Language to chew on

I have a collection of great American short stories that I treasure. It contains a wondrous plethora of some of the best writing I’ve seen collected anywhere, in one of my favorite genres. My son’s fiancée keeps a blog where she does some fine writing of her own, and I was moved to post a few samples of what I regard as “delicious” language as a comment to one of her entries. Because I thought things of this nature deserve wider exposure, I share it again here, somewhat expanded, and including my own summary to her.

Enjoy, or don’t – it’s all sausage to me.

“I stepped off the train at 8 P.M. Having searched the thesaurus in vain for adjectives, I must, as a substitution, hie me to comparison in the form of a recipe.

Take a London fog 30 parts; malaria 10 parts; gas leaks 20 parts; dewdrops gathered in a brick yard at sunrise, 25 parts; odor of honeysuckle 15 parts. Mix.

The mixture will give you an approximate conception of a Nashville drizzle. It is not so fragrant as a moth-ball nor as thick as pea-soup; but ’tis enough – ’twill serve.

I went to a hotel in a tumbril. It required strong self-suppression for me to keep from climbing to the top of it and giving an imitation of Sidney Carton. The vehicle was drawn by beasts of a bygone era and driven by something dark and emancipated.”

-O. Henry – “A Municipal Report”

“There were two kinds of high-blue weather, besides the winter kind which didn’t set him off very often, spring and fall. In the spring it would have a soft, puffy wind and soft, puffy white clouds which made separate shadows that traveled silently acorss hills that looked soft too. In the fall it would be still, and there would be no clouds at all in the blue, but there would be something in the golden air and the soft, steady sunlight on the mountains that made a man as uneasy as the spring blowing, though in a different way, more sad and not so excited.”

-Walter Van Tilburg Clark, “The Wind and the Snow of Winter”

“Valentine patters over and holds open a screen door warped like a sea shell, bitter in the wet, and they walk in, stained darker with the rain and leaving footprints. Inside, sheltered dry smells stand like screens around a table covered with a red-checkered cloth, in the center of which flies hang onto an obelisk-shaped ketchup bottle. The midnight walls are checkered again with admonishing “Not Responsible” signs and black-figured, smoky calendars. It is a waiting, silent, limp room. There is a burned-out-looking nickelodeon and right beside it a long-necked wall instrument labeled “Business Phone, Don’t Keep Talking.” Circled phone numbers are written up everywhere. There is a worn-out peacock feather hanging by a thread to an old, thin, pink, exposed light bulb, where it slowly turns around and around, whoever breathes.”

-Eudora Welty, “Powerhouse”

“The night was in windy November, and the blast, threatening rain, roared around the poor little shanty of Uncle Ripley, set like a chicken-trap on the vast Iowa prairie. Uncle Ethan was mending his old violin, with many York State “dums! ” and ” I gol darns! ” totally oblivious of his tireless old wife, who, having “finished the supper-dishes,” sat knitting a stocking, evidently for the little grandson who lay before the stove like a cat.

Neither of the old people wore glasses, and their light was a tallow candle ; they couldn’t afford ” none o them new-fangled lamps.” The room was small, the chairs were wooden, and the walls bare a home where poverty was a never-absent guest. The old lady looked pathetically little, weazened and hopeless in her ill-fitting garments (whose original color had long since vanished), intent as she was on the stocking in her knotted, stiffened fingers, and there was a peculiar sparkle in her little black eyes, and an unusual resolution in the straight line of her withered and shapeless lips.”

-Hamlin Garland, “Mrs. Ripley’s Trip”

“How [Tennessee met his fate], how cool he was, how he refused to say anything, how perfect were the arrangements of the committee, were all duly reported, with the addition of a warning moral and example to all future evil doers, in the Red Dog Clarion, by its editor, who was present, and to whose vigorous English I cheerfully refer the reader. But the beauty of that midsummer morning, the blessed amity of earth and air and sky, the awakened life of the free woods and hills, the joyous renewal and promise of Nature, and above all, the infinite serenity that thrilled through each, was not reported, as not being a part of the social lesson. And yet, when the weak and foolish deed was done, and a life, with its possibilities and responsibilities, had passed out of the misshapen thing that dangled between earth and sky, the birds sang, the flowers bloomed, the sun shone, as cheerily as before; and possibly the Red Dog Clarion was right.”

-Bret Harte, “Tennessee’s Partner”

“And with that effort, everything was solved, everything became all right: the seamless hiss advanced once more, the long white wavering lines rose and fell like enormous whispering sea-waves, the whisper becoming louder, the laughter more intensely maniacal.

“Listen!” it said. “We’ll tell you the last, the most beautiful and secret story-shut your eyes-it is a very small story-a story that gets smaller and smaller-it comes inward instead of opening like a flower-it is a flower becoming a seed-a little cold seed-do you hear” We are leaning closer to you”-

The hiss was now becoming a roar-the whole world was a vast moving screen of snow-but even now it said peace, it said remoteness, it said cold, it said sleep.”

Conrad Aiken, “Silent Snow, Secret Snow”

This is “graspy” language, language that must be chewed slowly, and savored, and lingered over, language that rolls around on the tongue and resists being swallowed, which bids you stay, and wait, and read again, before you force yourself to shoulder on to the next paragraph, and yet which calls you back and back and back again like a dessert which somehow never grows smaller in spite of how many bites you take. Language is yours, words are yours, make of them what you will, and if the dictionary or the thesaurus come up poor, make up your own. What’s good enough for Shaksper and Cummings and Hemingway and Joyce must surely be good enough for you.

The Old Wolf has Spoken

4 responses to “Language to chew on

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