Somerset Maugham, master of the paragraph:
We all know Buffon's dictum that Le style c'est l'homme même. If it is true then by making yourself acquainted with the man it should be possible to come to a better understanding of his style. But is it true? I think Buffon thought men more of a piece than they really are. They are for the most part an amalgam of virtues and vices, of strengths and weaknesses so incompatible that it is only because they are manifest that you can believe it possible for them to co-exist in one and the same person. Burke was much discussed in his day, passionately praised by some, violently decried by others, and from the various reports that have come down to us, from Hazlitt's essays and the excellent Life of Sir Philip Magnus, it is possible, I think, to get a fairly accurate impression of the kind of man he was. But it is not a plausible one. It is with difficulty that you can persuade yourself to believe that merits so rare can go hand-in-hand with defects so deplorable. You are left utterly perplexed.
Inspiring, no? An excellent piece of text to follow, though if one were so inclined, one could name the defects: an over-reliance on pieces of metaphor and idiomatic expression ('hand-in-hand'), multiple instances of alliteration (which he decries elsewhere in the essay), and that stem-winder of a sentence beginning 'Burke was much discussed in his day...' But the direction! Beginning with common knowledge and demolishing the foundation on which it claims to stand. A better articulation of the principle I sometimes call 'everyone's politics make sense to himself.'* In all, an admirable introduction into the 'biographical' portion of the essay.
I came across 'After Reading Burke' by accident, searching in the library for Spring Break reading (Cakes and Ale was the book I was searching for--and well worth the search). The volume containing it, The Vagrant Mood, contains a number of other worthwhile essays, especially Maugham's interpretation of Kant's Critique of Judgment (no, really; and no worries, it is a far sight better than Eliot's interpretation of Machiavelli). Maugham, noting that Hazlitt (his favorite among the great English essayists) spares no extravagance on Burke, decides to re-read the material with which he was familiar, and take on for the first time Burke's other major work:
I hasten, however, to tell [the reader] that I do not propose to deal with Burke's thought; for that it would be necessary to have a much greater knowledge of the eighteenth century than I can claim and an interest in, and familiarity with, the principles of politics which I must admit (and it may be that I should admit with some shame) I am far from possessing. I desire to treat only of the manner in which Burke wrote without paying more attention than can be helped to the matter of which he wrote.
The rest of the essay succeeds admirably, and repays well the time spent reading. I have reflected on occasion that political theory is a discipline built on reading and writing, in which we do little instruction on how to read or write. To some extent, this is justified: if you cannot string together a sentence by the time you hit graduate school, you are most likely a hopeless case; if you have to be told how to read, you're not reading enough. Style is a funny thing, and bears little correlation to academic success (or deserved success). Debates, such as the textualist-contextualist debate, purport to be about ways of reading, but are really about ways of constructing an argument. Everyone knows how to read The Prince, we just disagree about which facts are relevant when interpreting it.
For me, this is the value of essays like Maugham's, or Fitzgerald's "One-Hundred False Starts" and "How to Waste Material," or the marvelous Paris Review interviews with Eliot, Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, et al--much of what goes on simply isn't talked about. One must glean assistance where one can. To see one solid writer of English prose do an analysis of another is a rare window in to the questions of how to read and write.
*Coined this one after hearing a professor of my acquaintance talk to an audience in which they gave an expression of their personal views on a number of political matters (those familiar with professors of my acquaintance will have no trouble guessing the individual's identity); I could discern no common thread except that the person believed them all to be true.