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February 20, 2008

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Meditations on the Melancholy State of Outdoor Writing

I would not have brought this up except for Chad Love's outburst in the most recent blog, and the number of people who agree with him. The danger in a geezer like myself criticizing the current state of affairs is that we tend to look at everything past as being better. But in this case, I think Mister Love has spoken the truth.

There are two differences between the past generation of outdoor writers and the upcoming one: We grew up before television, and we went to school before the collapse of the American educational system. All of the great writers such as Hill, Zern, O'Connor, Brister, et al, were prodigious readers, and they read everything, not just about the outdoors. Gene Hill was a great fan of Herbert Warren Wind, who for many years covered golf for The New Yorker. Ed Zern loved the work of humorist S.J. Perleman, who is probably forgotten now, and to whom Ed owed much of his style.  Mr. W. Heavey of Virginia, who is as great a writer as any of these men (although no greater) is massively well read, and once launched into a diatribe on the writing style of Vladimir Nabokov, badly frightening all within earshot. I doubt if many people under 40 have read Nabokov.

The other problem is, of course, that our schools have crashed and burned. If what I see is any indication, very few college graduates can write so much as a page of correct English, much less write with any kind of style or interest. E-mailing and texting may well be the death of the written language. A friend of mine who taught college English for 30 years retired recently, and summed up her career thus:

"I never got to teach English at the college level. What I taught was remedial high school English."

And that, Chad, is why you see before you a vast wasteland (who used that phrase?) rather than the wonderland of yesteryear.


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Joe Novak

Mr. Petzal,
I find myself forced to disagree with you. While my own situation may be the unique result of excellent teachers, I feel that I had as much exposure to great literature in high school (and to a lesser extent college, where I am a sophomore) than many adults today have experienced in their lifetime. In High School alone I was exposed not only to Shakespeare and Chaucer and the celebrated poets such as Tennyson (sp?, Shelley and Keats, but also to Chekov, Conrad and Hardy. I still get frustrated thinking about staying up late revising papers that the professor rejected on the basis of single sentences. Among my friends and classmates, there is a definite line in the sand when it comes to writing skills. The line separates those who read heavily, and those who don't.


Joe Novak:
I went to college in the late sixties and seventies. While I didn't major in English, I did have to take several literature courses. These courses included authors such as Huxley, Vonnegut, Orwell, in adition to the classics. I find now that communications skills among the general population, and my field (Forestry) have declined greatly.
In the previous blog, we honored a great writer, whose works will probably never be required reading in a college composition class. That's our loss! I don't know where Mr. Gresham went to school, or even if he attended college. I do know that he was required, even in grade school, to practice good penmanship, learn correct spelling, learn sentence structure, etc. If he didn't, I'm sure he was severely reprimanded. Today, teachers in some of our schools are lucky to finish their day with no injuries, let alone trying to impart knowledge on kids who have no desire to learn.
Sorry to rant, but I honestly believe that, as literary icons pass, they won't be replaced. There just isn't the social structure anymore to produce these people.


Mr. Novak count yourself fortunate. I too was fortunate to have literature/english (now refered to as language arts)teachers who cared and exposed me to not only classical literature but also to Faulkner, O'Connor (Flannery not Cactus Jack) et al. Dave, as for your comment on text messaging being the end of structured written communication, I would say you are correct. As a part of my job I work with young people in grade levels from elementary through highschool. One of the chief complaints I hear from teachers is that students submit written reports and essays as if they were text messages! It seems no amount of correction seems to stick with the kids. I also see a lot of jaded, burned out teachers. In my state they become that way because they have to teach to the tests our state government requires. If our kids test low in a certain area this is all they see until the next "state test". Maybe I'm and old dinosaur but I see no regimented educational system. The kids are not exposed to each class each week much less each day as I was in my schooling. They may have math one month then not see it again for 2-3 months. Try to train a bird dog that way!

Dave Petzal

To Joe Novak: Trust me, you are not only the exception, but extremely lucky as well. However, you suffer from College Writing Syndrome, which teaches that the more words you use, the better.

For example, instead of "I find myself forced to disagree with you," how about "You're wrong."

My favorite example of concision is one of the great examples of American writing--the Gettysburg Address--all 286 words of it. I read it once a week for inspiration. Its author had no more than a couple of years of formal education, if that.


Yooper and Dave,
I quite concur with your observation that our American literary system is in the toilet. While I may not have went to college (served in the military instead) I do rather enjoy reading. Unfortunitly when I was exposed to the literary classics in High School they were few and far between. Sure I read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Catcher in the rye." But there was so much more out there and not enough time to read all of them. To tell you the truth I feel my education was a farce and my diploma is not worth the paper it is printed on. But what they did do was teach me how to read and thirst for more them what is on the best seller list this week.


