Backwards Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker

December 29, 2011

As a lifelong obsessive, compulsive reader it always saddens me when I reach the end of a favorite author’s lifetime output.

It’s satisfying but somewhat melancholy to realize that I’ll never read another piece by – insert names here [Aldous Huxley, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Parker, etc.] for the first time.

How sweet it is, then, to newly discover another writer who may securely lodge in my personal pantheon. Just such a discovery happened late this Fall when I came across a compilation of work by Wolcott Gibbs; six hundred and fifty-three pages of precisely rendered prose from a sensibility as jaundiced as my own.

I offer the short excerpt below as a sample.


Day after day Laura Jean Schanze, a rather sinister little girl in the Clinton, New Jersey public school sat at her desk writing down the mistakes her teacher, a Miss Melick, made in English. Miss Melick said “poopils” when she meant “pupils” and “arn” when she meant “iron;” once in an unexplained crisis she exclaimed, “There ain’t no Chinamens in here!”

In the end Laura Jean’s dark industry was rewarded and Miss Melick was dismissed by the school board. This episode illustrates a quality we have always felt in little girls – something derisive, watchful and colder than the climate on the moon. For some reason it reminds us of a conversation we overheard on the beach the other day. Two young ladies, each perhaps fifteen, lay on the sand and talked of love.

“So,” said one of them, “he told me he was giving up smoking for me.  For me, for God’s sake! He thinks I’m worried  because he’s stunting his nasty little growth or something.”

“They all do,” said the other, and the baby gorgons laughed together, a silvery music, ancient and terrible.

Talk of the Town, August 27, 1938
from Backwards Ran Sentences: The Best of  Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker



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