Edmund Wilson's Words of Ill-Omen: Massive

The American man of letters gives guidance to writers and journalists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Three: Massive.

This word has become one of the worst bores and nuisances of both British and American journalism, and what seems to have been its sudden and rapid emergence is a phenomenon which ought to be studied. It has no doubt been given special prestige by the declaration of Mr Dulles in his speech to the Council on Foreign Relations of 12 January 1954 that "Local Defence must be reinforced by the further deterrent of massive retaliatory power", but the word had already been gaining momentum.

It is now to be found everywhere, and one even has an uneasy feeling that it may announce the presence of radioactivity. In the course of a few weeks I have been able to pick up a whole pile of examples.

Let me establish the word first in its earlier sense by some quotations from David Copperfield:

...an office that ought to have been on the ground floor of the Tower of Babel, it was so massively constructed ... sundry immense manuscript Books of Evidence taken on affidavit, strongly bound and tied together in massive sets ... His hold watch-chain was so massive, that a fancy came across me, that he ought to have a sinewy golden arm, to draw it out with, like those which are put up over the gold-beaters' shops.

These apply to inert materials, but you have also a human massiveness not devoid of moral implication: "There was a fine massive gravity on his face, I did not venture to disturb". The definitions of the word in the OED mostly deal with this sort of mass, though there follow examples of massive applied to "immaterial things" (massive thought, massive swellings), and to volume of sound (massive bass, massive chorus). Ruskin, it seems, spoke of clouds as "massive or striated", but added, "I cannot find a better word than massive, though it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify it is not a good one, for I mean it only to signify a fleecy arrangement in which no lines are visible". Note Ruskin's apology for extending the meaning.

Now, the single use of massive among the recent examples I have gathered which comes under the first of the old definitions occurs in an article by S J Perelman in the New Yorker of 7 June. He speaks of "a massive fireplace"; but this is probably to be explained by his penchant for writing parodies of various old-fashioned styles. Sir Harold Nicolson, in a review of Belloc's letters in the Observer of 18 May, just manages to remain within the old definition when he writes of Belloc's "querulousness - so distressing in a massive, mighty man"; and T S Eliot, in his introduction to a volume of selections from Joyce, Introducing James Joyce, is also just within the old defition when he refers to Finnegans Wake as "that massive work". Finnegans Wake is not massive by reason of bulk - a novel by Dickens is much longer - but its density does perhaps make it massive. The Times Literary Supplement of 23 May provides another example of massive applied to books: "All these biographies are monumental in a sense beyond the merely massive and the physically weighty"; and Pamela Hansford Johnson, in the book already mentioned, applied the word to style: "He informed her, in a style as steady and massive as Cicero's".

But isn't Nicolson stretching it a little when he speaks, in a review in the New York Times Book Review of 18 March, of "the fourth volume of Winston Churchill's massive History of the English-Speaking Peoples"; and, in the Sunday Times of 6 July, of de Tocqueville's "massive studies of the ancien régime in France or the development of young America"? Maybe not: it is a matter of relative scale. But what adjective have you left for Gibbon? In a second use of massive in the Churchill review, this writer does, however, depart from the older uses of the word: the American Civil War, he says, was "a cosmic clash between strong men and massive principles". (I do not care for 'cosmic' here either. I have always regarded this loose use of cosmic as a particularly undesirable Americanism.)

The tendency to make massive a substitute not merely for enormous, immense and huge but even for large and extensive as applying to all sorts of phenomena, social, financial, political and psychological, is illustrated by the following examples.

It is easy and proper for the American Ambassador to Canada ... and for Canadian economists to argue that massive American investment, at this stage, is essential to Canada's growth. (An article in Harper's Magazine on 'Why Canadians Are Turning Anti-American'.)

The Marxists claim, of course, that colonialism invariably represented a massive and cruel exploitation of the colonial peoples. . . It is small wonder that it has all added up to a massive anti-Western complex. (George Kennan: Russia, the Atom and the West.)

