I wish to speak a word for cliché—cliché as contrasted to the exhausting obsession with originality, with the tedious search for self-definition.
When The Atlantic posthumously published Thoreau’s “Walking” back in the early days of the Civil War, there were enough “champions of civilization” out there to give Thoreau’s paean to “absolute freedom and wildness” a real edge. Today, it is hard to read Thoreau and Emerson on freedom without recalling about ten billion different ad campaigns. Confronted with the frenetic novelties of our moment, even the prophet of Walden Pond might agree that clichés, ruts, and settled traditions have something fresh to offer in a world in which everyone so uniformly proclaims themselves unique, creative, and new. Who, I wonder, is not?
The origins of cliché come from the early era of printing. “Cliché” was the term for a block of type molded to replicate the original form a printer would set to prepare a page for printing. The cliché allowed printers to use the given type for other projects rather than wait to see if they would need the form again. Such mundane origins become even more so when one learns that the term was derived from the clicking sound of the metal blocks and type involved in the process; clicher is the French past participle of “to click.”
It is worth pausing, however, to consider the poor old cliché from a few more angles.
In a largely forgotten novel from the 1960s, All the Little Live Things, Wallace Stegner includes an arresting thought about clichés. His narrator-protagonist Joe Allston writes, after recounting the story of his pitiful childhood, “It all reads like one great cliché. But maybe love and sorrow are always clichés, ambition and selfishness and regret are clichés, death is a cliché. It’s only the literary, hot for novelty, who fear cliché, and I am no longer of that tribe.”
Allston’s mild defense of cliché, used here to refer to those experiences most of us suffer or celebrate over the course of a life, comes from a writer who was in his forties imagining the inner life of a character in his sixties. It is a necessary statement for Allston, who maintains a gruff, unsentimental demeanor throughout the book. He would be at odds with his own sense of self were it to remain unsaid.
But the moment demands that Allston thread a tiny needle as well, because he does not want to signal his distance from the sentimental bourgeoisie in a way that indicates that he is instead a proud member of the avant-garde. He is definitively neither, in his own mind at least: Even if he has the aesthetic sensitivity to enjoy finer registers of beauty and meaning and is enough of an intellectual to have gazed into the abyss and considered all the options without flinching, his heart undoubtedly remains with the bourgeoisie. He can handle their lapses into sentiment with more sympathy than he can handle the cynical snobbery of his era’s avant-garde.
Joe’s creator, Wallace Stegner, had lived through and observed the wreckage of too many experiments in living to be taken in by foolish novelties masquerading as creative originality. Stegner’s father George was a classic western boom-chaser who never stayed in one place long enough to develop any ruts for himself or his family. He chased gold in Alaska, farmed (or “mined,” as his son would later say) wheat to feed the armies of Europe during the Great War in Saskatchewan, and was a Prohibition booze-runner in the seedy neighborhoods of Salt Lake City before shooting a prostitute and then himself at a trashy hotel about a mile from the Salt Lake Temple.
Though no artist or intellectual himself, George Stegner shared the avant-garde scorn for the quiet, reliable patterns of daily life that most people live, and was always searching for the secret that the strait-laced, Babbitt-y boobs were too scared, too dumb, or too numb to pursue. Before he killed himself, George failed his long-suffering wife Hilda by fleeing her sick room for California, where she would die in the company of his son Wallace and a kind nurse. Hilda died of breast cancer in a town where she had no neighbors and no friends to lean upon as she walked her tragic path.
So Wallace Stegner had a deep-seated suspicion of anyone who seemed too smitten by the atonal beats that boom so regularly from the Emersonian drum of naïve self-reliance. Whether the avant-garde artists that scorn Joe Allston, outlaw union leaders like Joe Hill (whom he rendered in a 1950 novel), or boom-chasers like his father, always searching for the inside track, he saw the moral failures at the core of the type.