Writing style is the way in which a writer selects and arranges words to convey ideas and achieve a particular purpose. While a writer’s style may be unique, often it is influenced by literary trends and events in society. For example, writers in the early to mid-nineteenth century were influenced by romanticism. Romanticism stressed nature and experiencing the sublime—the majestic or supremely spiritual—through nature. Authors in the romantic tradition often wrote of heroic individuals who changed society. At the same time, American writers felt some pressure to prove that they could write as elegantly as English writers.
Think about style and romanticism as you read this excerpt from the preface of “The Mountain Muse: Comprising the Adventures of Daniel Boone; and the Power of Virtuous and Refined Beauty,” by Daniel Bryan:
The world of Man is a mixture of contrarieties. The source of his sweetest enjoyments is often the fountain of his bitterest anguish. Like the drops of the weeping cloud, illumed with the momentary burst of radiance which gleam from the sun, as he breaks thro’ his floating veil; the tears of woe and melancholy often sparkle in the smiles of the same countenance. Those avocations and amusements which grasp the energies, absorb the reflections, animate the Fancy, and electrify with vivid raptures and inextinguishable fascination, the spirits of one man, awaken no extacy, no pleasure in the bosom, but excite the contempt, or kindle the hatred of another.
Now answer the following questions:
- How would you describe the sentences in this excerpt—are they simple or complex? How would you describe the language used—is it everyday language or formal, even flowery language? Does the style enhance or hinder understanding?
- What does elegant writing mean to you? Do you think this excerpt is elegantly written? Why or why not? Why might Americans in the early nineteenth century have seen this kind of writing as proof that their writing was equal to that of English authors?
- What evidence of romanticism do you see in this excerpt? Think about the subject of the book as well.
- Find another excerpt from the collection that reflects romanticism. Try to rewrite the excerpt as it might be written today. What is the biggest difference between the excerpt and your rewriting of it? How does this difference reflect changes in writing styles?