Treading out cliches.

Author:Rodriguez, M. Miguel
Position:Correspondence - Letter to the Editor

In his review of Michael Knox-Beran's Jefferson's Demons (March), Wilfred McClay takes the author to task for having mixed his metaphors when he wrote that Thomas Jefferson "drew on the very traditions he censured in order to tread out his own prophetic wine." But Professor McClay must really take the matter up not with Knox-Beran but with Isaiah, to whose beautiful figure, I take it, the author was alluding in his evocation of Jefferson as a prophet of democracy: "and in the vineyards there shall be no singing, neither shall there be shouting: the treaders shall tread out no wine in their presses; I have made their vintage-shouting to cease."

Much of what passes for clear writing will, if examined carefully, be found to consist of dead figures of speech, so dead that we do not notice how often they are used and how subtly they are intermixed. In his review, Prof. McClay reveals a gift for decaying and moribund figures of speech. The Jefferson Memorial, he writes "nestles peacefully amid the greenery," as though it were a nest-making bird, yet many people "take a pass" on visiting it because it is off the "beaten path." Jefferson's reputation has suffered from "erosion," while the growth of cities has "put paid" to his agrarian ideals. But although Knox-Beran's book "aims" at an admiring "view" of Jefferson "without skirting" his faults, it forces too many aspects of his life to "take a backseat" to his psyche, which Knox-Berann has not fully understood, for he failed to grasp that Jefferson, with his fear of "superstition-laced" dogmas, believed that "unimpeded" reason (reason on foot, that is, encountering no obstacles) would carry men across the stormy sea to a "safe harbor" (reason--in its capacity, we must suppose, as divine logos--being endowed by Prof. McClay with the ability to walk on water).

Let him who is without (literary) sin cast the first (figurative) stone. I do not, however, fault Professor McClay for using and mixing stale figures of speech. Every writer does, except perhaps those who, like Isaiah, have submitted to a higher dictation. A prose such as Sainte-Beuve desired, completely free of both dead and impure metaphors, must for most writers be an impossible ideal. As far as I'm concerned, though, Prof...

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