Del Gue

"Who is Newton Minow"


Dave - I sadly remember when my alma mater offered the incoming freshmen jocks an "introductory" English course...which quickly became known as "13th grade English". Luckily, it was discontinued after that year...probably because the lunkheads couldn't read the campus maps!


Newton Norman Minow (born January 17, 1926) is an American attorney and former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. His speech referring to television as a "Vast Wasteland" is cited even as the speech approaches its 50th anniversary. While still maintaining a law practice, Minow is currently the Honorary Consul General of Singapore in Chicago.[1]

He has been active in Democratic party politics. Minow is an influential attorney in private practice concerning telecommunications law and is active in many non-profit, civic, and educational institutions.

Chad Love

I didn't mean for my comment to deflect attention from Grits Gresham. It was something of an outburst and I should have held my keyboard.
I was trying, in my overwrought and long-winded way, to explain why guys like him should still matter, but somehow don't.

My wife, interestingly enough, is a high school English and humanities teacher and an old-school hard-ass grammar queen.
Her kids adore her without exception, and she in turn loves them but she is tough and she is demanding.
She is not there to make them feel good about themselves, she is not there to help them achieve self-actualization and she is not there to be a vessel of empathy.
She is there to teach them, and if she does that correctly then all that other stuff will happen on its own.
I'm extremely proud of her and if we had a few more teachers like her our kids would be in good hands.
But you know what? Teachers aren't miracle workers. They can only work with what's been given to them.
And if parents don't give a damn that their kids can't write a complete sentence, then the teacher's mission is doomed to fail before it ever begins.
Just go ask any public school teacher about their students' parents. The response may shock you.

WA Mtnhunter


American literacy is way down the toilet. My wife, who is far more literate than I, is an English major with an M.Ed, who has taught at all grade levels for 29 years. We both shake our heads at the level of writing of her incoming high school students. Most of us wrote that well in 5th grade in our day.

I work with degreed engineers who, for the most part, can't write a cogent sentence in a substantiation report nor spell cat without using the letter 'k'.

There are many grammatical and usage errors in almost every publication you read these days. Forgive my poor writing. But, alas, I don't do it for a living.

Those who don't agree with this observation either live in an ivory tower or are in a most enviable environment.


I believe two issues are being confused: skill in writing and pride in writing (or pride in any other work for that matter). I agree that the quality of writing has declined, and causes are to blame. However the underlying causes are not the same.

I propose that the bulk of the decline in written school work, from grade-school to university is attributable to the lack of pride. I do not doubt that students also generally lack writing skill; rather I feel that is not the cause of the drastic decline. Among professional writers, I doubt that lack of pride in writing could be the problem: would any editor not demand the best from writers?



WA Mtnhunter



Just the other day a parent of one of my wife's students complained about the math and English load. She wants her son to have an "enrichment" education experience. When asked what he wanted to pursue as a career, he said that he wants to be a doctor. Good luck with that without literacy and math skills.

I suggested that he enrich himself with some table bussing skills if that is his tack in education.

I'm off the soapbox now.


You don't know how much you said there! I generally hire by "word of mouth". i.e. I hire by getting referrals from foresters who used to work for me. If I had to advertise, I would get out of business. You wouldn't believe the mistakes I find on resumes. Yeah, I know that we get a bit careless on these blogs, but boy! To send something in first class mail, that you didn't bother to check, that you used words incorrectly, and your career will depend on that correspondence. Its scary because someone will hire that person.


Being an admitted biblioholic and amateur writer (nobody will pay for my crap) I agree that writing skills are best borne out with reading skills. If you want to learn how to do something well (hunt, fish, write, speak, calculate) then you have to learn from those who do it well. I have a lot more reading to do.

I thank my high school English teacher for inspiration to read literature. This came during a time when the vast wasteland was beginning to pump a steady diet of mind-numbing filth into living rooms across America.

Field & Stream is a successful magazine because it is written by great writers, not because it is written by great hunters. (Ain't that right Mr. November of Virginia?)

I have not read Nabokov, thinking him a pig because of Lolita, although I have read about him. I would agree with any negative comments BH would launch about his writing.

So turn off the tube(computer, wii, cell phone, ipod, etc.) and take your kids outdoors. If the weather stinks, read a book (or a certain magazine) with them.

Dave Curtiss

After being retired a couple of years, I decided to go into teaching at the high school level. I left after a bit less than 2 years. I found it embarrassing to be associated with the profession. Teaching is not rocket science. Administrators effectively blocked teaching in an effective manner, and unfortunately, many of those entering the profession, are not our best and brightest. It was a shocking, and disappointing, experience.


"Everybody complains about the weather; nobody does anything about it." I hope the good readers of this blog will not follow that suit, and will read some good literature themselves and encourage their children and grandchildren to read good literature, too.


If you look @ school rankings on a state level the bitter truth will bear out what sounds racist and bigoted.

