Jeff Dolven’s New Book Discusses Style in Literary Experience

December 4, 2017
Jeff Dolven's new book published in January 2018 by University of Chicago Press

What do we talk about, when we talk about style? Jeff Dolven, Professor of English and Behrman Professor of the Humanities, will publish a new book of criticism, Senses of Style, this month; on Wednesday, December 13, at 6 PM, he will discuss it with Michael Wood, Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professor of English and Comparative Literature Emeritus, at Labyrinth Books.

The book argues that style is a neglected category of literary experience, critically and pedagogically, and it offers a new account of the range, and contradictions, of the concept. It had its beginnings in Dolven’s study of Renaissance humanist pedagogy, a pedagogy based on stylistic imitation of ancient authors. The questions at stake came to seem broader, however, and in recent years he has taught classes in the English Department and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities (IHUM) that read for the style across many periods and genres. Basic to the resulting book is the claim that style has to be understood in terms of its self-division, how it used sometimes to single out individuals and sometimes to define groups, sometimes for artifice, sometime for nature. “Often, accounts of style narrow its meaning in order to make it philosophically useful, theoretically self-consistent,” he says. “I wanted not only to acknowledge but also to try to explain the contradictions that I found.”

The form of the book is an experiment. It consists of a series of almost four hundred short sections, varying in length from a sentence to a page. Together they tell two stories in parallel, that of Sir Thomas Wyatt, a poet and diplomat in the court of Henry VIII, and of his admirer Frank O’Hara, a poet and curator in the New York of Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson. The question of why O’Hara was so taken with Wyatt—why he returned again and again to Wyatt’s poems over his writing life—makes the occasion for an obliquely systematic inquiry into how we sound like other people and how we sound like ourselves.

Read the latest in Jeff Dolven’s eight-part series “Life Sentence” in The Paris Review.

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