Mr. Standfast

"Nothing taken for granted; everything received with gratitude; everything passed on with grace." G. K. Chesterton

August 16, 2005


I love a good paragraph, don't you? Certain writers are simply masters of the form. Each paragraph brings a sense of completeness and fulfillment, like a painting in a frame; nothing need be added, nothing omitted. For example, I've always thought that Patrick O'Brien, author of the famous Aubrey/Maturin series of sea-going adventures, was one of these. Charles Dickens, of course. Eudora Welty, probably my favorite American short story writer, is also a master in this regard.

When I come across such a paragraph I have a tendency to read it aloud to someone, usually my "delovely" wife. But as she's not around at the moment, I'll share this one with you instead!

It's from David McCullough's John Adams (p. 342). McCullough is a historian with a novelist's concern for story and pacing. Here, he is describing John and Abigail's impression of London, where John has been appointed America's first ambassador to the Court of St. James.

The extravagance of the ruling class was notorious. At such exclusive clubs as Brooks or Boodles on St. James's Street, fortunes were reputedly gambled away at the turn of a card, and, nightly, young men drank themselves into a stupor. This was not quite true, but the stories would never die, and the clothes, carriages, the sheer weight of gold braid and the livery of servants, left little doubt as to how vast was the wealth of the wealthiest. Yet, as the Adamses found, one could hardly go anywhere without encountering such spectacles of poverty and misery as to tear the heart--people in tatters, hunger and suffering in their faces, as Abigail wrote. And who was to answer for the wretched victims "who are weekly sacrificed upon the gallows in numbers sufficient to astonish a civilized people?" Compounding her sorrow was the realization that every night and in all weather abandoned children by the hundreds slept beneath the bushes and trees of Hyde Park.


Blogger Milton Stanley said...

Fine,indeed. I, too, like a well crafted paragraph. As a grammar technician, however, I was seriously distracted by the comma between "servants" and "left." Did the original author really separate subject and predicate with a comma in that sentence? Sorry to be such a downer, but that comma stands out like a housefly on an otherwise beautiful souffle.

8:48 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Interesting. I see your point and appreciate it, although the comma didn't bother me until you pointed it out. I've generally got an as-long-as-it-works attitude toward grammar. I'll have to check the book later to see whether I transcribed the paragraph exactly--perhaps it's my mistake.

10:16 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

Well, I just checked the book, and sure enough, the comma is right there where it ought not to be. Oh well. Mccullough is a fine craftsman, and I just happened to choose a sample paragraph that features a rare grammatical error. Wouldn't you know it!

4:16 PM  
Blogger Milton Stanley said...

That's OK. The more I read the paragraph, the more I think it's OK. Mccllough must have been using the to-clarify-meaning rule (or maybe his printer just added it by mistake). In any case, it's still a fine paragraph, and I apologize for casting a shadow over it, Bob. Peace.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

No problem, Milton. It only proves you'd be a very good copy-editor~

12:55 PM  

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