I have for the last few weeks been in possession of the new The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, edited by son Page Stegner. I have been working through the book since, given the vagaries of work and stresses domestic and otherwise.
I should say that reading it is hardly work: it’s a delight, the epistles of a man who was uncommonly gracious to friend and occasional foe alike. Stegner’s letters are thoughtful both in their content and its delivery. The rhythm the man brought to what, in other hands, would have been simple workaday correspondence is remarkable. His letters sing.
It has reminded me that I’ve often thought that many aspiring writers would do well to pay more attention to cadence. One of the best tricks I learned early on was to read my writing aloud. Not only will you tend to stumble in speaking the text where a reader would in reading it, but the cadence, if you listen for it, jumps out at you.
It was while reading Stegner that I first consciously noticed my habit, while reading well-crafted prose, of near-singing the words in my head. An editor for a few years then, I was accustomed to breaking up unwieldy sentences, to finding the short stark statements buried within and freeing them, panning the bright sharp nuggets from endless expanses of gray placer gravel. I was an environmental editor. I should have known better, given the one true lesson of the science of ecology, than to think that was all there was to editing for cadence. Context is everything. It was the long, unbroken river’s flow that put those nuggets where they were supposed to be.
I still break up the long sentences while editing, though these days I mainly edit my own text. As often as not I will look on either side of the new short sentence for two that can be blended. Or three. There are writers who can make a long staccato chain ring but I am not, strictly speaking, one of them. I need the smooth passages between the rapids.
Stegner was a master of cadence, that music generated by the smooth friction of adjoining sentences. It showed in his polemical writing as well as in his fiction. Here’s a paragraph from his famed “Wilderness Letter,” sent to David Pesonen at UC Berkeley in 1960 when Pesonen was helping to craft federal wilderness protection policies, and later much-anthologized:
I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be “harvested.” For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man’s feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.
Read this paragraph aloud. Set aside for now the quibbling with the phrasing, the mid-twentieth century archaisms of gender in simple noun or inapt metaphor, the range politics long-supplanted by new science. (Stegner was a thoughtful and generous soul, and while he resisted what he saw as trends he would likely have written this paragraph differently today.) Pay attention instead to the rhythm of each clause, each sentence, the rests and pauses. A sentence of 43 syllables leads, followed by one half as long but still complex, and then another with 46 syllables. Then comes a lull in the tall breakers: a sentence of 14 syllables, with one of 12 after that. The rhythm within the longer sentences is lively and complex, a dance of iamb and dactyl, trochee and anapest conjoined, a burbling stream of meaning. That fourth sentence accentuates the nuance. Two distinct clauses, each worthy of bracketing with capital and period, six syllables and then eight, and say each of them aloud again: the second’s rhythm matches the first, with an unstressed syllable added on either end. Stegner has provided the relief from the long stretches, but softened it so that the change is not so abrupt.
How much of this cadence was deliberate, and how much just flowed from his fingers through the typewriter onto the paper, set without margins for economy’s sake? Who knows? It was almost certainly some of each, part careful blue-pencil work, part first-draft inspiration, a drawing of music into the lungs and breathing it out in sentences.
John McPhee is another writer to whose work cadence seems to come as naturally as breathing. Look at the first paragraphs of Rising From The Plains:
This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in the Autumn of 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white. In Massachusetts, a few months before, she had graduated from Wellesley College and had been awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key, which now hung from a chain around her neck. Her field was classical studies. In addition to her skills in Latin and Greek, she could handle a horse expertly, but never had she made a journey into a region so remote as the one that lay before her.
“Meanwhile, Rawlins surprised her: Rawlins, where shootings had once been so frequent that there seemed to be — as citizens put it — “a man for breakfast every morning”; Rawlins, halfway across a state that was spending far more per annum than to support its nineteen-year-old university. She had expected a “backward” town, a “frontier” town, a street full of badmen like Big Nose George, the road agent, the plunderer of stagecoaches, who signed his hidden treasure maps “B.N. George.” Instead, this October evening, she was met at the station by a lackey with a handcart, who wheeled her luggage to the Ferris Hotel. A bellboy took over, his chest a constellation of buttons. The place was three stories high, and cozy with steam heat. The lights were electric. There were lace curtains. What does it matter, she reflected, if the pitchers lack spouts?
There is so much to appreciate in that passage: the alternation of long and short sentences, the feeling of momentum building in sentences like the first two in paragraph two, and artful landing in the short simple declaratives that follow.
It is writing that nearly begs to be read aloud.
It is music.