No one, certainly not Lord Altrincham, we feel, would decry the massive difficulties confronting the young woman who is called upon to combine the personal and institutional qualities demanded of the Monarch today. (Lord Altrincham and Others: Is The Monarchy Perfect?)

... for several minutes the three of us waited with bowed heads ... while he built up a massive edifice of bad language. (John Wain: The Con-tenders.) (The use of massive here is possible under the old definition but provides another example of the fashionable addiction to the word.)

He could then argue that the Russians with their massive conventional forces and their interior lines cannot be contained without nuclear weapons. (Walter Lippmann.)

... he felt that his work was misunderstood on a massive scale. (Adventures of a Pacifist in the New Yorker, 22 March). In around a thousand pages, Max Lerner ... has undertaken ... a massive attempt to describe the main characteristics and currents of American life and thought ... (Review in New Yorker, 22 March).

Instead of the weekly issue of Punch or the New Yorker, subscribers will receive a small phial (wrapped, of course, in massive quantities of advertising matter), with instructions on how and when to inject its contents, thereby giving rise to fits of healthy, invigorating laughter. (Malcolm Muggeridge in April Esquire.)

There was a massive creation, consumption, and disposal of goods. (Dan Jacobson in June Encounter.)

Here are a number of examples - all from recent issues of the New York Times - that have been obviously inspired by Dulles:

A massive wave of Soviet, Chinese Communist and East European criticism has been directed at Yugoslavia ... Under Virginia's so-called "mas-sive resistance" laws, no Negro has been integrated in a public school. ... While somewhat inconclusive, the first report of the United Nations observers in Lebanon failed to support the Lebanese Government's charges of massive intervention. ... The United States Embassy here an-nounced early today that "a massive airlift" of petroleum products for Jordan would be started within the next few hours. ... Dr Malik replied a few days later that "massive intervention" was continuing. ...

You find also now a frequent use of the adverb: in the Times Literary Supplement editorial already quoted above, for example, "the realism of massively accumulated detail", and in the novel by John Wain, "'I've had my breakfast,' I said, bringing his organizing power massively into play". In a notice of a volume of reporting pieces in the Times Literary Supplement, the anonymous reviewer writes, "individually, they are massively observant". In Inside Russia Today, John Gunther says of Marx that he "was massively influenced by several French thinkers". (The May issue of Vogue referred to this volume as "a massive book".) In the Letter from Paris in the New Yorker of 31 May, one finds, "This is a call for the saviour that has not been massively heard in the Paris streets".

Some of these phrases - John Gunther's, for example - seem to me inexact, even if the meaning of massive is extended. Russia might perhaps be said to have been massively influenced by Marx; can you say that Marx's thought was massively influenced by earlier thinkers? But even when the words are properly used in the more limited old-fashioned senses, they are certainly used far too often. Massive and massively occur only four times in the whole of David Copperfield, but in short articles like the Nicolson review and the TLS editorial, the writers have slipped into using them twice.

Now, why has the word become so popular? It may be that the Marxist masses, in the sense of the working classes, has - in the last case above, for example - a little something to do with it. But what are undoubtedly most important, from the strictly material point of view, are the immense modern buildings and power plants, our machines for transportation and industry and war; and from the point of view of range or effect, our modern commercial enterprises and military operations. And there are also, of course, the great power units. Mr Dulles's "further deterrent of massive retaliatory power" is also an inexact use of the word, but it is evident that Mr Dulles was thinking both of the power of the United States and of the effect of the modern bomb. We are awed and yet stimulated by our awareness of size, weight, explosive force and expanding governmental domination, and these feelings have their expression in our use of massive.

6 September 1958.

Next up: Superb and Fabulous. Previous: Religionist.

Massive books in massive Russia. Photo: Getty.

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was a noted American writer, critic and social commentator who contributed occasional reviews and essays to the New Statesman.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era