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date: 18 December 2018

Summary and Keywords

Prose is a fabrication, not a linguistic axiom. It has a complex history well before its intricate literary genealogy. Made, not given, prose comes down to modern use with the form, formally determined, of a world-historical invention. As culturally significant in its evolutionary advent as in its ramified means of reporting event, prose thus bears with it a biography as telling as the fictional narratives it eventually serves to recount. Born of empiricism and print culture, prose is neither neutered poetry nor transcribed speech. Only its immediate ancestry is oratorical. Nonetheless, when “modern prose” is launched by leaving embellished declamatory models behind for the reign, first of epistemological lucidity, later of verisimilitude in narrative fiction, the oral is not thereby cancelled entirely. For prose, not unlike poetry, makes—and shapes—its way by incorporating the subvocal underlay of alphabetic (hence phonemic) language into the rhythms of its evoked readerly enunciation. It is in this fashion, by tapping its own linguistic platform or substrate, that prose comes to seem, more than otherwise, a medium rather than just one among several contested rhetorical means. Long after the modified or overthrown “plain style” taken up by early fiction like that of Daniel Defoe or Jonathan Swift, prose’s developing tendency to recover language’s silent phonetic resonance anticipates, in turn, one major Victorian inheritance from the complexities of Romantic verse sonority: a legacy that renders, ever afterward, the idea of “prose poetics” anything but an oxymoron. Here, too, is where the idea of “style” persists as an ongoing flashpoint for literary response. From Charles Dickens and Herman Melville to Joseph Conrad, for instance, we hear the potential sounding of theme in the depth charges of fictional prose. At the same time, from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, we can track an alternate mode of deflected orality in the “free indirect discourse” of surfaced inner speech—not overheard talk, these elicited mental monologues, but their own kind of artificial and subliminal eavesdropping—as they channel the cadences of represented psychology. Channel: in precisely that sense of a medium by which prose can best be understood and studied, both in the ecology of modern literary communication and in its reframing by media theory.

Keywords: Royal Academy language reform, rhetoric versus plain style, free indirect discourse, Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf

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