An editor from the Great War coaches us on our writing

November 20, 2018

Edwin Starr may have said it best: “War … what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again.” It’s true. War destroys people, cities, countries, cultures, even civilizations. So I find myself, as a lover of good writing, in a sticky place. From Homer to Hemingway and beyond, one thing that war is good for is great storytelling: from war correspondence to novels to poetry.

I am having these thoughts near the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, what we Baby Boomers grew up calling World War I. By chance, I came across the work of an important British editor, C.E. Montague, who not only fought in the war, but wrote against it. Here’s how I found him.

In the process of writing a book about writing books (due out next year), I picked up for three dollars a 1933 anthology called “Types of Prose Writing.” I was delighted by the collection of essays, and one in particular caught my eye. It was “Three Ways of Saying Things: Statement, Overstatement and Understatement” and had originally appeared in The Century Magazine. The author was a man I had never heard of: Charles Edward Montague.

The distinctions of language and rhetoric drawn by Montague   — to state, to understate, to overstate — are discerning and practical, and I am ready to share them. But before I do, I would like to offer you parts of his life story.

The Great War did not define Montague as a writer, but it gave him a powerful occasion to work his craft. And when he found his writing voice on war, he went to great lengths to tune that voice, to give it both tone and range. He needed a rhetorical skill set that matched his experience and, having acquired it, was determined to share it with others.

Most of what I learned about Montague comes from a biographical essay, linked to primary sources, by John Simkin, writing for the website The short version goes like this:

Charles was born on New Year’s Day, 1867, the son of an Irish Catholic priest and the daughter of a wealthy Irish merchant. The family moved from Ireland to London, where he was born and raised. He graduated from Oxford with honors, catching the eye of C. P. Scott, then editor of the Manchester Guardian. That paper would become home for Montague for most of his professional life, where he would become one of England’s most prominent critics and “leader” writers. (In English newspapers, what Americans call “columns,” the Brits call “leaders,” some of which read as sophisticated literary essays, either on important issues of the day or on timeless concerns such as “The Sneeze” or “A Bowl of Soup.”) Montague married Scott’s daughter, and while his boss served as a member of Parliament, the son-in-law edited the paper.

Montague was widely respected for his energy, intelligence, and physical and moral courage. By 1914 he was writing in opposition to England’s participation in the Great War, but he felt a duty to join the fighting despite the fact that he was 47 years old. His hair had been gray since his 20s, so to persuade the recruiters of his fitness, he dyed it black. That gesture came to define his character and his reputation.  One scribe wrote that “Montague is the only man I know whose white hair in a single night turned dark through courage.”

Throughout his time in Europe, he kept diaries and wrote letters with detailed accounts of his experiences. In 1915, he described the scene in a way that would deflate any romanticized version of what was happening in the trenches:

“The one thing of which no description given in England (has) any true measure is the universal, ubiquitous muckiness of the whole front. One could hardly have imagined anybody as muddy as everybody is. The rats are pretty well unimaginable, too, and, wherever you are, if you have any grub about you that they like, they eat straight through your clothes or haversack to get at it as soon as you are asleep. I had some crumbs of army biscuit in a little calico bag in a greatcoat pocket, and when I awoke they had eaten a big hole through the coat from outside and pulled the bag through it, as if they thought the bag would be useful to carry away the stuff in. But they don't actually try to eat live humans.”

Muck and rats.

Whatever his assigned task during the war, Montague’s courage and curiosity drove him toward the front. This praise of his pluck came from none other than George Bernard Shaw, one of the most renowned writers of his day:

“At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my leader on my excursions. The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it. … Both of us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.”

Montague was determined to fight, gravitated to the front lines, and, when he returned to England, expressed an antipathy to the Great War — and to most wars. He criticized the press and the government, spoke truth to power, arguing that none of the justifications for the war — making the world safe for democracy — would prove true. His collection of newspaper essays about the war was titled “Disenchantment”: “War hath no fury,” he wrote, “like a non-combatant.”

Montague retired from newspaper work in 1925 to write a number of well-regarded novels. He died in 1927 at the age of 61. If this were not an interesting enough life for an author, consider this: He was the father of Evelyn Aubrey Montague, track athlete and journalist, one of the 1924 British Olympians immortalized in the 1981 movie “Chariots of Fire.”  (Now any time I hear that dramatic Vangelis musical score, I’ll think not only of those runners training along the shore, but of the man who died his hair black to perform his duty to his country.)

A strategy in my book “Writing Tools” advises writers, “Know when to back off and when to show off.” To back off, especially when a message is inherently dramatic, may require a form of understatement. Permission to show off comes when the subject is quirky or surprising, inviting the writer to do a little dance, make a little love, Wang Chung tonight. Under-statement vs. over-statement. Well done, Roy. Oh, but wait a minute, you say. Both the over and the under recognize the existence of a third path for the writer. The statement! Of course, the statement. How could I forget the statement?

