Remembering Tom Wolfe, the master of the long sentence
Greeted this morning by the news of the death of Tom Wolfe — a founding parent of the New Journalism — I grabbed a copy of my book "Writing Tools" and opened it to the index. Published by Little, Brown — who also published Wolfe — the guide for writers makes reference to Wolfe on nine different pages.
When I left the academy in 1977 for journalism, the New Journalism was no longer the rage, but it had left its mark on aspiring non-fiction storytellers everywhere. You could not see the top of the craft without reading "The Right Stuff" by Wolfe, or “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in Esquire by Gay Talese, or the column on the digger of John F. Kennedy's grave by Jimmy Breslin.
These writers, but especially Wolfe, created a movement in journalism not just through the models they crafted, but also through their public discussions about the craft. In a manifesto published as an introduction to an anthology of New Journalism, Wolfe made a case that a different, deeper level of reporting could create nonfiction that had the heat of fiction.
Though many disciples drove down that path carelessly, some blurring the lines between truth and fiction, the most prominent figured out responsible ways to make use of the tools of novelists. Wolfe laid them out for us.
- The collection and use of “status details,” by which he meant the particular expressions that define character in a story (think of Holden Caulfield’s red hunting cap)
- Reporting that overheard or attempted to recreate conversations, rendering them for readers in the form of dramatic dialogue (rather than the flat quotes produced by traditional reporting)
- The construction of stories in which action is communicated in a sequence of scenes, the scene being the essential element in all storytelling
- And, finally, reporting that was deep and wide enough to capture action from a variety of points of view (on a snowy night, a character, whose daughter is missing, looks out the peephole of the front door and sees two police officers standing outside)
This was by no means the limit of Wolfe’s contribution to the craft. His experiments in punctuation became legendary, leading to both parodies and tributes. When I had the occasion to meet crime novelist Elmore Leonard in a buffet line in Tucson, Arizona, he argued against the use of exclamation points to magnify meaning at the end of the sentence. He gave me permission to use one for every 100,000 words of text.
He made one exception, Tom Wolfe, who could throw them in by the handfuls.
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Journalists — perhaps I should say editors — are averse, by training and disposition, to long sentences. It was Wolfe, more than any other writer, who gave me the courage not just to try the long-sentence craft but to encourage it in newspaper and magazine writing. Chapter 7 in "Writing Tools" is titled: “Fear not the long sentence. Take the reader on a journey of language and meaning.”
I explain: “Write what you fear. Until the writer tries to master the long sentence, she is no writer at all, for while length makes a bad sentence worse, it can make a good sentence better.”
Following are the passages inspired by Wolfe.
My favorite Tom Wolfe essay from the early days of the New Journalism movement is “A Sunday Kind of Love,” named after a romantic ballad of the period. The events described take place one morning in a New York subway station on a Thursday, not a Sunday. Wolfe sees and seizes a moment of youthful passion on the city underground to redefine urban romance.
Love! Attar of libido in the air! It is 8:45 A.M. Thursday morning in the IRT subway station at 50th Street and Broadway and already two kids are hung up in a kind of herringbone weave of arms and legs, which proves, one has to admit, that love is not confined to Sunday in New York.
That’s a fine beginning. Erotic fragments and exclamation points. The concave/convex connection of love captured in “herringbone weave,” the quick movement from short sentence to long, as writer and reader dive from the top of the ladder of abstraction, from love and libido, down to two kids making out, back up to variations on amour in the metropolis.
During rush hour, subway travelers learn the meaning of length: the length of the platform, the length of the wait, the length of the train, the length of the escalators and stairwells to ground level, the length of lines of hurried, grouchy, impatient commuters. Notice how Wolfe uses the length of his sentences to reflect that reality:
Still the odds! All the faces come popping in clots out of the Seventh Avenue local, past the King Size Ice Cream machine, and the turnstiles start whacking away as if the world were breaking up on the reefs. Four steps past the turnstiles everybody is already backed up haunch to paunch for the climb up the ramp and stairs to the surface, a great funnel of flesh, wool, felt, leather, rubber and steaming alumicron, with the blood squeezing through everybody’s old sclerotic arteries in hopped-up spurts from too much coffee and the effort of surfacing from the subway at the rush hour. Yet there on the landing are a boy and a girl, both about eighteen, in one of those utter, My Sin, backbreaking embraces.
This is classic Wolfe, a world where “sclerotic” serves as antonym for erotic, where exclamation points sprout like wildflowers, where experience and status are defined by brand names. (“My Sin” was a perfume of the day.) But wait! There’s more! As the couple canoodles, a cavalcade of commuters passes by:
All round them, ten, scores, it seems like hundreds, of faces and bodies are perspiring, trooping and bellying up the stairs with arterio-sclerotic grimaces past a showcase full of such novel items as Joy Buzzers, Squirting Nickels, Finger Rats, Scary Tarantulas and spoons with realistic dead flies on them, past Fred’s barbershop, which is just off the landing and has glossy photographs of young men with the kind of baroque haircuts one can get in there, and up onto 50th Street into a madhouse of traffic and shops with weird lingerie and gray hair-dying displays in the windows, signs for free teacup readings and a pool-playing match between the Playboy Bunnies and Downey’s Showgirls, and then everybody pounds on toward the Time-Life Building, the Brill Building or NBC.
Has any reader ever experienced a more glorious long sentence, a more rollicking evocation of underground New York, a more dazzling 128 words from capital letter to period? If you find one, I’d like to read it.
(By the way, in the 12 years since Writing Tools was published, no one has offered something to top it.)
In addition to these examples from Wolfe, I did my best to describe the elements of his craft. To achieve mastery of the long sentence:
- It helps if subject and verb of the main clause come early in the sentence.
- Use the long sentence to describe something long. Let form follow function.
- It helps if the long sentence is written in chronological order.
- Use the long sentence in variation with sentences of short and medium length.
- Long sentences need more editing than short ones. Make every word count.
I close with the confession that I have always preferred Wolfe’s nonfiction to the long social novels that consumed the last decades of his writing life. He was by no means a perfect writer — he had countless harsh critics of both his journalism and fiction — and that creamy white suit seemed a ridiculous Mark Twain affectation.
That said, I am grateful for his risk-taking, his innovations, his belief in the marriage of reporting and storytelling, and most of all, his devotion to the craft.
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