[What we all need leading up to a Triple Crown horse race is an essay about the rhetoric of punctuation. So here it is, adapted from a chapter in my book The Glamour of Grammar. Don’t worry, there is an actual connection to horse racing. I have chosen to analyze a special passage from a special book, Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. A close reading of her prose will reveal how a champion among writers uses every trick in the book to create special literary effects.]
Whenever we concentrate on the rules of grammar and punctuation, we run the risk of veiling the creativity and flexibility available to authors who think of them as tools of meaning and effect.
Let’s take as an example a splendid passage from Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book Seabiscuit, a stirring narrative history of one of America’s legendary racehorses. In this scene, Hillenbrand describes the mystical glory of Seabiscuit’s last great stretch run in the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap:
In the midst of all the whirling noise of that supreme moment, Pollard [the jockey] felt peaceful. Seabiscuit reached and pushed and Pollard folded and unfolded over his shoulders and they breathed together. A thought pressed into Pollard’s mind: We are alone.
Twelve straining Thoroughbreds; Howard and Smith in the grandstand; Agnes in the surging crowd; Woolf behind Pollard, on Heelfly; Marcella up on the water wagon with her eyes squeezed shut; the leaping, shouting reporters in the press box; Pollard’s family crowded around the radio in a neighbor’s house in Edmonton; tens of thousands of roaring spectators and millions of radio listeners painting this race in their imaginations: all this fell away. The world narrowed to a man and his horse, running.
Consider all the tools of language used – and not used – to create this startling, cinematic slow-motion effect. Not used, for example, are commas to break up what might look like a run-on sentence: “Seabiscuit reached and pushed and Pollard folded and unfolded over his shoulders and they breathed together.” You will find three independent clauses in that sentence without the hint of a comma. You could argue that the brevity of these clauses makes punctuation unnecessary, even intrusive. I would suggest a more literary effect. That the sentence describes a continuous flowing action of horse and jockey: first horse, then jockey, then both together. The action, if you will, is running on. And so is the sentence.
Then something startling happens, marked by the sentence in italics: “We are alone.” The author considers this thought so important, so dramatic, that she emphasizes it in three ways: she expresses it in the shortest possible sentence; she places it as the end of the paragraph, next to a bar of white space; and she sets it apart with italic type.
What follows is an exercise in literary and cinematic time management, a slow-motion effect that expands the moment in the cause of suspense. Each of the eight phrases leading to the final main clause (“All this fell away”) happens in an instant as the camera pans from the track to the grandstand to the stables to the press box to a house in Canada to an audience of millions around the world. Unlike the earlier sentence, this is not one continuous motion, but simultaneous action, the literary equivalent of a cinematic montage. Here commas would not be strong enough to enclose the distinct actions. Periods would insult their spontaneity. The solution: that oft-maligned expression of Aristotle’s golden mean, the semicolon. Seven to be exact.
The final, startling insight comes in the form of one triumphant sentence: “The world narrowed to a man and his horse, running.” The movement is from a big noun (“world”) to two particular nouns (“man” and “horse”) resolving themselves in a single word, a present participle (“running”) that, standing at the end of the sentence, connotes perpetual motion …immortality.