandering of Mr. Peggotty in search of the Steerforth-seduced Little Em’ly is an over-extended sentimental journey. And since this novel lacks some of the elements that make Dickens’s other fiction so exciting—the nearly Gothic depiction of London’s corruption; the theatrical and inventive third-person narrative voice; the furious socio-political satire and polemic—it loses considerable force after its first quarter, when David’s childhood travails, always a glory of Dickens, are surpassed.

Then there is the problem of the Victorian writer’s ideological constraint, always most apparent around questions of gender and sex. David Copperfield has three types of female character: the benign grotesque (Peggotty, Aunt Betsey, Mrs. Micawber); the malign grotesque (Miss Murdstone, Miss Mowcher, Rosa Dartle); and the more realistically and normatively represented failed or successful exemplar of domestic virtue (David’s mother, Little Em’ly, Agnes, Dora). And the problem, as I have called it, is that Dickens can only make the first two types truly interesting. A benign grotesque is a category we moderns (or perhaps we Judeo-Christians) do not seem to have much access to, and such characters are always best if kept very close to the border of nightmare, in my opinion; Dickens’s quasi-pagan retention of such figures makes his fiction as distinctive as it is and separates his work from mere realism, but, even so, even the likes of Peggotty get tiresome after a while. As for the potentially virtuous women and their relation to the malign grotesque, more needs to be said.

David’s failed first marriage to the “child-wife” Dora, whose mind is not equal to his own, shows that the Victorians did not simply expect women to waste away in the domestic sphere; rather, they expected them to manage, order, and supervise it, as the successful wife, Agnes, is later to do—and David makes much of her being his intellectual equal, if his spiritual superior (as he is presumably her worldly or secular superior, able to act in public as she cannot). They need to be equals because they—man and woman—divide responsibility for the nation between them, as she superintends the private (emotional, affective) sphere and he the public (rational, intellectual). Or not quite: for David is a novelist, an artist. And the Victorian artist, who trafficked to the public the emotions of the private, was caught between gender norms, since the artist’s public appeal masculinized the female writer (hence Southey’s notorious insistence to Charlotte Brontë that a woman ought not be an author at all) while the artist’s parade of private feeling feminized the male writer (hence those agonized Victorian poems about the difficulties of being man and artist, such as Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” or Browning’s “Fra Lippo Lippi”).

David Copperfield, in some of its worst moments, simply relays the values that make an independent life for individuals of either gender unlivable:

I cannot call to mind where or when, in my childhood, I had seen a stained glass window in a church. Nor do I recollect its subject. But I know that when I saw her turn round, in the grave light of the old staircase, and wait for us, above, I thought of that window; and I associated something of its tranquil brightness with Agnes Wickfield ever afterwards.

And in other of its worst moments—the entire depiction of Dora, for instance—it simply punishes women for failing to live up to social norms out of what I suspect is Dickens’s unconscious rage at the system to which he otherwise subscribes. When Dora and her dog, Jip—surely two of the most insufferable characters in all of fiction, despite the novel’s otherwise perceptive account of a too-early marriage caused by David’s “undisciplined heart”—die simultaneously, one would have to possess a heart of stone not to laugh, as Wilde said of Little Nell:

How the time wears, I know not; until I am recalled by my child-wife’s old companion. More restless than he was, he crawls out of his house, and looks at me, and wanders to the door, and whines to go upstairs.

‘Not tonight, Jip! Not tonight!’

He comes very slowly back to me, licks my hand, and lifts his dim eyes to my face.

‘Oh, Jip! It may be, never again!’

He lies down at my feet, stretches himself out as if to sleep, and with a plaintive cry, is dead.

‘Oh, Agnes! Look, look, here!’ —That face, so full of pity, and of grief, that rain of tears, that awful mute appeal to me, that solemn hand upraised towards Heaven!


It is over. Darkness comes before my eyes; and, for a time, all things are blotted out of my remembrance.

To put it simply, Dickens cannot convincingly represent a woman, in this novel, who is not a grotesque. (He will, of course, do better in the next novel, Bleak House, with Esther Summerson.) And it is the malign grotesques who are most vivid, especially the fascinating Rosa Dartle, with her wounded and wounding mouth (“She is all edge,” says Steerforth, who gave her the scar on her lip by throwing a hammer at her in childhood).

David loves no female peer as passionately as he loves Steerforth, of course, his tedious protestations about the angelic Agnes to the contrary. The charismatic aristocrat with the thrusting phallic name, the corrupter and seducer—Steerforth is everything the good Victorian boy and successful Victorian author is not and secretly wants to be. In the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, Jeremy Tambling points out that Steerforth is the spirit of Byron, which the bourgeois age wants to banish, and also that David’s birth caul, described on the novel’s first page, folklorically ensures that he, unlike Steerforth, will not be drowned—in water or in passion. And here, at the heart of this Künstlerroman’s psychomachia, we come to Dickens’s literary triumph.

