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Dr. Loren Eiseley wrote about anthropology and other sciences so that the well-educated nonspecialists could understand him. Like Dr. Lewis Thomas, the medical researcher, Eiseley wrote clearly and persuasively about sophisticated topics. These eminent scholars were able to go beyond so-called sophistication and come back to what I consider true sophistication—writing that's clear, interesting, witty, and graceful. They usually wrote on serious topics which, in other hands, might put the reader to sleep. In the following excerpt from his book The Night Country, Eiseley writes about the elderly poor and ill who live in the railroad terminals of many major cities. He compares them to dying old brown wasps he's observed in midwinter. Like them, these old folks prefer to die in the center of things, not somewhere in lonely isolation.

Now and then they sleep, their old gray heads resting with painful awkwardness on the backs of the benches.

Also they are not at rest. For an hour they may sleep in the gasping exhaustion of the ill-nourished and aged who have to walk in the night. Then a policeman comes by on his rounds and nudges them upright.

"You can't sleep here," he growls.

A strange ritual then begins. An old man is difficult to waken. After a muttered conversation the policeman presses a coin in his hand and passes fiercely along the benches prodding and gesturing toward the door. In his wake, like birds rising and settling behind the passage of a farmer through a cornfield, the men totter up, move a few paces and subside once more upon the benches.

One man, after a slight, apologetic lurch, does not move at all. Tubercularly thin, he sleeps on steadily. The policeman does not look back. To him, too, this has become a ritual. He will not have to notice it again officially for another hour.

Once in a while one of the sleepers will not awake. Like the brown wasps, he will have had his wish to die in the great droning center of the hive rather than in some lonely room____

Perhaps the most important point to take from this particular image of group life is that Eiseley does not lecture us about the plight of these poor, feeble old folks. He simply paints for us a realistic (though impressionistic) picture of the policeman making his round, and the responses (and nonresponses) of those who huddle on those hard benches. Because he doesn't clutter up his writing with excess words, we can see the gray old heads tilted back against the hard benches, mouths forced open. Not that he supplied those open mouths—I did. As a reader, I brought to his simple, clear image something from my memories of seeing folks just like these in Grand Central Station. Had he put in many descriptive words, as some writers are prone to do, I wonder whether I'd have supplied that associated memory.

When too much description is presented the reader, he or she thinks, subconsciously, that it's all there—no other details are needed. Our brains enjoy filling in details—it's a primitive form of problem solving. Our brains are made to solve problems, and they'll do it when given the least encouragement. We can give that encouragement by providing a minimum of (carefully selected) information. Have you ever noticed how attractive a photograph can be of a person's face seen through a rain-streaked, misty window? We like it because we get to create—we fill in the missing information about the face and experience joy in doing so.

Jane Howard, in Esquire s June 1985 issue, writes about a group not often described in so interesting and straightforward a way, "The Mormons of Salt Lake City." Naturally, it takes more than one paragraph to give us a comprehensive picture, but this one does give us a thumbnail sketch. She told about awakening in her hotel at 3:00 A.M. to a disturbing series of beeping sounds.

The beeping sounds turned out to be traffic signals telling the blind when to cross the streets. Nobody jaywalks. Shoppers, emerging from malls that smell of fudge, wait patiently for lights to change, clutching parcels. What is in them? Maybe Jots and Tittles: The Trivia Game for Latterday Saints (Mormons), from the Deseret Bookstore. (Deseret is the Mormon word for "honeybee," which is what Utahans in general and Mormons in particular are supposed to be as busy as.) Maybe something from ZCMI, Zion Cooperative Mercantile Institution, where you get a discount on a new coat if you bring your old one in to donate to the needy. Maybe embroidery supplies; as the Mormon Handicrafts Center behind the hotel suggests, this is a very big town for sewing.

Jane Howard manages to tell us in this short paragraph, mainly by showing us, a fair amount about the lives lived by Mormons—and by others who live among them in Salt Lake City, where their influence prevails. Perhaps because of their influence, the city has installed beepers for the few blind folks in the city; the people are described indirectly as law abiding, through that powerful, short statement— "nobody jaywalks"—she implies that the people are wholesome. Their malls smell of fudge; they lead a life similar to other Americans, yet distinct—they have their own brand of trivia game; they are practical and compassionate—you can get a discount if you bring in clothing for the needy; and they lean toward austerity, or at least away from flamboyance—the citizens are big on home sewing. All of this information came across not by formal lecturing, but by the inclusion of telling details from everyday life.

Warren Hoge wrote about Rio de Janeiro's better-off citizens in an article for the Sophisticated Traveler (the New York Times supplement) in October 1983:

Don't be bothered by the way Brazilians litter their beaches with paper wrappers, soft-drink cans, and other disposables. In the early evening, when the veil of mist from the surf and the fog off the mountains meet and soften the edges of vision, platoons of sanitation men in bright orange uniforms rake the beach of the day's debris. Aside from leaving things clean for the next morning, their gentle march across the sands is also a reminder that in Rio the most commonplace things can borrow grace from natural splendor____

Ricardo Amaral, owner of Rio's hottest nightspot, the Hippopotamus discotheque, rolls his eyes to the heavens at mention of the 4:00 A.M. closing time in New York (he is also proprietor of Club A in midtown Manhattan). Walk out of Hippopotamus at an hour when runners are already in the street, calisthenics classes have commenced on the beach and vendors are setting up their stalls in the farmers' markets, and, if you glance behind, you'll see that the frolic inside is still pulsating as if there weren't already a tomorrow.

