Maybe There Wasn’t…

This is from a fellow who won one Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for another. He’s describing a meeting of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983.


“There was Erskine Caldwell, who many thought was dead; there were the elongated granitic features of John Kenneth Galbraith; there was Malcolm Cowley, his face crumped by age, who had known Hart Crane; there were the husband-and-wife teams, seated apart, as at a dinner party; Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren, Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller.”


Making matters worse, Ted Morgan deployed this embarrassment as the first sentence of a 650-page book, his biography of William Burroughs. Such a stumbling opening doesn’t invite the reader to continue the journey.


Few techniques will disable a sentence more effectively than that of beginning with the word “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be.” It makes it nearly impossible to give the sentence a proper verb. 


Once you have set sail on this dubiously constructed vessel, it becomes difficult to change course. The author goes on endlessly in the same style, flagellating the verb “to be” in all its forms.


“It was through Richard Stern that Billy…”


“Another character was James Le Baron Boyle…”


“There was one fellow called William P. Frere von Blomberg…”


From Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs

Ted Morgan, Henry Holt and Company, 1988