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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Learning to craft sentences from a master

I began to fall in love with sentences when I had my first writing job, as a young, deadline-dependent reporter on a weekly paper in New Jersey. For this burgeoning love I had a matchmaker. He was the same one lots of young American writers had. His name was E.B. White.

Many years after those formative days in newsprint, the other day I built a bookshelf, here in my office in Vermont. To populate it, I was happy to drag some boxes of books out of the garage attic, where I’d stashed them three years ago after remarrying and moving to a new home that doesn’t have a lot of shelving. So I unpacked and placed, prominently on a new shelf, my collection of White’s writings.

These, now, are not so much the children’s novels for which he is most-remembered today (I see that I have just Charlotte’s Web, though I always liked Stuart Little a little better), but rather the shorter work he did over decades, mainly for The New Yorker magazine. Then, when I pulled out and reread a paperback collection of short pieces called Writings from The New Yorker, 1927-1976 ... well, my long-ago romance with White’s crafting of great and memorable sentences got rekindled all over again. 

So I tagged some favorites. I wondered which I could decide is my number-one choice, from this particular gallery of White’s lucid, graceful sentence-crafting. Here are the nominees, with brief reasons why: 

A city back yard on many a winter’s day is as shabby and unpromising a spot as the eye can rest on: the sour soil, the flaking surfaces of wall and fence, the bare branch, the doom-sprinkled sky.

One thing that so struck me in White's work, back then, was the energetic beauty of the perfectly chosen word. Sour soil. Flaking surfaces. Doom-sprinkled sky. I mean, right?

This next one teasingly described his colleagues at the magazine, back in 1946 when the House Un-American Activities Committee was persecuting creative types that it suspected to be left-leaning. In a day when it was under siege, here is the sentence as standing up for free expression:

We sit among as quietly seething a mass of reactionaries, revolutionaries, worn-out robber barns, tawny pipits, liberals, Marxists in funny hats, and Taftists in pin stripes as ever gathered under one roof in a common enterprise.

He hated Negro slavery and helped slaves escape, but he hated even more the self-imposed bondage of men who hung chains about their necks simply because it was the traditional way to live.

That was written about Henry David Thoreau, whom White admired very much for how the writer of Walden could make a sentence penetrate to the heart of who we are. Just as that one does.

This next, which connects us to all humanity at the direst of global moments, came out the day before Germany invaded Poland to start World War II:

We sit with diners at the darkened tables in the French cafés, we pedal with the cyclists weekending in the beautiful English countryside, we march alongside the German troops approaching the Polish border, we are a schoolboy slipping on his gas mask to take shelter underground from the raid that hasn’t come, we sit at the elbow of Sir Neville as he presents the message to the British Cabinet (but what does it say?).

If everyone is going to be able to see everything, in the long run all sights may lose whatever rarity value they once possessed, and it may well turn out that people, being able to see and hear practically everything, will be specially interested in almost nothing.

This, from 1948, appears in a mini-essay called “Television.” People, writing, are often afraid of repetition, as if using the same word more than once could let it slip out that we’re not clever. But the repetition of “everything” here creates the clang of emphasis on “almost nothing” — and demonstrates a working principle from Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.”

Here, in White’s favorite Christmas memory, from 1936, is my nominee for nicest use of specialized punctuation, colon division:

The snow, the lateness of the hour, the elaborate mysteries of the Mass (we had never been inside a cathedral before), together with the steadily burning vision of the back of Her neck whom we adored, and then the coming out into the snow alone afterward, with the street lamps veiled in white: this indeed was a holy time.

The two moments when New York seems most desirable, when the splendor falls all round about and the city looks like a girl with leaves in her hair, are just when you are leaving and must say goodbye, and just as you return and can say hello.

To me, this conveys the courage, in writing, of choosing simplicity. Built almost completely out of one- and two-syllable words, this sentence doesn’t (and White never did) fear the personal exposure of using good, plain and honest, resonating words.

But, in the end, my favorite was also, I’m guessing, the first choice of this collection’s editor, Rebecca Dale, who made it the final sentence in the book. This concludes White’s single-paragraph tribute to the just-assassinated John F. Kennedy; and it’s a sentence that takes flight, its heartfelt rhythmic sincerity alive on the page for all time.

It can be said of him, as of few men in a like position, that he did not fear the weather, and did not trim his sails, but instead challenged the wind itself, to improve its direction and to cause it to blow more softly and more kindly over the world and its people.

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