I don’t remember his name, but he was tall and had a large Adam’s apple. He was gangly and wore glasses. If memory serves, he’d studied at Columbia, or at least some school that sounded really fancy to a fifteen year old kid from the Bronx. He didn’t make it through the whole semester.
He was a student teacher in Mrs. Jacobs’ 11th grade History class, and one day she actually dressed him down while we were all still milling about. It’s a bit hazy all these years later, but she more or less let him have it because she felt he was consistently teaching above our heads. Essentially, she attacked his pedagogy and told him to go find another line of work.
Shortly thereafter, he disappeared forever, and Mrs. Jacobs taught the course for the remainder of the semester.
But before he left, the tall, skinny man with the large Adam’s apple made a bit of an impression. At least he did on me, anyway. Though not terribly charismatic, he was nonetheless one of those idealistic young teachers who seeks to elevate the students instead of talking down to them. Not content to work on their level, he wanted to raise them up.
That’s an admirable goal, but it does require a certain baseline cognizance. Mrs. Jacobs might have been right, at least to a degree. For example, being dumbfounded, as he once was, that a bunch of 10th graders in a Bronx public high school didn’t read The New York Times Book Review does betray a profound naivete that suggests he might have had trouble reaching those students he wanted to raise up. But then again, his lack of mooring was countered by a good disposition and a clear set of expectations. He was throwing us in the deep end because he believed we had what it took to swim.
Maybe he would have been better off starting with an A.P. class.
All these years later, the only lesson he ever taught that I distinctly remember was the day he began by writing a list of ten sentences on the board. I recognized a few of them at the time. Today, I only recall one of them.
Call me Ishmael.
Though it was a social studies class, he was taking some time to work on our writing, and that fit with his general approach. He wanted to make us more literate in ways both broad and specific.
All of the sentences on the board, he told us, had two things in common. First, they were the opening lines of famous works, and we should know them. Second, they were all short, declarative sentences, and we should emulate them in our own writing.
A short, declarative sentence, he taught us, is clear. It’s to the point. It lets the reader know what’s going on. It keeps the pace flowing. It moves you forward.
I thought about the Micky Spillane novel my mother had given me.
I had enjoyed I, The Jury immensely. Indeed, I would be a devoted fan when Stacey Keach revived the gun-toting, hard-drinking, cigarette-smoking, bed-hopping character of Mike Hammer for a TV series a year later, even though I knew early on that the show’s anachronistic approach signaled its doom. Come to think of it, I might have learned the word “anachronistic” from the tall guy with the big Adam’s apple. Either way, Keach’s arrest for cocaine possession in England didn’t help, and indeed, the program was done after a year. But to be fair, my love of Spillane’s macho noir probably had more to do with the sex and violence than it did with the machine gun staccato of his short, declarative sentences.
And so, just as the American TV viewing public quickly and foolishly rejected Keach’s interpretation of Mike Hammer, I knee-jerked my student teacher’s interpretation of the English language. I shunned his lesson on short, declarative sentences.
There were several reasons. One is that I was simply a rebellious fifteen year old who didn’t take well to being told I had to do something a certain way, especially if it was something I already knew how to do. Another reason is that I thought the writing style he championed was dumbed down. This is ironic, perhaps, given his general approach and attitude towards teaching, which was fairly obvious even then. But then again, perhaps it was unsurprising. Today I’m keenly aware that many of my college students seem to think that writing long sentences makes them sound smarter.
But beyond my rebellious and sophomoric hubris, there was a deeper reason why I rejected the lesson: because it didn’t speak to me.
I was not a straight A student. However, the two subjects I consistently excelled in were History and English. I was floundering about in science and struggling in math (except for geometry, which I reckoned was like playing pool). But I took writing very seriously and enjoyed it immensely. Within that context, I was put off. His dedication to short declarative sentences seemed dogmatic, simplistic, authoritarian, and alarmingly repressive. It rankled the sensibilities of freedom and creativity that did and still do imbue my understanding of what it means to write.
