The Sincerest Form of Flattery
ON a September night in 1969 I discovered style. I was writing a social studies paper for Miss Carmeen. I've forgotten the topic, but I remember being seated in front of a dark brown Royal typewriter trying to effect the tone of my favorite writer. As I told my mother, ``I'm using my Eric Sevareid style.'' That was back when television journalists were writers. My imitation was overly prepositional and wordy, however sincere. Miss Carmeen must have wondered why S.E. Hinton wasn't an 8th grader's favorite writer. A few weeks later, having moved on to e.e. cummings, i dropped the use of upper case lettersspacesandpunctuation. But I distinctly recall that evening, early in the school year, as the moment when how I wrote seemed as important as what I wrote.
When I became an English teacher, expounding style for a living, it seemed nigh impossible to convey the significance of how an author was communicating.
I would try to explain, for example, why the comma series in a sentence by Faulkner gave the reader the experience of the rhythmic, stuttering cadence of Sarty Snopes ``scrabbling'' through the woods as Major De Spain comes for his father.
I prodded the class with Hemingway's remark: ``If I'd wanted to send a message I would have sent it Western Union.'' I added my former hero's comment: ``One good word is worth a thousand pictures'' - a good epigram for my 9th-grade English course.
Imitating other writers seemed like the best place to start forging one's own style. One year I handed out the first sentence of ``Harold and the Purple Crayon,'' a children's story by Crockett Johnson: ``One evening, after thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.'' The class was shocked to have a critical discussion of one of their former bedtime stories.
We examined the importance to the reader of the order of the experience the author had created, and noticed that we could reassemble the parts of his sentence and it would not be the same story. One student wrote, for instance, ``After thinking it over for some time, Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight one evening.'' That's another story. ``Where the Wild Things Are'' was also given serious literary treatment.
Imitating authors became beloved amusement. One class even relished the challenge presented by the syntax of Henry James. Here is a ``Jamesian'' sentence by a 9th grader who has read ``The Turn of the Screw'': ``Having seen the ghost, or so it seemed to us at the time, we concluded that, although doubtable under the circumstances, we were all of us safe from the unpleasant position of having, as Joe said so well, `fainted.'''
Perhaps I had stacked the deck by quoting Faulkner's estimation of the man we were imitating: ``Henry James was one of the nicest old ladies I ever met.'' But I balanced that with T.S. Eliot's view: ``Henry James had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.''
On April Fool's Day a class that had been reading Hemingway's Nick Adams stories took imitation and style a great leap forward. When I entered my classroom I faced ``The Nick Adams Apprenticeship Course'': a series of desktop ``stations,'' each with a lesson ``written by Nick,'' to induct me into the Hemingway style.
Lesson 1: ``Man's survival in Nature: You've gotta be tough. But you can't be tough without your gear.'' I donned the hip boots and fisherman's vest provided. Lesson 2: ``The Key to all Happiness: This is your fishing pole. Guard it with your life. There will never be one like the first.'' I picked up the rod and advanced to the last station, my desk, on which I found a frying pan with two fresh trout, a can of beans, and a can opener - just like ``Big Two-Hearted River.'' The note from ``Nick'' read: ``Since you're just a beginner, I figured you might need a little help. A man gets hungry after a long day's fishing, especially if he hasn't caught anything.'' We cooked the trout. We ate them. We ate them in class. They were good. I passed the test. I am a master apprentice.
I included an imitation section on the final exam one year. We had studied a number of famous Bible passages, so why not cross-pollinate! ``Write an imitation of Revelation 21:1-3 in the style of either Ernest Hemingway or Henry James.'' One student's answer stunned me.
``I saw, rather vaguely at first as these things, I assume, always come about, an entirely new earth, whether rejuvenated or rebuilt from scratch I could not tell, and similarly a new heaven, although I could not in the least indicate, as far as actual experience goes, how it differed from the old one; I just knew in a strange feeling of certainty never before experienced by me that it was new and, as far as I could tell, better; that is, the first one of each, the earth and heaven, had passed away (to where I could not ascertain) and the sea, as it appeared to me, had also disappeared; as well as this, I could also make out, through a rather vague haze, yet as clearly as necessary to see, that, undoubtedly with certain necessary measures, Jerusalem, that is, the holy city of Jerusalem, was similarly made, or in some way created, beyond the realm or possible perception of and by humans, anew and descending from God, or at least out of heaven, which is to say the new heaven; this new Jerusalem appeared to my untrained yet perceptive eye, to be a bride dressed and prepared as a bride for her new husband who, I suppose, would, or should, as the occasion would dictate, be similarly adorned. I then heard, loud and unbashful, a great voice from heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men and he will dwell, for the most part, with them and they shall, or should, depending on their present or perhaps, more accurately, future state of mind, be his people; and God himself shall, likewise adhering to similar conditions, be with them and this same God who had accordingly, created once again, the heaven and earth and made them new, shall be definitely and unrestrainedly their God - that is, referring now to earlier chapters in this book, their only God.''
Perhaps my method has run amuck. But I think this 9th grader has come alive to the how of writing and is having fun. Last fall he gained early admission to an Ivy League university, probably on the strength of his essay about his extra-curricular activities. I heard it was an imitation of the last sentence of Joyce's ``Ulysses.''