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 Ben McGrath is not like a piece by Jill Lepore, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Goodyear, or Filkins for Khatchadourian, or Bilger for Paumgarten. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Interesting Emendations: Gabrielle Hamilton's "The Lamb Roast"


Do you remember these lines?

On weekend mornings, we piled in the car and ate breakfast at Smutzie’s, in New Jersey, then filled up the tank at Sam Williams’s Mobil, in Pennsylvania.

The day before the party, we drove out along the winding roads, past Black’s Christmas tree farm and the LaRue bottle works.

They’re from Gabrielle Hamilton’s wonderful memory piece "The Lamb Roast" (The New Yorker, January 17, 2011). They are, in their rich simplicity, examples of my idea of the ideal sentence. I was looking for them when I recently read Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter (2011), in which a variation of “The Lamb Roast” appears as Chapter 1. I found them. They’re different from the New Yorker lines. They now read:

On weekend mornings we had breakfast at Smutzie’s in Lambertville, on the Jersey side, but then we got gas for the car at Sam Williams’s Mobil on the New Hope side. [My emphasis]

So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy out the winding country roads, past Black’s Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works. [My emphasis]

In the first sentence, “we piled in the car” has been deleted, “ate” has been changed to “had,” “in New Jersey” has been changed to “in Lambertville, on the Jersey side,” “then filled up the tank” has been changed to “but then we got gas for the car,” and “in Pennsylvania” has been changed to “on the New Hope side.”

In the second sentence, “The day before the party, we drove” has been changed to “So on this bluish early summer weekend, Jeffrey drove his new jalopy,” “out along” has been changed to just “out,” “winding roads” has been changed to “winding country roads,” and “past Black’s Christmas tree farm and the LaRue bottle works” has been changed to “past Black’s Christmas tree farm, and past the Larue bottle works.”

I’m pleased to see that those glorious names – Smutzie’s, Sam Williams’s Mobil, Black’s Christmas tree farm, LaRue bottle works – remain untouched, except that the “R” in “LaRue” is now lowercase. It’s the marvelous specificity of these great names that, for me, makes the sentences so alive. The New Yorker versions are simpler; I prefer them. Both versions are excellent, illustrating the truth of William Strunk’s old adage: “the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite, and concrete” (The Elements of Style).  

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