Sunday, May 08, 2005

Baker and Cicero on Writing and Speaking

Moved by my recent visit with The Practical Stylist, I spent some time online looking for Sheridan Baker. One of the first websites that I encountered informed me of his death. Born on July 10th, 1918 in Santa Rosa, California, he died on June 30th, 2000 in -- I am assuming -- Dearborn, Michigan, where he had lived for many years as a professor at the University of Michigan.

Although I knew of him only as a stylist, Baker had many talents. He was a published poet, a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Nagoya, Japan (1961), the first editor (1962) of the Michigan Quarterly Review, and editor of the Norton critical edition of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones.

He also knew Latin well enough to translate Cicero, and he included in his Practical Stylist a passage from Cicero's De Oratore (1.xxxiii. 150f) as an example of good writing about the importance of writing:

"But the main thing is what, to tell the truth, we do least -- it is indeed hard work, which most of us flee -- to write as much as possible. The pen is rightly the supreme producer and teacher of speech. Just as a little meditation easily beats an offhand extemporaneous speech, so a diligent written speech will just as surely top the former. Indeed, all the ideas that immediately pertain to what we are writing, whether from others or from our own gifts and knowledge, rush forth as we ponder with the full sharpness of our gifts, and all thoughts and all words, the most sparkling, each in its way, must necessarily flow under and follow the point of the pen. Then, too, writing perfects the very arrangement and organization of words, but in the rhythm and measure of public speaking, not of poetry" (page 17).

Cicero was speaking about writing as a means for improving one's rhetorical skills for better oratory, a mastery necessary for participating effectively in Rome's political arena. Most of us who learned effective language skills from Baker read him for his advice on writing essays and term papers, what we thought of purely as the written word. But as I again peruse Baker, I am impressed by how concerned he was with teaching us how to speak.

I am saddened to hear that Baker's own voice has fallen silent.


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