LORD DUNSANY, in his shrewd paper on ‘Decay in the Language’ in the March Atlantic, has effectively reprimanded those modern writers who have forgotten their adjectival niceties. I should like, even more briefly but no less feelingly than Lord Dunsany, to comment on another stylistic eccentricity which in its way seems to me quite as gravely symptomatic of language decay. I refer to the exclamation-point style.
This is a literary manner somewhat difficult to define, but I can perhaps make its nature clear if I say that those who employ it appear to be in a state of continuous and soul-searing excitation. They find life amazing! Beautiful! Terrible! Awful! They quiver, they laugh, they weep, they exult!! Far from being concerned with ‘emotion remembered in tranquillity,’ they are agog about emotion-in-theraw, and they are a race of public eye-rollers, teeth-gnashers, and ecstaticians.
The exclamation-point style is, of course, no new thing, but until recently it has been chiefly employed by writers addressing themselves to highly impressionable or barely literate audiences. ‘Monk’ Lewis, the parlormaid’s delight of a century ago, used exclamation points with an almost unparalleled gusto; his pages are positively prickly with them. The contributors to the pulp-paper magazines — I mean such as Horror Mys-teries, Tombstone Terrors, and the like — have ever found the exclamation point an indispensable bracer, and the perusers of this brand of fiction have long been familiar with sentences like: ‘The door of the crypt creaked open! A claw-like mummified hand emerged! The night was rent by a shriek!!’
The exclamation point itself, of course, is merely the commonest and most patent symbol of the exclamationpoint style. It is entirely possible to write in this style without using that particular punctuation mark at all. In this case, the breathlessness and vibrant excitement are contributed wholly by the choice of words. Like this: —
Bob Breathless whirled like a flash. His blazing eyes narrowed instantly to glittering slits of hate. ‘You devil,’ he spat.
It is this somewhat subtler but even more dangerous variety of the exclamation-point style which has come so rapidly to the fore in current writing. Lord Dunsany believes — or pleasantly pretends to — that the noun-in toad jective metamorphosis had its origin in a railway carriage. There can be little doubt that the exclamation-point style came into being as a part of the twentieth-century reaction against reticence. It is obviously a parallel of the sudden literary consciousness of navels and buttocks and fixations and psychoses; it goes hand in hand with our writers’ gleeful concentration upon such matters. One thinks of the monk in Siberia. . . .
If the exclamation-point style were nothing more than a transitory boisterousness to acclaim the New Freedom, one could probably regard it with indulgent equanimity. It seems, however, to have come to stay. It begins to look very much as though the exclamation-point style were becoming rooted as an American language mannerism.
The far-reaching viciousness of the style — and what convinces me that it is a premonition of disaster — is its insistence upon continuous excitement, upon vivid action, upon ‘handing the reader a jolt.’ Exclamation-point writers view the world with a kind of hyperconsciousness in which a country lane, instead of simply ‘winding’ as it used to do, now ‘writhes in tortured convolutions through the morbid vegetation,’ and in which — according to one much-praised novel I have lately read with bated breath — a college professor seated reading at his desk ߠknots and unknots his fingers in febrile serpentine twistings.’ Characters in exclamation-point novels ‘surge’ and ‘lunge’ and ‘sway’ and ‘reel’ as they progress along the sidewalk, and it is their habit, when encountering another character, never merely to speak to him, but always to ‘hiss’ or ‘leer’ or ‘gasp’ or ‘croak.’
Now all these words are very good words, which once upon a time were charged with meaning and rich in implication. But word inflation—which is the consistent policy of our exclamation-point writers—is very much like currency inflation. The more these electrifying words are employed, the less they come to be worth.
If a college professor, seated quietly at his desk, is to be described in such supercharged terms as I have quoted above, how on earth are we to do justice to the behavior of the same professor when he has been treed by a tiger? When we have reached the point where the normal citizenry are ‘lunging’ and ‘gasping’ and ‘hissing,’ what word reserve is left to chronicle their behavior in a great catastrophe?
Our national vocabulary is in some danger, I fear, of becoming chronically hysterical, and many of our oncepregnant words are thus threatened with degenerating into ultimate meaninglessness. At the present writing Mr. Thomas Wolfe is still able to work up a thundering cosmic furor about a glass of water or a poached egg, and Mr. William Saroyan is still contriving to beat his breast and launch into a fresh frenzy of magniloquence with every breath, but how long it can last is problematical. Hollywood, of course, has already been for several years a sepulchre of dead superlatives, as have a good many newspapers. ‘Awful’ has meant nothing for a decade; ‘gorgeous’ hovers on the brink of limbo; ‘terrific’ has long since been sucked dry of its last particle of significance.
One by one the once-great potencies of our words wither away and die. Lord Dunsany looks forward with a grammarian’s glumness to the day when we shall speak nothing but nouns, and shall utter our thoughts in short choppy jerks, as do the inhabitants of the Upper Zambesi. I think that the literary gentleman from Ireland is too optimistic. I look forward to the day when even the hugest, startlingest, and most super-colossal words will have died of inanity, and when we shall be able to express truly great excitements and emotions only by means of loud coughing grunts, like yaks.