At one time I was a partner in a retail antique shop on the Balboa peninsula in Newport Beach, California. My business associate and I were both in education, running the store in the summer during the height of the tourist season and having an employee manage the store during the winter months when it was open fewer hours.
We acquired antiques and collectibles from all over the country: estate sales, shipments we brought in from the midwest, buying expeditions, people bringing items into the store to sell, and doing estate appraisals. One day this little set of books arrived in a trunk of items. They immediately went to an interested party – me.
Just who was Sherwin Cody? I quickly checked Wikipedia to learn he was born in 1868 in Michigan and went by his middle name Sherwin. (With the first name of Alpheus, he appears to have made a good choice. Sherwin does seem a bit more literary than, say, the nickname Al.) His active writing life spanned from 1893 to 1950. From Wikipedia,
“Sherwin Cody worked at the Chicago Tribune just as correspondence education was being initiated at the University of Chicago, and he was assigned to write a home study course for the Tribune. In 1903 Cody produced a version of his course in pocket sized book form as The Art of Writing and Speaking the English Language.”
I imagine Cody would be quite amazed at the growth of correspondence education and what is now available via the internet and online from universities. He could definitely say he was in on the ground floor.
I wondered about the contents of the Composition book. Would I find anything of interest, contradictory, illuminating? I found the chapter titles intriguing.
Cody called his course practical, outlining three goals on page 15 of the above volume:
- “Form the habit of observing the meaning and values of words, the structure of sentences, of paragraphs, and of the entire compositions as we read standard literature.”
I relate. As I read, I seem to read on two concurrent levels. On one I’m engrossed in the story. On the other I’m observing and analyzing what the author is doing and how he’s achieving it. E.g. structure, word choice. My two-level process seems to happen simultaneously.
- “Practice in the imitation of selections from master writers, in every case fixing our attention on the rhetorical element each particular writer best illustrates.”
I’ve done this, knowingly trying to incorporate a scene description rich in symbolism a la John Steinbeck (The Pearl), a story mood a la Erich Maria Remarque (All Quiet on the Western Front), and suspense and tension a la Edgar Allan Poe (The Masque of the Red Death).
- “Make independent compositions for ourselves with a view to studying and expressing the stock of ideas which we have to express. This will involve a study of the people on whom we wish to impress our ideas.”
This is where we as writers sit down, tie ourselves to a chair if necessary, and write, keeping in mind how we can – with our word choices, structure, characters, plot, etc. – have the reader see, feel, and understand, and come away caring about what they’ve read; how we can touch the reader. In other words, consider the audience.
Some say writers should write what they like, write for themselves, just put their work out in circulation, and see what happens. I say write what you like, know, and don’t know. Do your research. The choices are infinite. But I add, know your niche or category and market. If you want to be read, keep your reader in mind.
I can’t say I saw anything new or saw anything in my quick scan with which I disagreed. Cody seemed thorough, obviously dated in style and examples. I’d like to know the authors Cody would choose today to illustrate his thoughts.
An aside – My dad was a great one for correspondence courses and always advised me to keep learning. I’m sure if he’d been interested in writing per se he would have tried one of Cody’s courses. (My dad, more interested in business and law, did work assiduously on one particular correspondence course called The Blackstone School of Law. In my mind, I can still see him pouring over the critiques given of his arguments.)
I found these little books quite user friendly, easily slipped into a pocket or purse. I imagine whenever a potential writer sat down with one of these, school was in session.
Final advice from Sherwin Cody? “Write what you know—so go out and know something.” I think I would have enjoyed meeting this guy.