Playing with Sentences

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I’ve been collecting sentences for a long time. And one kind of sentence I look for—and love—is one whose structure somehow enacts or performs what it describes. Recently I ran across such a sentence I found almost SIXTY years ago. It was written by “new journalist” Tom Wolfe and published in Esquire on March 1, 1965, with the title “The Last American Hero is Junior Johnson. Yes!”

The article itself is vintage Wolfe. He traces the “legend” of Junior Johnson, a good old boy from the hills of North Carolina, who bootlegged moonshine along the back country roads, outfoxing the local law enforcers – for years. He went on to be a famous race car driver in the fairly early days of NASCAR, as well as a successful landowner. But my favorite passage in the article is one long run on sentence that mirrors one of Johnson’s dare-devil escapes from the sheriff. Here it is:

Finally, one night they had Junior trapped on the road up toward the bridge around Millersville, there’s no way out of there, they had the barricades up and they could hear this souped-up car roaring around the bend, and here it comes—but suddenly they can hear a siren and see a red light flashing in the grille, so they think it’s another agent, and boy, they run out like ants and pull those barrels and boards and sawhorses out of the way, and then—Ggghhzzzzzzzhhhhhhggggggzzzzzzzeeeeeong!—gawdam! there he goes again, it was him, Junior Johnson!, with a gawdam agent’s si-reen and a red light in his grille!

Tom Wolfe at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1988Tom Wolfe at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1988


The clauses pile up, barreling along, taking hairpin curves . . . and then . . . the long made-up word meant perhaps to sound like squealing tires—and “there he goes again.” Left the law in the dust, outfoxed again. I can imagine Wolfe had a lot of fun writing this sentence, and it’s one I have shown students from time to time over the decades when we were playing with sentences, asking them to think of an event in their lives they could describe—using and stretching and pushing basic sentence structures to try to embody the description. Having fun with syntax!

So here’s to Tom Wolfe and to the 1960s, which gave us so much experimentation in writing. We are living in another great moment of syntactic creativity—from the language of hip hop to the magic of the best advertising—even to business reports aimed at entertaining as well as informing shareholders. It might be a good time to ask students to go on a sentence treasure hunt to see what they come up with—and to challenge them to have some fun with sentences!


Image via Wikimedia Commons

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.