Woodworking column: What happened to being terse?
"What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul."
-- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Washington Irving, author of characters like Ichabod Crane, also wrote about real-life characters, notably George Washington, our first president. One hundred and fifty years ago today, Irving passed on to the great remainder shelf in the sky, after completing his fifth and final volume of his George Washington biography.
His final words?
"When will this end?"
Well, I guess!
Which brings up the matter of terseness. To be terse and to the point seems to have gotten past us. One wag said "If Moses would have possessed a word processor, we'd now have 18 rather than ten commandments."
Irving's five-volume life of George Washington may be a bit out of the ordinary, but recent biographies aren't much better. I just read that some scholar has written an 822-page biography of Frederick Douglass.
And what about doctoral dissertations? I studied under an American lit expert, Alma Payne, whose unpublished dissertation ran to 1,100 pages. The topic? "Household References in the Novels of William Dean Howells."
While we on the topic, whatever happened to the one and two word rejoinders?
I recently ran across a beautiful photo of my parents on their honeymoon. They were dressed to the nines, my father in a Chesterfield topcoat and a Homburg, my mother looking like a flapper straight out of the Roaring Twenties.
They're standing on a wooden bridge that spanned a creek at Halfmoon Lake Park in Eau Claire. The large photo is hand-tinted in the manner of the 1930s. Family legend tells us that when my proud grandmother showed it to her brother Hilmer Johnson of Hale Township, he replied, "Nice bridge." And what do you think is scrawled on the back of this historic photo? "Nice bridge," that's what.
Then there's the story, probably apocryphal, about New York governor Al Smith's run for the presidency in 1928. Folks had never experienced a Roman Catholic running for such an important position in this primarily protestant country. Folks worried that Pope Pius would be running the country if Smith were elected. When Herbert Hoover trounced him, Democratic wags, referring to Smith's alleged parsimony, said that the Irishman sent the Pope a succinct telegram: "UNPACK."
As one might expect, Dorothy Parker gets into the act. For years Parker wrote a column called Constant Reader. Commenting on A.A. Milne's "The House at Pooh Corner, Parker wrote:
"Tonstant Weader Fwowd up." (and then signed off.)
She also suggested that her epitaph read "Excuse My Dust."
One-upping her was W.C. Fields epitaph: "On the whole I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
When his wife asked Jack Dempsey why he lost the heavyweight title to Gene Tunney, he reportedly said, "Honey, I just forgot to duck."
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