The latest issue of Smithsonian magazine (June 2010) has an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
The article, “Harper Lee’s Novel Achievement,” by Charles Leerhsen, does not offer an interview with the novelist, who has steadfastly refused to talk to the media for decades. Instead it explores the book’s setting and impact, along with several fascinating detours, including a discussion of Lee’s friendship with Truman Capote.
I enjoyed the article while wishing that an editor had done some work with a blue pencil.
But let’s start with the good stuff. Here’s the first sentence (wonderfully written, in my opinion):
To spend an hour in Monroeville, Alabama, is to know why Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird, ranks as one of the crankiest writers on the planet.
I love the word “crankiest,” and I especially love what Leerhsen has done with it. He put “crankiest” near the end of the sentence – the climax position – for maximum impact. This sentence is the perfect beginning for the article. It surprises you and makes you want to read more.
Thousands of schoolchildren are going to be writing papers about To Kill a Mockingbird this year, and every one of them is going to begin with this dreary sentence: “Harper Lee was born in 1926.” (A note to English teachers everywhere: Teach Leerhsen’s opening sentence as a model.)
But here’s another (not nearly as good) sentence:
The 1962 movie version, starring Gregory Peck, won three Oscars, yet somehow that earnest black-and-white film never trumped the three-dimensional chiaroscuro Mockingbird that shimmers in peoples’ imaginations after they experience Lee’s work on the printed page.
Two problems. First, peoples’ is wrong. Apparently Leerhsen (and the editors of Smithsonian Magazine) are members of the misinformed group who use the “before the s if it’s singular, after the s if it’s plural” rule for placing apostrophes. Folks, there’s no such rule. If there were, you’d be writing Jean Reynold’s PT Cruiser, and my name would turn into Reynold.
Here’s the rule: Spell the word. Put an apostrophe at the end. Add an s if you need one.
There are no exceptions if you place apostrophes that way. Easy, isn’t it? The last letter in people is e. Place an apostrophe there, and add an s: people’s.
Let’s try Jean Reynolds PT Cruiser. Spell my name: Reynolds. Add an apostrophe after the last letter (s). Don’t bother adding an s – it’s there already. Jean Reynolds’ PT Cruiser.
Enough about that. Let’s go on to what really bothered me about that sentence.
First, it’s too long (36 words). Second, there’s too much crammed into it: the date of the movie, the star, the awards, B&W, followed by an analysis of people’s (hah!) reactions to the novel (complicated by that show-offy “three-dimensional chiaroscuro”).
I defy anyone to read and understand that sentence in just one take. The basic idea (“The 1962 movie version won three Oscars”) gets lost because “won three Oscars” has a comma in front and in back.
Here’s a handy guideline if you want to write excellent sentences (and who doesn’t?): Keep subjects and verbs together.
Here’s my version of Leerhsen’s big-mouthful-of-a-sentence:
In 1962 the novel was released as an earnest black-and-white movie. Although it won three Oscars, somehow the film never trumped the three-dimensional chiaroscuro Mockingbird that shimmers in people’s imaginations after they experience Lee’s work on the printed page.
It’s all there – even “chiaroscuro” (an Italian word referring to an artist’s use of light and dark contrasts).
And yes, I fixed the apostrophe.