Introduction

What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Interesting Emendations: Peter Hessler's "Walking the Wall"


The opening paragraph of Peter Hessler’s wonderful “Walking the Wall” (The New Yorker, May 21, 2007) is, for me, one of the great, irresistible beginnings in all of New Yorker writing:

When the weather is good, or when I’m tired of having seven million neighbors, I drive north from downtown Beijing. It takes an hour and a half to reach Sancha, a quiet village where I rent a farmhouse. The road dend-ends at the village, but a footpath continues into the mountains. The trail forks twice, climbs for a steep mile through a forest of walnut and oak, and terminates at the Great Wall of China.

This passage, seeded with ravishing ingredients – exoticism (Beijing, Sancha), specificity (“drive north,” “takes an hour and a half,” “dead-ends at the village,” “the trail forks twice,” “steep mile,” “forest of walnut and oak”), first-person experience (“I drive,” “I rent”), and, most crucially, the tantalizing mention of the Great Wall of China - hooked me when I first read it, and I immediately devoured the entire piece, relishing every word.

Interestingly, the opening paragraph of “Walking the Wall,” as it appears in Hessler’s recent Strange Stones, is slightly different from the New Yorker piece. “The road dead-ends at the village, but a footpath continues into the mountains” now reads “The road switchbacks up a steep hillside and dead-ends at the village, but a footpath continues into the mountains” (my emphasis). And “The trail forks twice, climbs for a steep mile through a forest of walnut and oak, and terminates at the Great Wall of China” has been changed to “The trail forks twice, climbs for a steep mile through a forest of walnut and oak, and finally terminates at the Great Wall of China” (my emphasis).

Both these changes are minor. To my eyes, the New Yorker version is a shade more effective. It avoids the repetition of “steep” (“steep hillside,” “steep mile”) and the unnecessary “finally.” Either way, the passage is brilliant, subtly echoing the iconic opening line of Joseph Mitchell’s “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956) – “When things get too much for me, I put a wild-flower book and a couple of sandwiches in my pockets and go down to the South Shore of Staten Island and wander around awhile in one of the old cemeteries down there.” 

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