Yesterday, I was wracking my brain trying to decide exactly what I wanted to write on for today. It wasn’t that I couldn’t think of anything to say, but I couldn’t think of anything to say that I cared about. Remember that discussion we had about how feelings try to trick you into not writing? Yeah, they get in my way just as bad as anybody.
So instead of running over all the old and worn out ideas one more time, I decided it was time to call in the idea doctor. It was time to talk to my sister.
I like to think of my sister as kind of a second brain. Our tastes are so similar it’s scary. We can go for hours talking about weird linguistic tangents that would make most other people roll their eyes and walk away. Bottom line, if anyone could rescue me from my idea overload it would be her.
So I went to her and said, “Hey Sarah. Tell me what I should write about in my blog post.”
And she said, “Well, I’ve been reading in this book you gave me for Christmas about how that this one guy invented the rule about not ending sentences with prepositions.”
“Yes,” said I, “But I’ve already done a post about the Evil Prescriptivist Empire.”
“But, did you mention, that it was one guy that came up with this rule all by himself and he based it on basically nothing other than that fact that he thought it sounded good?”
Of course we all know that, the “don’t end a sentence with a preposition” thing is pure prescriptivist poppycock. But I was struck by the idea that one man could single handedly (and before you ask, no, I don’t know what happened to his other hand) make such a shift in the collective view of language that even today overzealous editors, grammar nazis and pickled English teachers everywhere would be incorrectly quoting his rule.
And the fact that this is the thing he his most remembered for seems like a tragedy of epic proportions. Because John Dryden was a writer. In his day his work was very well respected. He was following on the coattails* of literary giants like Ben Johnson and William Shakespeare. So great was his prominence in his day, that he eventually worked up the balls to actually criticize the writing styles of both Johnson and Shakespeare.
Yet today he has been almost completely forgotten. Almost. Except you will still hear that old saw, “you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition” until the day you die.
Now I have an interest in one hit wonders. I’m talking about people who are wildly famous for one thing, while being forgotten for the rest of their work. I can’t figure out whether I should be envious of them or sorry for them. On the one hand, Bram Stoker’s name will never die because of Dracula. But how would you like to be Bram Stoker and travel forward in time. You’d ask someone “Say, what did you think of my book, The Lair of the White Worm?” and they would say, “Who are you and why are you on my front porch dressed like a guy from the 1800’s? It’s not Halloween for another six months. And is that a time machine in my yard? Look what it’s done to my lawn!”
See? Not a pretty picture.
But Dryden’s situation is ten times worse because out of all the writing he did, he is best remembered for making up one stupid rule.
I have very little respect for the man who was John Dryden, but still I feel a twinge of sympathy when I think of how he is remembered. To spend your life and your best efforts trying to create something of enough worth to be passed down through future generations, and then end up being remembered for something so meaningless seems to me to be the worst kind of fate that could befall a writer or creator of any kind.
So let this be a lesson to you. If you strive for literary immortality, be careful what you wish for.
*Is it just me, or is it weird that “coattails” is correct as one word, but “thank you” isn’t?