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Jerome K Jerome- The most underrated of English writers


Jerome K Jerome is famous for the classic Three Men in a Boat and the play/movie Passing of the Third Floor Back. What’s not generally recognized is that his style clearly influenced a lot of later writers. Jerome was a late 19th century and turn of the century writer. He came along just when publishing was finally turning into mass media as we now know it. His unique style is conspicuously modern, particularly if you know the mainstream writing of that time.

Jerome is a witty writer, but not in the sense that the term suggests. He’s more relaxed and often shifts his humor from direct to oblique. He’s a gentler sort of witty writer, too. He’s not funny for the sake of being funny. He goes looking for real humor and usually finds it in situations where the humor is evasive.

His style is very different. He uses long sentences, not the timid, limping things in short steps so many illiterates consider “good communication” these days. He’s lyrical in prose, not at all easy to do, even for good writers with strong usage skills. He will try, hard, to express broader meaning beyond the literal text, and apparently can’t resist the chance to make a few inverted jibes at his own expression.

It really is fun to follow his logic. He uses anecdotes freely as analogies and sometimes allows the reader to sail along the text for quite a while before doing a logical hyperbola and apologizing for going off on tangents... With a smile you can actually feel in some places.

The anecdotes, for those sadly educated people who have been inflicted with modern literary theory, is core storytelling. It can do more in a few pars than many authors can do with whole books. Jerome tells hundreds of stories in his books.

The very Englishness of Jerome is another facet of his importance as a writer. When he was writing Three Men in A Boat, PG Wodehouse, the man who almost singlehandedly wrote two generations of iconic English cultural idioms, was being born. PG would have read, and loved, Jerome. Jeeves and Bertie would have been quite at home in Jerome’s world. This was the England of the Victorian/Edwardian era, the true picture of a nation of post-Dickens characters instantly recognizable to Anglophiles.

(Jerome, in fact, spares a paragraph or so in his early book Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow to describe the English people of his time. It’s like a painting by Turner, colourful, meaningful, and unmistakable in its description. The expression is both direct and effusive, but the image is clear.)

Humor is a strange thing, culturally. It becomes an idiom in its own right, evolving over generations. Jerome’s humor lived on well into the 20th century in various forms and still emerges in some of the more laconic expressions now. His indirect but incisive expressions became a mode for that biting, often savage English wit which is seen as typical English humor. The understatement, the logical absurdities and the observant cuts are all there in Jerome’s work.

The first time I read Jerome, I found Three Men in a Boat in the school library. It was the second time in my life that I ever fell out of bed laughing. I’ve since read that book dozens of times, and always enjoy it, despite knowing the book almost by heart.

Jerome can create an HE Bates landscape, a Dickensian character play or simply tell a story in plain language- And all of these in the course of a few paragraphs. The man is no slouch when it comes to either style or content. He snipes at the bustle of the 19th century and its materialism, deliberately using his lyrical prose as a contrast.

Jerome doesn’t labor over subjects. He has something to say, says it, and makes it worth reading. That’s a skill which should be brought back in a hurry for modern literature. He writes lightly, but can hit solid targets with precision and strong context. He’s also a good historical writer because he’s extremely observant. If you really want to see Victorian England, you’ll see an unsuspected world.

Jerome K Jerome is that ultra-rare creature- A true literary gentleman. He’s never pompous, and unlike all known past and present writers has no self-importance at all about his work. He’s a well-mannered writer, never bludgeoning the reader with mere verbosity.

One of the reasons for writing this Hub is to hopefully draw readers’ attention to real unadulterated writing skills without the grotesque qualifiers of useless modern categorizations. As someone who has been almost literally bored to tears by the theories of postmodernism, existentialism, nihilism, Bohemianism On Principle, and expected to admire ponderous, plodding tomes, I thought Jerome would be a nice change. I read him myself to enjoy what I know will be a good read with no need to wince at clanging, clumsy expression.

The word for Jerome K Jerome is Talent. Writers will appreciate his versatility of expression, and readers will enjoy the fresh air of his style. You’ll find he’s like no writer you’ve read before.


Paul Wallis (author) from Sydney, Australia on May 07, 2012:

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B. Leekley- Thanks for the book tips, hadn't heard of either of them, and that "idle" style is such a pleasure.

Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on May 07, 2012:

Years ago I read Three Men in a Boat, and the experience remains one of my happiest memories. I think it was the Limited Editions Club edition. Now I want to read it again, and I want to read Jerome's other books.

As I was reading your article, I thought of PG Wodehouse before you mentioned him. I loved his books when I read them long ago. He's a master stylist.

I don't know why, but two other books that come to mind are Over Prairie Trails by Frederick Philip Grove and South Wind by Norman Douglas – perhaps because they too are books to read just for idle pleasure.

Paul Wallis (author) from Sydney, Australia on April 23, 2012:

The great irony of Three Men in a Boat was that it was written at a time before the English copyright laws came into force. According to Jerome, he barely saw a cent out of it, but he received letters for decades afterwards.

Paul Wallis (author) from Sydney, Australia on April 23, 2012:

As an English major, you'll appreciate ths style and see how Jerome's writing, as far back as 1886 contributed so much.

Suzette Walker from Taos, NM on April 23, 2012:

I have never heard of Jerome K Jerome and I am an English major. Thank you for an informative piece and I will certainly check out his books and novels. He sounds like an interesting writer.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on April 23, 2012:

Nice article, Paul. I've downloaded Three Men in a Boat and will take a look at it. It's out of copyright and free (or you can buy it :)). Voted up and interesting.

Paul Wallis (author) from Sydney, Australia on April 23, 2012:

My pleasure, literally. The guy's been making me laugh for decades.

Jim Higgins from Eugene, Oregon on April 23, 2012:

Thank you Paul, for writing this Hub about a writer I have never heard of. I will certainly add him to my must read list. I enjoy English authors and movies as well. Your Hub will add him to more than one list.

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