Friday, October 19, 2012

Banking on the Official Style

When you first begin to read "Banking on Emotion: Financial Panic and the Logic of Male Submission in the Jacksonian Gothic," you do not realize how many characteristics of the official style this scholarly article possesses. David Anthony (pictured below) penned this essay in 2004 with the intention for it to be read as an academic piece, and he riddled his article in the language of the official style. Anthony is an associate professor at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, so he is assimilated to the norm of the official style, and from his short biography on the Staff Directory of the university that “[h]is research for the past ten years or so has revolved around the related representations of manhood and money in antebellum mass culture,” so his expertise is not questionable as it covers the subject of the article. But after Anthony funds the background information for his article, it becomes apparent that he finds courage in his work.

We find that the official style plagues a frightening amount of scholarly articles--making even the most motivated student feel overwhelmed with the reading. Writers do not need to polish their articles with such flair in an effort to showcase their expertise in the matter; laymen's terms efficiently share information and meaning. But Anthony decided that to best express the first couple of pages, he needed to write in the official style. Anthony spent the first section to describe the literary style of post-antebellum--time period shortly before the American Civil War--sensationalism. After ensuring this foundation for his arguments, he was able to gain confidence in his writing.

The first sentence of the beginning paragraph begins as such (no need to read fully):
What are we to make of the panic-stricken professional male so often circulating in antebellum sensationalism? Eyes bulging, hair standing on end, often in flight from the persecutions of a malevolent (inevitably male) enemy, this figure predominates in the fiction of sensationalist writers such as George Lippard and Edgar Allan Poe, but he is also a mainstay of the seemingly limitless production during this period of pamphlet- and pulp-newspaper narratives about murder, sexual intrigue, and financial betrayal. Though easily dismissed as the debased and silly product of an incipient mass culture, this figure's ubiquitous presence and the narratives of submission and terror to which it is linked should be understood as signaling a response to the period's perilously unstable economy. Indeed, while sensationalist narratives of financial failure became increasingly common in the years following the devastating Panic of 1837, perhaps none registered so fully the social trauma brought about by the boom-and-bust economy than those depicting masculine crises of debt and financial panic. In scenes ranging from the famous encounter between the slave trader Haley and Mr. Shelby in Uncle Tom's Cabin (If you knew the man as I do, you'd think that we had had a narrow escape, Shelby tells his wife after selling Uncle Tom to pay his debts) to the many depictions of panicked debtors and persecutory creditors in urban dime novels, these stories reflect the emergence of a new form of professional masculinity, one intimately linked to the vicissitudes of a panic-prone economic market (719-720).
In taking some (in reality, a lot of since I needed to first translate the paragraph) time but without much effort, I was able to rewrite this excerpt as this:
What are we supposed to think about when looking at the professional man in antebellum sensationalism literature? Eyes bulging, hair standing on end, and often escaping from a (inevitably male) enemy, this sort of man dominates in fictional writing of said time. He is also always included in the hugely popular pamphlets and pulp-newspapers about murder, sex, and financial misfortunes during this time. This figure is easily assumed to be the funny creation of a young culture, but the figure's ability to be present in any and all situations and the writings of his submission and terror should be understood as a description of the unstable economy of the country at the time. After the Panic of 1837, sensationalist narratives of financial failures became very popular, but the most common financial narrative was that of the unfortunate man who experiences debt and money loss. Scenes that feature characters like these include the encounter of the slave trader Haley and Mr. Shelby in Uncle Tom’s Cabin as well as others that depict panicked debtors and harsh creditors. These sensationalist stories depict the appearance of a new kind of professional man in the changing economy.
An enormously helpful hint for academic research is to read the first paragraph and determine if its preview holds the information you need. The original introduction is thick and fattened with large words and intellectual terms, making a preliminary reading difficult to complete in a timely manner. But the translated excerpt is much easier to comprehend and glance at quickly. The calculations for the two excerpts are: original-18.5 grade level, Flesch-Kincaid Reading ease 21.9; revision- 14.1 grade level, Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 39. These differences show that with a limited word and sentence lengths, fewer jargons, adjectives and adverbs, and less "fillers," this article could have been written in a less complicated way. (Actually, I was able to rewrite the first three paragraphs using this scope of thinking, and I was able to express the same ideas with a lower grade level equivalency.)

