In Praise of Beautiful Language

By John Coward

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

So begins Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella, A River Runs Through It, an opening sentence as crisp and intriguing as one can imagine. Maclean’s first paragraph continues, reeling in the reader with more hints of the story to come:

We lived at the junction of great trout streams in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He taught us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

To my ear, this is enchanting prose, words and ideas strung together so vividly and memorably that they capture the imagination in a flash of wonder and expectation.

Opening with a stylistic bang is good prose technique, of course. In journalism, the first sentence in a story—known in newsrooms as the “lede”—is considered the most important sentence in the story because its job is to hook the reader and create interest in the story.

Maclean, a long-time English professor at the University of Chicago, knew this perfectly well and practiced it in his writing. In another story, Maclean opened with this magnificent sentence: “I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew I was not beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but I hadn’t noticed it yet.” (The story is “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky,” one of three stories in A River Runs Through It.)

Vladimir Nabokov also knew the value of a strong beginning. He opened his novel Lolita with this astonishing first paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Nabokov, a native Russian writing in an adopted language, mastered an English prose style so lyrical that it almost sings on the page. More than that, this opening paragraph suggests a passion—or, more accurately, a lust—that drives this controversial story forward. Despite its unsavory theme—a middle-aged professor’s obsession with a twelve-year-old girl—many readers were enchanted by Nabokov’s elegant prose.

Another writer who mastered the lyricism of English was James Agee, the Tennessee native perhaps best known for his book on Depression-era poverty in rural Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although Famous Men is a notoriously difficult book in many places, Agee was capable of extraordinarily evocative prose. In “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a short passage that opens his novel, A Death in the Family, Agree recalls his family lounging on blankets on their lawn after dinner. He begins, “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Agee goes on to expand this particular evening on the lawn in language as beautiful and evocative as any ever written by an American writer:

We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

As I said, Agee’s language is sublime. Indeed, the music in this passage has not been lost on Agee’s readers, one of whom was the composer Samuel Barber, who adapted Agee’s prose into a 1947 rhapsody for voice and orchestra, a piece also known as “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”

For me, these words, these musical sentences and paragraphs are an enduring literary gift, openings to a greater world of the human imagination.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

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