If this novel lacks the vital depiction of London that one finds in even comparatively slighter works, such as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol, it almost makes up for it with the sea. David’s lyrical recollections of his time in Mr. Peggotty’s boat house and by the beach at Yarmouth are some of the best writing in the early chapters:

I lay down in the old little bed in the stern of the boat, and the wind came moaning on across the flat as it had done before. But I could not help fancying, now, that it moaned of those who were gone; and instead of thinking that the sea might rise in the night and float the boat away, I thought of the sea that had risen, since I last heard those sounds, and drowned my happy home. I recollect, as the wind and water began to sound fainter in my ears, putting a short clause into my prayers, petitioning that I might grow up to marry little Em’ly, and so dropping lovingly asleep.

This is an unexpectedly salty, briny, sandy, wind-swept book, redolent of the ocean. Late in the novel, after the deaths of Dora, Steerforth, and Ham Peggotty, and after Mr. Peggotty’s and Emily’s and the Micawbers’ Australian emigration, David takes Wordsworthian refuge in nature on a tour of the Continent; he echoes “Tintern Abbey” when he writes that “Nature [is] never sought in vain” (Wordsworth’s speaker had said, “Nature never did betray / The heart that loved her”). And, as Tambling notes, “emotion recollected in tranquility,” Wordsworth’s mission for the poet as expressed in the preface to Lyrical Ballads, seems to be the novel’s watchword. In a very moving passage about his desperate boyhood days in London, David remembers the birth of his artistic imagination in an innocent, suffering boy’s recreation of experience:

As I walked to and fro daily between Southwark and Blackfriars, and lounged about at meal-times in obscure streets, the stones of which may, for anything I know, be worn at this moment by my childish feet, I wonder how many of these people were wanting in the crowd that used to come filing before me in review again, to the echo of Captain Hopkins’s voice! When my thoughts go back, now, to that slow agony of my youth, I wonder how much of the histories I invented for such people hangs like a mist of fancy over well-remembered facts! When I tread the old ground, I do not wonder that I seem to see and pity, going on before me, an innocent romantic boy, making his imaginative world out of such strange experiences and sordid things!

But is such Wordsworthian memory, interfused with the maternal spirit incarnated in this novel’s woefully insipid heroine, really the source of art? Do nature and imagination really keep faith with humanity?

In the novel’s single best passage, the extraordinary “Tempest” (Chapter 55), Dickens lets himself say no. In the chapter’s eponymous storm, nature is a destroying force, killing the good laborer (Ham Peggotty) with the bad aristocrat (Steerforth), and sweeping away the works of men and women. The extended description of the tempest, which mounts towards an understated climax in David’s discovery of Steerforth’s body onshore, “among the ruins of the home he had wronged—I saw him lying with his head upon his arm, as I had often seen him lie at school,” must be one of the most intense pieces of fictional prose in English:

The tremendous sea itself, when I could find sufficient pause to look at it, in the agitation of the blinding wind, the flying stones and sand, and the awful noise, confounded me. As the high watery walls came rolling in, and, at their highest, tumbled into surf, they looked as if the least would engulf the town. As the receding wave swept back with a hoarse roar, it seemed to scoop out deep caves in the beach, as if its purpose were to undermine the earth. When some white-headed billows thundered on, and dashed themselves to pieces before they reached the land, every fragment of the late whole seemed possessed by the full might of its wrath, rushing to be gathered to the composition of another monster. Undulating hills were changed to valleys, undulating valleys (with a solitary storm-bird sometimes skimming through them) were lifted up to hills; masses of water shivered and shook the beach with a booming sound; every shape tumultuously rolled on, as soon as made, to change its shape and place, and beat another shape and place away; the ideal shore on the horizon, with its towers and buildings, rose and fell; the clouds fell fast and thick; I seemed to see a rending and upheaving of all nature.

Note the ambiguity in the final clause: is nature being rent and upheaved, or is nature rending and upheaving itself? The latter is true, however hesitant the language, however ostensibly Wordsworthian the novel’s cosmos. And speaking, like Jeanette Winterson, as a child of the twentieth century, I think this frothing and undulating and battering sea is always underneath the artistic imagination as it is always underneath sexual desire and romantic longing, as it is underneath all the (often necessary) rules and norms by which we order and regulate society. That Dickens’s own imaginative powers draw him so close to this truth, allow him to express it despite his narrator’s quite opposite didactic intentions, testifies to the value of David Copperfield.

A killing storm, a wounded mouth: I suspect these disturbing images—along with those “splendid gargoyles” (Orwell’s phrase) Micawber and Heep and Mowcher—are what the reader will recollect, without tranquillity, of this novel’s mixed achievement when Agnes and all the other pictures of Victorian rectitude have faded from the mind.

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