From 'Captains Courageous'
to 'Auntie Mame':
Finding a Writer's Voice

By Lawrence Biemiller

Rehoboth Beach, Del. -- One warm morning at the end of summer I load up the Jeep and set out for the beach. "It will be hot, Mother," I mutter to myself, quoting a favorite line from Rudyard Kipling's Captains Courageous. Misquoting, actually -- when I look it up, the line reads: " 'It will be hot,' said Cheyne, as they rolled out of San Diego in the dawn of Sunday."

Not, I confess, a line to rival Shakespeare. But somehow "It will be hot" -- terse and foreboding -- has stayed in my head since I discovered a dusty copy of Kipling's book in my grandparents' attic almost 30 years ago. Covered in navy-blue cloth, the volume has Kipling's signature impressed on the front and an elephant embossed in gold on the spine. It belonged to my father when he was a child.

Despite having been written by an Englishman born in India, Captains Courageous is a textbook example of a peculiarly American genre: the boyhood tale in which hardship raises a youth from shiftlessness to solid ambition. In this version, a wealthy young brat is swept off an ocean liner and rescued by the plainspoken crew of a New England fishing schooner. Hard work and good role models lead him into modesty, confidence, and manhood.

I read Captains Courageous hungrily, which is how I read everything when I was young, but I can't claim that its plot changed my habits or bolstered my ambition. The writing, though, is another matter. Kipling's use of detail, his reliance on tight, realistic dialogue, and his masterly way with verbs all conspire to draw you in; his unparalleled sense of the rhythm of a sentence holds you. When the schooner finally returns to port, young Harvey sends his parents a telegram saying he's alive, and they race east to meet him in their private railroad car:

The six-foot drivers were hammering their way to San Bernardino and the Mohave wastes, but this was no grade for speed. That would come later. The heat of the desert followed the heat of the hills as they turned east to the Needles and the Colorado River. The car cracked in the utter drouth and glare, and they put crushed ice on Mrs. Cheyne's neck, and toiled up the long, long grades, past Ash Fork, towards Flagstaff, where the forests and quarries are, under the dry, remote skies. The needle of the speed-indicator flicked and wagged to and fro; cinders rattled on the roof, and a whirl of dust sucked after the whirling wheels."

I've gotten to thinking about Kipling's book, and others of my childhood, because the editor of my college's newspaper has asked me to come talk to her staff about writing. I've made my living at writing since I graduated, but I haven't spent a lot of time considering how I learned it, or how to teach others. Writing isn't something most people think about, after all, whether they're reporters or professors or physicians or politicians. They just do it.

But misquoting Kipling the morning I came down here started me thinking about the books I read as a kid, and about the influence they had -- expanding my vocabulary, modulating the rhythms of my sentences, revealing little tricks with which writers try to hook readers. I've read and quoted from plenty of books since -- The Great Gatsby, Brideshead Revisited, Angels in America -- but none have had as much effect as the books I enjoyed early on. Some of those I read over and over, like Captains Courageous and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings books, so that now their sentences and sentiments spring to mind at odd moments -- while I'm standing in line to board a plane, or while I'm washing dinner dishes: "Chip the glasses and crack the plates!" the dwarves sing at the beginning of The Hobbit. "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates."

I'm sure others have had the same experience, with other books. The first book I remember being given that wasn't a picture book was E. B. White's Charlotte's Web, a present when I was 6 or 7. I went on to enjoy Stuart Little, the opening of which I'll put up against "Call me Ishmael" any day: "When Mrs. Frederick C. Little's second son was born, everybody noticed that he was not much bigger than a mouse." (I read Moby Dick when I was a teen-ager, but all I remember is how long it was; over the years I've enjoyed everything I've found of White's -- essays, letters, even The Elements of Style, his splendid reworking of a guide by William Strunk, Jr., a professor of his at Cornell University.)

The library at my grade school offered standard children's fare -- science fiction and the Hardy boys -- and I borrowed regularly. But in our basement I found piles of old books of my parents' that were more eclectic and more interesting, and that were available for rereading whenever I liked. Treasure Island was there, and Black Beauty, and others; the copy of Jean Webster's Daddy-Long-Legs had -- and still has -- a Girl Scout bookplate inscribed in a childish hand I can just recognize as my mother's.

And whatever good Kipling's high-minded plot might have done me was certainly undone when one of those piles gave up Patrick Dennis's Auntie Mame, the first book I laughed out loud at: "Mrs. Burnside," its narrator recalls, "was built along the lines of a General Electric refrigerator and looked like a cross between Caligula and a cockatoo." Of course I had no idea who Caligula was: Auntie Mame isn't really a book you should leave lying around for kids to find. It took college and years of reading The New York Times to explain the references I'd skipped over -- to "Jean Valjean trapped in a sewer," to Manhattan's stores and neighborhoods, to someone's "going into town to get his ashes hauled." Meanwhile, the book's details enlivened a Mittyesque adolescence, and its words and rhythms worked their way into my head, and stayed:

In 1929 it took little more than half an hour to get to Scarsdale by train, but Auntie Mame could never adjust herself to the precise demands of railroads. So the big Mercedes rolled out of Beekman Place just eight hours before we were expected, which was probably all to the good since Ito was a peripatetic driver at best, and none of us had any idea of where or what Scarsdale was.

Now, pedaling south out of Rehoboth Beach on the big Bianchi, racing my shadow toward the Indian River though utter drouth and glare, I think about Kipling and E. B. White and Patrick Dennis, the role models who helped me find both a voice of my own and the confidence to write with it. I rehearse speeches punctuated with tips their books gave me, tips I'm sure The College Reporter's young writers need: Keep your eyes and ears open. Take good notes. Don't be afraid to write the way you talk. Read what you've written out loud before you turn it in. And, as Strunk preached: "Omit needless words. Omit needless words. Omit needless words." A whirl of dust, I imagine, sucks after my wheels.

Copyright (c) 1997 by The Chronicle of Higher Education Publishing Date: 9/19/97