With a relief though, Anthony does not suffocate his article with such an intense amount of the official style. He appears to find ease in communicating his ideas and arguments after founding facts in his piece. After suffering a few pages of torturous official style (euphemisms, abundances of adverbs and adjectives, long words and sentences, and ideas that seemed to circle around endlessly), we finally see Anthony's piece pull together in a much more concise and comprehensible article.

The essay now features Anthony's evidence to his argument--the thesis that all professional men in antebellum sensationalism are exhibited as panicked and prone to financial failure. Anthony gives material evidence to this idea, citing books and written pieces from this period that support his thesis. For example, Anthony writes:
The images of ‘‘exacting’’ market desire and debtor ‘‘servitude’’ help explain why, especially in the wake of the 1837 Panic, the debtor male is so often represented in terms of a radical state of disempowerment and dependency. Again and again within the post-Panic fictions of debtor masculinity, a central trope is a male protagonist enmeshed in a bewildering chain of random and often anonymous economic relations. In Frederick Jackson’s The Victim of Chancery, or, A Debtor’s Experience (1841), for example, a debtor named Mr. Adams, described as ‘‘one among the great number who in the year 1837 were fated, by means not within their control, to meet a reverse in their worldly circumstances,’’ is thrown into debtors prison for money owed to a network of often unknown creditors, including the aptly named Mr. Gouge and Mr. Heartless.18 Similarly, in Timothy Shay Arthur’s Debtor and Creditor: A Tale of the Times (1851), the financier Turner buys up the debts that the honest Coleman owes to a creditor named Everton, obtaining the legal right to persecute Coleman and his family mercilessly (724).
Does this passage sound more straight-forward? Easier to read and comprehend in one attempt? This is because Anthony does not feel the need to hide behind smart-speak because he is confident that his thesis is well supported by these pieces of evidence. He thinks he needs to write his ideologies in a flourish. But Anthony reverts back to the official style on the next page. He writes, making an analysis of the historical background to link back to his ideas:
The masculine disempowerment depicted in such texts found especially complex expression in antebellum forms of gothic sensationalism. Usually involving elaborate plots centered around confidence men and forged bank notes, disputes over property and inheritance, and violent (often ghostly) encounters between persecutory creditors and paranoid debtors, the antebellum gothic, more than any other mode of the period’s sensationalism, emphasizes a world given over to the radical immateriality of the paper economy. Simultaneously, it offers as the embodiment of these issues a male subject seeking emotional stability and self-possession in fiscal security (a kind of personal gold standard) who finds himself dispossessed and haunted by the uncanny spectral world of the Jacksonian marketplace. This gothic masculinity is captured usefully in an anti-Jackson lithograph by Edward Williams Clay in which commerce itself is represented as a ghostly return of the repressed (725).
This section has its official style spread on thickly, making the transition from a concise, smooth section to one that is difficult to read and digest by the average college student. 

The nature of this article--the stylist norm of a literary character--is found quite often in a collegial setting. A student in this setting might find it a useful source when forming their thesis or essay, but its reading level may be above this suggested demographic. The article in its entirety was calculated and its results are as follows: Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease, 36.9 (best understood by university graduates); average grade level, 14.8. But Anthony wrote this article for a literary journal for his peers to read, so including official style in this context is acceptable because it is expected of the intended audience to be able to comprehend this essay easily. His readers might not be, though. 

In finishing the article, Anthony continues to wane in and out of the official style, repressing the urge to use intellectual wording when his confidence in his support and development fail him. But he falters in his efforts, and Anthony loses his connection to his unintended audience as his language wavers between the official style and plain language.

By Melissa Holen

No comments:

Post a Comment