[writing] Herman Melville’s friend, the humble comma

Whilst reading The Confidence Man: His Masquerade, by Herman Melville, I continue to marvel at the shifts in literary style over time. Consider this sentence:

While the merchant, strange to say, opposed views so calm and impartial, and again, with some warmth, deplored the case of the unfortunate man, his companion, not without seriousness, checked him, saying, that this would never do; that, though but in the most exceptional case, to admit the existence of unmerited misery, more particularly if alleged to have been brought about by unhindered arts of the wicked, such an admission was, to say the least, not prudent; since, with some, it might unfavorably bias their most important persuasions

I have several observations here.

First of all, this is a typical sentence for Melville, at least in this book.

Second, I have probably written entire novel chapters with fewer commas than this single sentence. One imagines a mid-nineteenth century fire sale on punctuation. Try reading the damned thing aloud.

Third, if I turned a sentence like that it to Tor, editorial ninjas would come to my house and choke me to death with my own copy edit. To general approbation and good cheer, I should think.

Nonetheless, I soldier bravely onward, for like all fiction, ’tis not the bottle but the contents which makes the play.

3 thoughts on “[writing] Herman Melville’s friend, the humble comma

  1. Paul Jessup says:

    Moby Dick is a little less running sentance-y, with less commas and the like. But I must admit, that is a pain in the ass for modern eyes and ears to read.

  2. David says:

    Ah, the joy of the well-placed comma – it is a feeling I remember fondly, with a warm after-glow that has kept me going for ten, nay fifteen years, years that have passed since finishing my MA thesis, a dissertation on Thomas Pynchon’s stunningly complex master-piece, aptly entitled Mason & Dixon; a work that has imprinted above-mentioned joy on me for, I reckon, the rest of my life.

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