In High Praise of Deadwood

 

Yesterday in the cool air-conditioned confines of the Irish Pub St. James Gate, I told my beloved (who is more intelligent and literate than me I) that I considered the HBO series Deadwood to be a greater work of art than Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, a particularly insensitive comment on the week of the Nobel Laureate’s demise.  However, I didn’t make the claim to diss Song of Solomon or Ms Morrison, but rather to heap high praise on Deadwood, which I went on to compare to a magnificent Victorian novel in its construction (created in the flux-time of serialization), its breadth and depth, the complexity of its characters, etcetera, etcetera.

Robert Penn Warren mentored the series’ creator and writer, David Milch, and as far as 20th Century narratives go, Deadwood might owe more than a little something to All the King’s Men, but forgive me; I digress.[1]  These multi-seasonal television series I consider a really important advancement in the making of fiction. No longer must Middlemarch be freeze-dried into 90 minutes of cinematic action, hence the breadth and depth alluded to above. We can see the action and hear the characters and tailor the pace of the narrative to our individual attention spans, be they flea-like or godlike, as we do when reading a novel.

Many have (to point of cliché-dom) compared Deadwood to Shakespeare’s works, not only in the broad array of human types incarnated in individual flesh, but also in the language Milch employs.

Here’s Milch addressing the language of the series:

Many of them might have been illiterate, but they knew the King James Bible and Shakespeare, and that’s what shaped the way they thought and the way they expressed themselves.

Formal letters didn’t convey a great deal of how people spoke, but informal letters—say, a brother writing a brother about life in a mining camp, or period memoirs or diaries—do. Of course, much of the best stuff wasn’t written with the idea of publication. But you can get a fairly good idea of the evolution of the language and the derivation of most words and terms in the Library of Congress papers on oral history, and H. L. Mencken’s The American Language is very good on this too.

 

The dialogue, often iambic, can be stilted in its diction and syntax, but is infused with jazz-like riffs of alliterative vulgarity and profanity.[2]

I’ll offer a couple of quick examples from Calamity Jane, who is mostly employed as a means of comic relief but who possesses, nevertheless, depth, because of her sensitivity and moral courage.

Robin Weigert as Calamity Jane

Here are a couple of examples of her use of language, both dealing with African American characters. When Jane tells Samuel Fields (who has dubbed himself the Little N-word General) that she’ll help him bury fellow African American Hostetler, he says, “That ain’t gonna raise your popularity with your fellow white people.” She replies, “Question I wake to in the morning and pass out with at night: ‘What’s my popularity with my fellow white people?’”

Later Aunt Lou, George Hearst’s cook, asks Jane if she could have a taste of the liquor Jane’s been chugging from a bottle.  Jane says, of course, but stops Lou from reaching for a cup as she hands her the bottle. “Do not employ a mug lest next we’d be donning white gloves.”

I could go on and on, but unlike a television series, a blog ain’t the medium for long-windedness, so I end with this admonition.  If you haven’t seen Deadwood, you need to check it out.  Despite its battlefield load of corpses, it’s life-affirming in the truest since of the word, the story, in Milch’s own words “of order rising from chaos.”)

Listen to the language here (there are vulgarities and racial epithets, be warned).


[1]I’ve never quite succeeded in squelching my bad habit of name-dropping.  I actually met Robert Penn Warren in a smallish group of English majors when he visited the University South Carolina circa 1974.  One of my teachers (a PhD candidate) had the courage to ask the first question:  “Mr. Warren, do you think a formal education would have ruined Earnest Hemingway?” Mr. Warren (screeching): How in the hell would I know!”

[2]There is a difference.  Vulgarity traffics in sex and excrement; profanity traffics in taking the Name of the Lord in vain.

2 thoughts on “In High Praise of Deadwood

  1. I had a suspicion shows were written in iambic. Smooth talkers often use unnecessary words in their speech patterns to stay in the formation, as well. E.g. You have got to get out in front of this.

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