The first paragraph gives us a quick look at two groups of people living in Rio, the cariocas who seem to always live on the beach, and the army of sanitation men who clean up after them. The image of mist and fog merging to soften the edges of vision was inspired, but I was put onto the beach by his men in orange uniforms, which captured the red rays of the setting sun, all softened by the misty air. Yes, I supplied that part about how the red rays of a setting sun move anything orange closer toward red. I don't think I've ever seen orange uniforms in the sunset, but I do see almost every night how the setting sun turns the hairy bark of my red cedars nearly flame red. Truly inspired was Hoge's metaphor of a gentle march across the sands. In all the millions of words I've read over a lifetime, I'm sure I've never seen the words "gentle" and "march" paired up. They belonged together here. Perfect. Evocative. Accurate.

Beach swimmers in another part of the world live a different life. In fashionable Newport, Rhode Island, the wealthy belong to the Spouting Rock Beach Association and swim at its Bailey's Beach. Until you've managed to get a cabana at Bailey's Beach, you haven't arrived, according to Cleveland Amory, who writes so well about the wealthy and their strange group behavior patterns. In Newport: There She Sits, he writes:

Like other Newport clubs Bailey's is run on a double-membership basis; in other words, one must become first a seasonal subscriber, then a stockholder and a full-fledged member. Supporting a cabana at Bailey's often runs as high as $1,500 a year, because they are owned outright and the upkeep and all improvements are in the hands of the owner, not the Beach Association. All cabanas have locks, but not to keep outsiders out; they are to keep the owners out. The superintendent of the beach keeps all keys and every night at seven locks all cabanas; then, all night long every hour, a watchman makes the rounds to see that no owners have tried to get in. Bailey's wants no part of after-dark bathing or cabana courtships, and the fact that the younger generation does not like the beach's blue laws bothers eclat-minded Newporters not at all. "Young people have a good time at Bailey's," declares Mrs. George Tyson, a sister of Mrs. (Perle) Mesta and a woman whose cottage overlooks the beach, "but it is a good time in an awfully nice way."

The main point a writer can learn from this paragraph is that Amory does not tell us how to feel about these strange goings-on at Bailey's Beach. He simply lays out the facts accurately and interestingly, leaving the figuring out to us readers.

One group that needs its balloons punctured more often is the high-brow intellectuals, and especially academics. As a professor I know what a long, weak branch I'm crawling out on, but I loved the way Russell Lynes, former managing editor at Harper's, stuck needles into our puffed-up egos. The following is from an article he wrote for Harper's in 1949, "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow."

There is a certain air of omniscience about the highbrow, though the air is in many cases the thin variety encountered on the tops of high mountains from which the view is extensive but the details are lost.

You cannot tell a man that he is a lowbrow any more than you can tell a woman her clothes are in bad taste, but a highbrow doesn't mind being called a highbrow. He has worked hard, read widely, traveled far, and listened attentively in order to satisfy his curiosity and establish his squatters' rights in this little corner of intellectualism, and he does not care who knows it. And this is true of both kinds of highbrow—the militant, or crusader, type and the passive, or dilettante, type. These types in general live happily together; the militant highbrow carries the torch of culture, the passive highbrow reads by its light. The carrier of the torch makes a profession of being a highbrow and lives by his calling. He is most frequently found in university and college towns, a member of the liberal-arts faculty, teaching languages (ancient or modern), the fine arts, or literature. His spare time is often devoted to editing a magazine which is read mainly by other highbrows, ambitious undergraduates, and the editors of middlebrow publications in search of talent. When he writes for the magazine himself (or for another "little" magazine) it is usually criticism or criticism of criticism. He leaves the writing of fiction and poetry to others more bent on creation than on what has been created, for the highbrow is primarily a critic and not an artist—a taster, not a cook. He is often more interested in where the arts have been, and where they are going, than in the objects themselves. He is devoted to the proposition that the arts must be pigeon-holed, and that their trends should be plotted, or as W. H. Auden puts it—

Our intellectual marines, Landing in Little Magazines, Capture a trend.

In my opening comments to this excerpt, I said that Lynes stuck needles in our puffed-up egos. Actually, of course, he didn't do it—I (the reader) did. He pointed to the behavior patterns of this group and I provided the needles from my own prejudices. As Cleveland Amory did in describing the behaviors of the wealthy at Bailey's

Beach, so did Lynes put forth only some observations, interestingly and accurately, leaving the reader to interpret their meaning. Perhaps a true highbrow would not feel the needles at all. As Lynes said, the highbrow doesn't care who knows what he or she is.

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