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Past Not-So-Perfect

1200px-James_Abram_Garfield,_photo_portrait_seated

James Garfield

Sometimes I get tense about tenses. In the past, I’ve vented about writers’ overuse or abuse of the present tense, in general, and the historical present, in particular. (That’s the one where a historian interviewed on NPR says something like, “FDR is inaugurated on March 4 and almost immediately starts to enact the New Deal.”)

My new pet peeve is the past perfect, sometimes called the pluperfect. It’s used when referring to events that took place before past events that are under discussion. Here are some examples, from the book Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard:

James Garfield’s father, Abram, had died on a spring day in 1833, just a few months after his thirty-third birthday. As he had peered out a window that day, surveying the farmland he had just saved from a raging wildfire, he had known that he would not survive the “violent cold” that had so suddenly seized him. The house he would die in was a log cabin he had built four years earlier.

The past perfect is all those “had” verbs: had died, had peered, had just saved, had known, had so suddenly seized him, had built.

I should say right here that in my judgment Destiny of the Republic, which centers on James Garfield’s assassination (and made me understand, for the first time, the meaning of “disappointed office-seeker”), is an excellent book: comprehensively researched, thoughtful,  sensitive to character and nuance, gripping, and well-written — well, well-written in every way but a massive overuse of the past perfect. Lest you think I was cherry-picking with the above quote, here are a few other examples from Millard:

  1. “Like his ancestors, who had sailed from Chester, England, to Massachusetts in 1630, just ten years after the Mayflower, Abram had left all he knew in search of a better life. His father had stayed in the East, on a small farm in New York, but as a very young man Abram had set his sights on the West.”
  2. “Throughout his life, Garfield had been an ardent abolitionist. As a young man, he had written feverishly in his diary that he felt ‘like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil.’ In an attempt to help a runaway slave, he had given him what little money he could spare and urged him to ‘trust to God and his muscle.’ In the darkest days of the Civil War, he had wondered if the war itself was God’s punishment for the horrors of slavery. ‘For what else are we so fearfully scourged and defeated?’ he had asked.”
  3. “After he had escaped to his rooms on the day of the shooting, Conkling rarely left them.”

There is nothing incorrect about any of this. And sometimes the past perfect is definitely called for: for example, when bisected by an adverb (“He had never seen such a thing before”). But it’s unnecessary for the most part in historical writing, and burdens the prose with a portentous and oracular quality. Generally, if it’s needed at all, the past perfect can be used once in a particular passage, to establish we’re in the past-past. Then shift to the simple past. Example 2, rewritten, would be:

Throughout his life, Garfield had been an ardent abolitionist. As a young man, he had written [wrote] feverishly in his diary that he felt ‘like throwing the whole current of my life into the work of opposing this giant evil.’ In an attempt to help a runaway slave, he had given [gave] him what little money he could spare and urged him to ‘trust to God and his muscle.’ In the darkest days of the Civil War, he had wondered if the war itself was God’s punishment for the horrors of slavery. ‘For what else are we so fearfully scourged and defeated?’ he had asked.

Not to pick on Millard, but she also overuses another tense, as in: “Seven years later, Bliss would die quietly at his home following a stroke, having never recovered his health, his practice, or his reputation.” That is, would to indicate a future event, from the perspective of the past. Not sure how to designate this, I asked my Lingua Franca colleague Geoffrey Pullum, co-editor of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. He replied: “It’s the preterite tense version of ‘Bliss will die,’ which is what you would say now to make a prediction.” Whatever it’s called, it’s clumsier writing than “Bliss died quietly at his home seven years later.”

These heavy-handed notes are striking in Destiny of the Republic, because, as I say, Millard’s prose is otherwise precise and smart. That’s not as much the case in another work in the currently booming genre of popular narrative history, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. It’s a good book on balance but too long by about a quarter, overwritten at times, and a sucker for the past perfect, as in this sentence in Chapter 1  (edited by me): “The war had ended before the building could actually be used, so it had been [was] turned over to the University of Washington in the fall of 1919.”

Excessive past perfect is also a fault in Ken Burns-style documentaries, such as The Great War. Seconds after the opening of one episode, one hears, “Eighteen months after Wilson had taken his country to war, the United States was finally ready to unleash its full might.”

Whence the attraction for this tense? Certainly, some writers in this form, such as Laura Hillenbrand and Erik Larson, manage to pretty much sidestep it.  Those who indulge do so partly from an urge to overdramatize, and partly — as I suspect is the case with Millard — from simply having gotten in the habit of using it. Note I said “habit,” not “addiction.” In other words, it can be broken, and I urge afflicted historical writers (you know who you are) to get busy doing so.

 

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