This thesis aims to describe the way American expository prose style evolved during the period 1851 to 1981 as exemplified by the Easy Chair columnists of Harper's Magazine. Major premises of the study are that style and meaning are the same, but that a writer chooses among various shades of meaning, sometimes on the basis of rhetorical strategy, and thus it is possible to make meaningful statements about a writer's style.
The research methods emphasized synthesis of many different kinds of information about each author's writing, rather than complete reliance on impressionistic judgement or on quantified data. For each author and for the Easy Chair columnists as a group, the following features underwent scrutiny: content, role of author in society, diction, sentence styles, construction schemes, tropes, finite verbs, and general quality of writing. Methods for examining these features combined strict quantitative techniques with subjective observations which might generally result from careful, critical readings by educated readers.
The findings suggest that there have been five periods in the development of American prose style during the last 130 years. The first, 1851 to 1853, saw Donald G. Mitchell in the Chair. This was the Decorative Period, when Mitchell filled the columns with aimless chitchat, gossipy trivia, and melodramatic tales, all served to the reader in long, rhetorically styled sentences piled with numerous tropes and construction schemes that amount almost entirely to excessive garnishes. The Easy Chair was chiefly ornate entertainment.
The Rambling and Comfortable Period followed, from 1859 to 1892. George William Curtis occupied the Chair, from it handing down a wise grandparent's analysis of happenings on the American scene, often drawing a moral lesson, but in a positive, easy-going tone, using many long but simple sentences.
William Dean Howells occupied the Easy Chair during the Elegant Period, 1880 to 1920. Using the column to promote and guide the development of American literature, Howells demonstrated in his own writing the grace he urged in others: highly varied and imaginative devices; masterfully effective and unobtrusive tropes and construction schemes; language that is formal and dignified, yet plain; and beautiful prose rhythm.
With the installation of Edward S. Martin in the Easy Chair in 1921 began the Journalistic Period, continued after Martin by Bernard DeVoto and John Fischer until 1975. The content of the columns changed to analysis of current political and social events, offered from the viewpoint of the man in the street. The style of the writing became journalistic, with shorter sentences and fewer rhetorical strategies. The tone became critical and factual.
In 1975, Lewis Lapham began the Prophetic Period. Still occupying the Chair, Lapham makes of the column a place from which to denounce the weaknesses and moral disease he sees infecting the inner realities of American life, especially its politics, press, and arts. Lapham moves poetically from one dominant impression to another, using great rhetorical skill, especially with extended tropes and with rhetorical sentence types. He apparently intends his lamentations for the well-educated; his columns are sprinkled liberally with abstract and technical language and with far-ranging references to art, literature, and historical scholarship.
Three especially striking changes have developed in the Easy Chair columns since 1851. One is the view of America. To the various columnists, this country was initially unimportant, then basically good, then needing a Jonah's dreadful warning. The tone of the column has changed correspondingly, beginning light, almost silly, and becoming earnest and damning. Highly artistic prose was used by Mitchell for elaborate entertainment in the early columns, whereas similarly artistic prose is used in the current columns to make properly dramatic and penetrating the lamentations of a despair-stricken prophet.
The results of this study suggest that in prose style analysis, quantitative data may not by itself meaningfully describe prose styles. The results also suggest that the traditionally-defined aspects of style are more closely associated with the role the writer takes in relation to his message and audience than with anything else. Finally, it appears that while several striking differences develop among writers over 130 years, their styles really remain very similar.
The findings of this study also show that the Easy Chair columnists, considered through the years to include the best American prose stylists, demonstrate the principles traditionally taught to college composition students.
Dorothy M. Comm
Marilyn C. Teele
Helen F. Little
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Harper's Magazine; Exposition (Rhetoric); Newspapers -- Sections; columns; etc.
Loma Linda University Libraries
This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Rouse, Cherie, "The Evolution of American Expository Prose Style as Exemplified by the Easy Chair Columnists of HARPER'S MAGAZINE" (1981). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 1009.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
Loma Linda University. Del E. Webb Memorial Library. University Archives