I once wrote a blog post inspired by a 5 second clip in a Frank Ocean song. One of my favorite things to say to students is, “Look close, not wide.” And I invariably run out the clock during class while offering up endless examples to embody a single concept, thereby never having enough time to move on to the next one.
Details: They’re what I do.
Or did, anyway. Recently, I was asked to write an appendix to a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman along the lines of “An English Professor Reads Sherman’s Memoirs.” Here’s the rub: I can’t go much over 2000 words.
Now, Sherman’s physical and mental energy were, apparently, boundless. He traveled around Florida after graduating West Point; went back and forth to California a few times (by ship); rode his horse all over California while he was there; went down to Louisiana to open a college; marched his Civil War army through Tennessee, Georgia, and the Carolinas; and, in later years, toured Western Europe, Constantinople, Sevastopol, and Egypt. And he remembered almost everything and everybody.
Another thing with Sherman is this: his manic energy extends into his prose. Ulysses S. Grant’s Memoirs opens with the famously succinct line, “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” For Grant, that’s a whole paragraph. Here’s Sherman, right out of the gate:
According to Cothren, in his “History of Ancient Woodbury, Connecticut,” the Sherman family came from Dedham, Essex County, England. The first recorded name is of Edmond Sherman, with his three sons, Edmond, Samuel, and John, who were at Boston before 1636; and farther it is distinctly recorded that Hon. Samuel Sherman, Rev. John, his brother, and Captain John, his first cousin, arrived from Dedham, Essex County, England, in 1634. Samuel afterward married Sarah Mitchell, who had come (in the same ship) from England, and finally settled at Stratford, Connecticut. The other two (Johns) located at Watertown, Massachusetts.
That’s nearly 100 words, with 21 commas, 2 sets of parentheses, and a semicolon. Later, in Chapter XIII, a letter from Sherman to Major General Henry Halleck runs 3415 words, which is almost 150% of my entire limit!
Very little, if any, of Sherman’s rhetorical exuberance will serve me except for my own discussion of it; in the very act of quoting, I will be running up too close to the wall. The only thing for it is to violate my personal and professional rules and spend my time summarizing and opining.
Of course, this could be the best thing that ever happened to me as a writer. My obsession with minutiae might be more–or less–than a matter of good writing. It might, in fact, be a way to avoid writing. Quotes, in the end, are simply cut-and-past, and their abuse could signify a distinct lack of effort, not to mention confidence. Having to choose details carefully will also help me answer a frequent student question: “How do I know when to quote?” The answer I usually give (one that came to me spontaneously in the prison when the bell rang and I panicked) is, “Choose your quotes like you choose your friends!” And friends, of course, are precious.
Here’s a good visual metaphor for the way this could go. It’s one of my favorite pan shots, from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, with Claudia Cardinale and music by Ennio Morricone. Up and out!–
Well, that’s not so bad. I can do this non-quote thing. After all, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
“The whirling bubble on the surface of a brook, admits us to the secret of the mechanics of the sky.”
All I have to do is look up.