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On Words: Michael Chabon’s “Ulysses on Trial”

By Joseph Wallace

The series Spotlight on Good Writing highlights techniques used in public-facing writing that are widely applicable to writing of all kinds, including research papers and expository essays written by students.

This post focuses on Michael Chabon’s recent essay in The New York Review of Books, titled “Ulysses on Trial,” which contains some fine examples of how rhetorically appropriate word choice can reinforce the argument of an essay.

Precise Word Choice Is Important

Chabon’s essay is about the successful legal effort in the early twentieth century to lift the ban on the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which had been labeled obscene and was therefore unpublishable in the United States. Near the beginning of the essay, Chabon describes Ulysses as follows:

Encyclopedic in its use of detail and allusion, orchestral in its multiplicity of voices and rhetorical strategies, virtuosic in its technique, Ulysses was a thoroughly modernist production, exhibiting—sometimes within a single chapter or a single paragraph—the vandalistic glee of Futurism, the decentered subjectivity of Cubism, the absurdist blasphemies and pranks of Dadaism, and Surrealism’s penchant for finding the mythic in the ordinary and the primitive in the low dives and nighttowns of the City.

The word choice in this passage is precise. “Encyclopedic” is a good word to use when referring to detail, because encyclopedias are indeed detailed. “Orchestral” works well with “multiplicity,” because an orchestra contains many instruments and voices. Cubist painters often produced works with subjects whose spatial orientations were changed around, or “decentered.” The phrase “absurdist blasphemies and pranks of Dadaism” demonstrates the absurdity of Dadaism by juxtaposing blasphemies, serious offenses against things considered sacred or inviolable, and pranks, minor japes usually of little consequence.

Effective Language in an Essay Echoes the Argument

Let’s look at another example in which Chabon uses words with force and precision. He is describing early attempts to find a publisher for Joyce’s work in the United States.

Throughout the late 1920s, many of the most prominent publishing houses had flirted with or seriously explored the possibility of coming to terms with Joyce and of braving the prosecution that would likely if not inevitably follow publication of the most infamously obscene book in ancient or modern literature. But even publishers with the stomach for litigation were unwilling to stomach the noxious financial terms demanded by the resolute Beach, to whom Joyce had assigned control over the Ulysses rights—or perhaps it was simply that the gentlemen publishers of that time were too sexist to negotiate with a woman.

The verb “flirt” in the first sentence echoes the subject matter: Ulysses had been labeled obscene partly for its descriptions of sex. The last sentence uses the word “gentlemen” ironically, implying that these publishers, who wanted to make money off of a supposedly sexually open and explicit book, were themselves hypocritically sexist. The beginning of the second sentence in this extract plays with different senses of the same word. The publishers have the “stomach” for one thing, litigation, but cannot “stomach” something else, the noxious financial terms demanded by Sylvia Beach. The word “noxious” works well with “stomach,” because “noxious” means something that is physically harmful or destructive. It is as if the financial terms are physically unpleasant to the stomachs of the publishers. Using a less specific word like “harsh” to describe the financial terms would have been acceptable, but it also would have lost the metaphoric consistency that comes with a word like “noxious.”

The Tone Should Align with the Subject Matter

When Chabon moves on to discuss the role of Bennett Cerf, the cofounder of Random House, his artful choice of words shows how to align tone with subject matter. He writes,

But if Random House were going to compete with the big houses, it needed a big hit. It needed to make a literary splash. It needed, Cerf decided, the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written. He knew—publishers had known for years—that if you could somehow contrive to get around the obscenity problem, you could sell a million, or at least several hundred thousand, of the damn thing.

Note the repetition of “needed,” which connects the first three sentences. But note too how the length of the phrases increases as the sequence progresses. Chabon moves from “big hit” to “literary splash” to “the dirtiest, most indecent, obscene thing ever written,” all of which are different ways to describe the same thing. Shakespeare used this technique in Julius Caesar, when Marc Antony increases the number of syllables in words to create a buildup of rhetorical anticipation: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (3.2.82). The last phrase of this extract creates a nice synthesis of style and subject matter. Chabon is discussing efforts to publish the most obscene book in the world, so why not use a mild obscenity when describing it? Ulysses, which in the 1920s and 1930s was perhaps a cursed object, is summed up as “the damn thing.”

Good Writers Choose Their Words Carefully

Chabon’s essay is a reminder that good writers choose their words carefully. Choosing the right word can buttress the structure of an argument, align tone with subject matter, and contribute to the rhetorical effectiveness of a piece of writing. Chabon is of course a professional writer, but he’s not the only one with a dictionary.

For additional help, see our post on how to use dictionaries when you write.

Works Cited

Chabon, Michael. “Ulysses on Trial.” The New York Review of Books, 26 Sept. 2019, www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/09/26/ulysses-on-trial/.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Julius CaesarFolger Shakespeare Library, 2019, www.folgerdigitaltexts.org/?chapter=5&play=JC.

Published 16 October 2019

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