My literary idols include the great humorists of the first half of the twentieth century. They continue to entertain me when I read and inspire me as I write. They knew how to craft a sentence.
They sometimes began their pieces with a quote they found especially ridiculous and proceeded to use it as a writing prompt. For example, Perelman had a field day with Diana Vreeland’s Why don’t you rinse your blond child’s hair in dead champagne to keep it gold, as they do in France?
James Thurber begins “Something to Say” with a quote from a thing called “Memoirs of a Polyglot” by William Gerhardt.*
Hugh Kingsmill and I stimulated each other to such a pitch that after the first meeting he had a brain storm and I lay sleepless all night and in the morning was on the brink of a nervous breakdown.
After that, Thurber is off and running. His fictional narrator recollects his experiences with the spectacularly obnoxious Elliot Vereker and explains why he was “the only man who ever continuously stimulated me to the brink of a nervous breakdown.”
This is one of my favorite Thurber pieces, and one which still sticks in my mind not just because it is funny but because of the structure of a single sentence. Thurber was a rewriter—every piece went through multiple drafts—so you know that the published sentences were structured exactly as intended.
That single sentence appears within:
“…Vereker always liked to have an electric fan going while he talked and he would stick a folded newspaper into the fan so that the revolving blades scuttered against it, making a noise like the rattle of machinegun fire. This exhilarated him and exhilarated me, too, but I suppose it exhilarated him more than it did me. He seemed, at any rate, to get something out of it that I missed. He would raise his voice so that I could hear him above the racket. Sometimes, even then, I couldn’t make out what he was saying. “What?” I would shout. “You heard me!!” he would yell, his good humor disappearing in an instant.
I had, of course, not heard him at all. There was no reasoning with him, no convincing him. I can still hear the musketry of those fans in my ears. They have done, I think, something to me.”
Note the odd structure of that last sentence. Most of us would have worded it
I think they have done something to me.
Thurber interrupts the sentence, sticking “I think” in the middle, creating an awkward rhythm. If you try reading the piece aloud, you are likely to trip on “I think.” The narrator himself stops here, still grappling with what that “something” was. The structure of this sentence conveys the damage done to the poor man. It’s brilliant.
That’s the thing about the great American humorists of the last century: They weren’t just funny—they were wonderful stylists. We can learn from them.
Writers and their critics often focus on word choices, and of course they’re important, but they’re not enough. Mechanics and syntax are equally crucial. As we write, and as we rewrite, we must honor the rhythm of our sentences.
*To make sure that “Memoirs of a Polyglot” was an actual publication, I searched the web, and it was. His name is listed as William Gerhardie, and he apparently wrote lots of books, including God’s Fifth Column and The Memoirs of Satan.