A nice way to round out this article would be to discuss how, as a confident, intelligent adult, a pivotal moment in my education and maturation came when I read Moby Dick, and through my deep relationship with that seminal American novel, I rediscovered the wisdom of the tall man with the large Adam’s apple. But there are two problems with that. First, much like the eponymous character in Woody Allen’s 1983 film Zelig, I have never read Moby Dick. Allen’s literary joke was that Zelig’s metaphorical Moby Dick was literally the novel Moby Dick. Not having read the book is not the source of shame and regret for me that it was for Zelig, though I should like to read it one day. If nothing else, my mother the former high school English teacher recommends it highly, though she says it’s perfectly okay to skip the chapter on cetology.
The other problem is that even a cursory reading of Moby Dick shows that, despite its famous opening line, Herman Melville was hardly a devotee of the short, declarative sentence. Indeed, the very next sentence reads:
Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
A couple of sentences later, he rambles on for eighty-seven words, using no less than three semi-colons. Indeed, this is not Ernest Hemingway. It turns out Melville really was a 19th century writer after all.
And that’s fine by me. In fact, it makes me want to read him even more. Because while short, declarative sentences certainly have many fine purposes, a steady diet of them would lessen my soul. Both as a writer and a reader, I am given to flourishes of long complex sentences, intricately constructed, and interspersed with commas here and there, though not mindlessly, mind you. I find that there is often a great joy and natural rhythm to the language, by which longer sentences may stack up and then be punctuated by the shorter ones. For not only does each sentence have its own rhythm, but taken together, the paragraph is something that twists and turns, bobs and weaves, and line dances across the page. Long is good.
I also appreciate that this is, to a large extent, a matter of personal taste. While in graduate school, I read Two Treatises of Government by John Locke, and I actually liked it. I don’t mean I liked it the way so many libertarians do, as a matter of ideology. No, I actually liked the writing, the seemingly endless sentences that were not a tangled mess, but rather were carefully woven in a manner that was quite complex yet completely coherent. They were a joy to follow. At one point, I was so amazed, that I counted. Locke had at least one sentence with over 160 words. It was beautiful. It’s also not for everyone.
Meanwhile, I always thought Ernest Hemingway’s style was overwrought, precisely because of his stubborn dedication to short, declarative sentences. It can be very compelling, but his particular brand of minimalism is also highly stylized, to the point of being unnatural at times, making it ripe for mockery.
-Why did Hemingway’s chicken cross the road?
-To die. Alone. In the rain.
So if I never read Moby Dick, and I never became a champion of the short, declarative sentence, then does this article pivot on the irony that, as a college professor in the humanities, I have spent more than a decade beset upon by the tortured, tangled, misconstructed, and maddeningly long sentences of my dear students, and that I will be so for the rest of my professional life?
What it comes down to is this. Though I have a deep affection for long sentences, the passive voice, and split infinitives, what the tall man with the large Adam’s apple tried to teach us that day actually stuck. Even if that young man, probably 20 years younger than I am now, had yet to fully master the English language himself, and even if I, now sitting upon half a lifetime of English, still do not subscribe to his economical approach, then I am still grateful that he taught me, and I am forever in his debt, because he did raise me up that day, even if I did not know it, and he did make me smarter, even if the seed he planted needed many years to grow, and even if it did not blossom into the exact flower he thought it would, and even if he was perhaps banished from the garden for tending to his borrowed plot in ways that did not always bear fruit and were not looked upon kindly by his landlord.
His idea is still with me. Sometimes it mocks me. Sometimes it bolsters me. Sometimes it ignores me. Sometimes it is what it is what it is. And here on a web site, who am I, if not these words?
So after all the flourishes and the bombast have run their course, and when every last foliage-laden metaphor lays browning in autumnal prose, it seems he was absolutely right about one thing. Sometimes, all you really need to make your point, is a subject and a verb.