There is no way of knowing from reading Montague’s essay “Three Ways of Saying Things” that the author spent nights in mucky trenches with rats gnawing through his clothes. There are references to the war, to be sure, but his focus is on the language used to express opinions on the war or other pressing issues.

He remarks that the primary form of public discourse, in both government and journalism, is overstatement, an indictment that requires close attention a century later in our own time:

“Almost every leader of an opposition, however talented, says of almost every big government bill which he has to oppose, that it is the most monstrous hash of crude and undigested proposals that he remembers in a long parliamentary experience. A gifted Labor member who wants to say effectively that a new pensions bill should confer still more than it does on the pensioners, says that it is the most brutal insult ever flung in the face of the poor.

“Nobody, speaker or hearer, thinks of believing these flourishes. Nobody would look up the previous hashes and insults referred to, so as to test the soundness of the eloquent person’s comparison. No one imagines them sound. It is all a form, a flourish, a figure of speech, and yet somehow it does serve a purpose, if only to convey a vague impression of robust and salutary trenchancy. To minds jaded with debauches of overemphasis, it does contrive to give a thrill. It bites, as a liquor three times as potent as whisky, might amuse for the moment a palate which has lost the power to be tickled by the common whisky of this world.”

All of Montague’s essay, like all of Gaul, is divided into three parts; overstatement comes first. Its opposite, of course, is understatement, and the author is amused by the attempts at humor or irony expressed in this mode of discourse. He quotes the statesman who describes the barren sands of the Sahara as “very light soil.” He makes fun of the Americans who first described the Atlantic Ocean as “the herring pond” and “the drink,” and who described Noah’s Flood as “the big rain.”

According to the author, both the overstater and the understater seem to crave more attention to an idea or bit of news than the item may deserve. Montague says it better: “… all but a few whimsical persons seem to be urged by some instinct of style either to overstate things by one hundred per cent or to understate them by fifty per cent, in order to make the statement tell better.” That sense of “tell better” suggests an essential lack of trust in the material, such that you have to find a way to “punch it up” as we used to say in the newsroom.

So what is the antidote? “There is yet a third sauce, but it takes canny cooking. Straight and narrow is the path and few shall walk therein.” One of the best examples of the straight and narrow style can be found above in Montague’s description of the voracious rats in the mucky trenches of the war front. It would be ruined by either hyperbole or euphemism. Instead he finds a form of discourse that delivers the truth — even difficult truths — directly.

As a model of straight and narrow writing, he offers the example of a “most rousing preacher in Oxford” named Benjamin Jowett:

“He never, as some preachers did, put it to two hundred healthy young men that, as a quite likely thing, they might die in the course of the next night and have to give God, about breakfast time, an account of their stewardships. Neither did he suggest, as other preachers did, that they were all going to live to be three score and ten (70). What he said was, ‘I find it set down in tables that the average duration of human life, at the age of twenty-one, is about thirty-six years. We may hope for a little more; we may fear a little less; but, speaking generally, thirty-six years, or about thirteen thousand days, is the time in which our task must be accomplished.’”

Montague, who died at the age of 61, offered this straight and narrow appreciation of the preacher’s remarks:

“For myself, and some others, at least, I can certify this: Our young minds were so electrified by this quaint piece of precision, so unexpected from a pulpit, that they were instantly opened wide for the reception of what followed — that we should be shabby fellows if we spent any serious proportion of our thirteen thousand days in shirking or whining or sponging on the more manful part of mankind.”

Montague ends his essay on rhetoric with a culinary metaphor, a flourish that we all have experienced. I would summarize him this way. We have all been served a meal that has been undercooked or perhaps over seasoned. Though almost impossible to enjoy and hard to digest, we nibble at it anyway, so as not to insult the cook, who may also be a loved one. But you are still hungry, and on the table is a bowl of mashed potatoes and plate of broccoli trees. Both are ordinarily plain. But at this moment, in contrast to the main serving, they are sumptuous. Mmm. Mmm. Good.

Now Montague:

“It is true that this means of persuasion depends for a good deal of its force on the presence of a certain background. Anything stated with complete calmness and fastidious precision in the midst of a heated controversy has almost the effect of a satiric epigram. It gains, for your mind, an odd distinctness and authority; it has a cunning touch of flattery; it seems to summon you away from the company of these bristling fellows and to bid you use the brains with which it does you the honor of crediting you. If ever the supply of headlong over-staters and under-staters should run short, the effectiveness of literalism might undoubtedly languish.”

The author is conscious of circumstances, context and degree. A war, for example, may inspire the over-staters, those who essentially become propagandists for the mother country’s cause. After the war, a taste for hyperbole may give way to an appetite for language more calm and consoling — except for the exaggerators and sensationalists trying to draw a crowd and make a penny. In either context, the writer who tells it straight may become the one the country wants — and needs.