A Dramatic Inconsistency

Good writers are good for a reason, and part of the interest literature holds lies in understanding how an author shapes and orders sentences to produce an effect. Here is what I think is a beautifully drawn moment of sudden wonder, all the more arresting for the character in whom it arises. The passage is from the opening pages of John Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven. A hard-bitten soldier on horseback is chasing a deer up a slope of hills and is himself suddenly captured by the unexpected:

In a few minutes he arrived at the top of the ridge, and there he stopped, stricken with wonder at what he saw—a long valley floored with green pasturage on which a herd of deer browsed. Perfect live oaks grew in the meadow of the lovely place, and the hills hugged it jealously against the fog and the wind.

The disciplinarian corporal felt weak in the face of so serene a beauty. He who had whipped brown backs to tatters, he whose rapacious manhood was building a new race for California, this bearded, savage bearer of civilization slipped from his saddle and took off his steel hat.

I quote this passage from the Penguin Classics edition of Steinbeck’s work (1995), and it is the second sentence of the second paragraph here from which we can learn something about a more sophisticated sentence structure—sophisticated, but not pedantic. Our procedure in understanding the construction of a sentence begins always with identifying the number and kind of clauses it comprises. Here we can count four: two subordinate clauses (who had whipped and whose rapacious manhood was building) leading up to two independent clauses (this bearded, savage bearer of civilization slipped and took off). We could identify this first, therefore, as a periodic sentence, where subordinate elements precede the principal assertions, but something else, and something much more interesting, is going on here.

The subject of the two main assertions is this bearded, savage bearer of civilization, and we could isolate this subject and its verbs from the preceding subordinate elements while still retaining a sharply defined picture of this corporal who slipped from his saddle. What, then, do the two introductory clauses contribute to the sentence? Their effect is to accumulate interest about the subject, this savage who ironically savages for the advance of civilization, and they do this by deliberately not completing their thoughts. The first introductory element, he who had whipped brown backs to tatters, begins with a pronoun that is never given a verb; we have the subordinate relative clause who had whipped, but where is the verb for the subject he? Likewise with the next subordinate element, he whose rapacious manhood was building a new race for California: we have another relative clause beginning with whose, but no subject for the pronoun subject he again.

There is, then, what the grammarian-logicians would call a want of sequence, a figure of speech technically termed anacoluthon, a logical inconsistency. We construct sentences like this not infrequently when we are seized by an emotion (I’m telling you, you don’t have to—just go and talk to him!), and it is just that natural propensity to worry less about logically completing a thought than expressing an emotion which, polished a little to suit the written moment, builds here a dramatic momentum for the release of the ideas in the concluding main clauses. That energy began, really, in the three preceding sentences, but the lack of logical and syntactical coherence in this final sentence brings the power of expectation to a peak.

Just how much sympathy Steinbeck himself might have had for this kind of analysis one doesn’t know. He said once he had “the instincts of a minstrel rather than those of a scrivener” (Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, ed. by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten, Penguin 1989, p. xiii), but even musicians and poets know, as Steinbeck surely did, that their inspiration is one thing and the craft to communicate it quite another. Just enough but not too much analysis of story or song can heighten, not diminish, our awareness of the meaning a work possesses.


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