In Indiana, the schools with the best standardized test scores are from predominately white areas with higher than average incomes. It's that way year in and year out.

Are the facts bigoted and racist? Are we as a society failing the children? Has the middle class collapsed and our teachers are social workers more than teachers anymore. Are we too consumed with our own lives to parent our kids anymore?

Any answers, suggestions?



It's true. As a college student I communicate on a daily basis with people who own remarkably small vocabularies and have difficulty transmitting a cogent thought in writing. The english language has decayed to a point where most college students cannot construct essays worthy of the paper and ink that is used to form it.

Sure, instant messaging, texting and email are to blame; but as a generation our need for instant gradification has created a world in which authors like Hemingway, Nabokov,and Conrad go unread and unappreciated. Video games and Television has supplanted reading as a past time; and the authors that do get read hardly measure up to those of yesteryear.

Our apathy towards reading as a generation has begoten this state of melancholy and I see no end in sight; and for that I lament.


While never having experienced inner city schools at any level, it seems that the school systems in those areas are bureaucratic systems that have run amok. I became aware of the problem when Ronald Reagan was president. He was a strong proponent of school vouchers. Anyone who was associated with a school system was vehemently opposed to this idea. Now more than twenty years have passed and the situation has gotten much worse. It seems like the only kids that those schools are interested in graduating are the ones with a football or basketball scholarship in their future. They don't teach them any more, they just lower the standards to ensure graduation.


A major factor in the decline of reading and writing skills in public schools is the mandatory state testing system. Each student in my home state must write "essays". These are graded by graduate students in a far away location. The students are taught to follow a pattern for each type of supplied prompt. This makes the grading/turn-around time acceptable. What we end up with is a "cookie cutter" approach that kills creativity, individual expression or any other enjoyment of the literay arts. Good teachers struggle to implement Shakespeare, Hemingway, Emerson, Faulkner, Twain, Chaucer, and others into a curricullum that demands results based on test scores. Also, we are losing a generation of English teachers to retirement who were trained to teach writing by studying the classics. The writing process is currently taught and evaluated with one goal. Raise test scores for everyone. If students can't follow the template provided, it won't be taught. It just isn't fun any more for anybody.

I think I'll go and remove the crimp from the primer pockets of military brass by hand until my blood pressure goes down. I forgot I come here for fun and not frustration.


all: pardon the missing word in my above post. The second sentence should read "..., and both causes are...".

Jim: What real correlation do you think that there might be between scores on a standardized test and, say, skill in writing (craft rather than mechanics), or of true interest or wonder at how neatly the laws of math and physics work?

We need the basics: if one cannot do well on a standardized test he is unlikely to ever contribute much to by way if intellectual skills (I suppose it might be ironic that I can't think of a better term). However, I don't think that we can assume that those who do well are much better equipped.




Dave Petzal:
I'm not a critic or anything but I really enjoyed reading both your anecdote, and the followup from Mr. Ian Manning, whom I believe was the PH on that hunt. I almost felt like I was there and it was the last thing I remember thinking about last night. that was quite a story, and I learned that porcupines live in Africa!



We posted at about the same time. It seems we're thinking alike too. Mechanics are just too easy to evaluate.



Until we start treating the teaching profession with something resembling respect, we will continue to wallow in the squalor that is our education system.

As a country, we seem to have a general disgust of education and those who choose it as a profession. We don't pay teachers a living wage in most parts of the country, and education is always the first area of the budget to get the axe.

I double majored in History and Political Science--which effectively limits one's future to teaching or law school. One of my professors literally begged me to go into teaching, but one look at the starting salaries sent me running to the book store for LSAT study aids. Ultimately, I decided to go back to school and take some additional courses in business. I still wish I would have pursued teaching, but there is no way I could have supported a family and repaid my student loans on what the profession pays.


I’m tossing rocks around now when I live in that proverbial glass house.

Writing is a skill as any skill, must be practiced to master. I noticed with too many moderns are not willing to make the personal commitment to any skill. That being said,
I get lazy often lousing up a chance on this blog to have a literary exercise. The written word is a wonderful abstract in showing how a person thinks and can organize thinking. I should take a more serious attitude.

Reading is just as important. Good authors capture Thought and the State of Mind of Humanity and of the Times in their writings.

What I find just as disturbing as the lack of reading and writing skills, is the lack of knowledge nowadays on Occidental Myth. I don’t see this exposure to students in any learning institution unless you take a special college class. I have to agree with the late Prof Joseph Campbell myth and mythology takes a person deep down into the fiber of being a member of Western Culture and Thought. For 30,000 years Myth taught a person how to cope within themselves and with their position in the community at different stages of their life. The rub is the knowledge is there through Reading, but few are picking up the tools.

I hold most the turmoil with American society is because people don’t know how to cope with the quantum leaps and thresholds of Life’s portals.

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