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Floyd Dell's Intellectual Vagabondage

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I'm not so sure that Floyd Dell's work, Intellectual Vagabondage would be so important to me if I hadn't come across it halfway through high school when I was ready to have some illusions blown away. I came across it at a Goodwill or Salvation Army, I forget which. There it was, hiding among all the Reader's Digest Condensed Books and suchlike, just waiting to twist my head around.

I loved its tone. Dell seems not to be showing off how smart he is, but is just a man concerned that he hasn't seen these ideas explained clearly, and thinks that a basic understanding of the subject makes life a little more comprehensible. The tone is that of a heart-to-heart talk between friends; he has some concerns he'd like to get off his chest, and thinks perhaps you'll profit from hearing them. I think the down-to-earth yet colorful style of the book attracted me even more than the subject matter. In so many ways I was taught in school that pretension was part of what made writing good; this was a beacon saying that there was integrity in stating things plainly and honestly as you saw them, and admitting that you don't know everything. A hard lesson to learn, and all the harder when your whole youth is about maintaining a false front for your own survival. (I grew up gay in Orange County, California, which at the time was a very homophobic place. Maybe it still is; I don't go back much.) I still reread this book every couple of years, and I wish I had more of its style. But then I'm not Floyd Dell and shouldn't try to be. And I admit after 20 years or so the book seems slighter than it once did.

This is a history of intellectual trends, as reflected in the books that became very popular in various times. Dell starts with Robinson Crusoe and ends in the 1920s, when the book was written, explaining why Byron and Ibsen and Darwin and Huxley and the rest were so important to the readers of their times. And he shows how an understanding of what went before helps one understand the way things are now. It's just a social history; he doesn't talk about the aesthetics of literature at all. That's it.

This book was also one of my first encounters with an important truth of art: that your work is powerful not because you convey a new emotion to the audience, but because you tap into an emotion the audience already feels but can't express.
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