American Scholar recently published its 11 best sentences… do you agree?
And Roy Peter Clark ‘with respect and gratitude’ has offered interpretations of why they work, which, we – also with respect and gratitude – have summarized below each sentence:
1.Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
An abstract sentence, but starting with something we can see – the trees – and driving towards ace phrase ‘his capacity for wonder’
2. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
—James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
A ‘feel of anthem or secular credo’, with ‘forge’ meaning the blacksmith’s activity and ‘to fake’
3.This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel, and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings; partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.
—John Hersey, Hiroshima
Starts with subject and verb then journeys through subordinate clause after subordinate clause to get to the immense ‘irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves’
4.It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.
—Toni Morrison, Sula
We hear shape here and ‘circles and circles of sorrow’ sound like they are…
5.For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Beautifully constructed with a beginning, middle and end and a philosophical opening turns into snark.
6.It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the G.N.P. high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.
—Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Build around small words ‘and’ ‘it’ ‘not’, and high falutin’intentions contrasting with ‘it was not’. Twice.
7. Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.
—Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
Second most important word at beginning, least important in the middle and most important at the end: here we have this.
8.There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all men, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.
—Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby
A case made here, that the poor cannot afford justice, and yes guys, once more the sentence drives through to the grand ‘furniture of their pockets’
9.In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.
—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
But hey, here’s an exception…Roy cites ‘a roll of fat jiggling at his belly’ as the most interesting phrase here. Agree?
10.There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Possibly the second King Lear hat-tip here (see Jane Austen above) and full of self-delusion. How can the innocent child be cruel?
11.Like the waters of the river, like the motorists on the highway, and like the yellow trains streaking down the Santa Fe tracks, drama, in the shape of exceptional happenings, had never stopped there.
—Truman Capote, In Cold Blood
Moving from the visible to more abstract and then all the action just before the full stop. The lesson here, maybe.
What do you reckon are contenders for best sentences by writers of Wales? Suggestions here please – and if your sentence is chosen be ready to receive a giant chocolate leek.