from Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

There was something different about her, Jake had to admit. She had a beautiful face, a beautiful body, but also a distance in her such as he had never met in a woman. Certain mountains were that way, like the Bighorns. The air around them was so clear you could ride toward them for days without seeming to get any closer. And yet, if you kept riding, you would get to the mountains. He was not sure he would ever get to Lorie. Even when she took him, there was a distance between them. And yet she would not let him leave.

from Stoner by John Williams

He was ready to admit to himself that he had not been a good teacher. Always, from the time he had fumbled through his first classes of freshman English, he had been aware of the gulf that lay between what he felt for his subject and what he delivered in the classroom. He had hoped that time and experience would repair the gulf; but they had not done so. Those things that he held most deeply were most profoundly betrayed when he spoke of them to his classes; what was most alive withered in his words; and what moved him most became cold in its utterance. And the consciousness of his inadequacy distressed him so greatly that the sense of it grew habitual, as much a part of him as the stoop of his shoulders.

But during the weeks that Edith was in St Louis, when he lectured, he now and then found himself so lost in his subject that he became forgetful of his inadequacy, of himself, and even of the students before him. Now and then he became so caught by his enthusiasm that he stuttered, gesticulated, and ignored the lecture notes that usually guided his talks. At first he was disturbed by his outbursts, as if he presumed too familiarly upon his subject, and he apologized to his students; but when they began coming up to him after class, and when in their papers they began to show hints of imagination and the revelation of a tentative love, he was encouraged to do what he had never been taught to do. The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print–the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly.

James Baldwin on being a prophetic writer

I don’t try to be prophetic, as I don’t sit down to write literature. It is simply this: a writer has to take all the risks of putting down what he sees. No one can tell him about that. No one can control that reality. It reminds me of something Pablo Picasso was supposed to have said to Gertrude Stein while he was painting her portrait. Gertrude said, I don’t look like that. And Picasso replied, You will. And he was right.

James Thurber on the difference between English & American humor

Well someone once wrote a definition of the difference between English and American humor. I wish I could remember his name. I thought his definition very good. He said that the English treat the commonplace as if it were remarkable and the Americans treat the remarkable as if it were commonplace. I believe that’s true of humorous writing. Years ago we did a parody of Punch in which Benchley did a short piece depicting a wife bursting into a room and shouting, “The primroses are in bloom!”–treating the commonplace as remarkable, you see. In “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” I tried to treat the remarkable as commonplace.

again from Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell: on what was a good Indian

Montana Congressman James Cavanaugh spoke for most Americans of that period: “I have never seen in my life a good Indian. . .except when I have seen a dead Indian.”

General Sheridan boiled it down. After listening to the Penateka-Comanche chief Tosawi–Silver Brooch–allude to himself as a good Indian, Little Phil observed: “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.” And the collective American unconscious gradually reduced Sheridan’s remark to that celebrated epigram: The only good Indian is a dead Indian.

from Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell: burying the dead

While responding to a number of questions posed by Colonel W.A. Graham, Godfrey described his first visit to the Custer battlefield. He seems to have been startled by the colors: “The marble white bodies, the somber brown of the dead horses. . .tufts of reddish brown grass on the almost ashy white soil. . .” He observed that from a distance the stripped men resembled white boulders, and he heard West exclaim: “Oh, how white they look! How white!”

More than two hundred bodies and about seventy animal carcasses had been exposed to the June sun for two or three days when burial parties went to work. Pvts. Berry and Slaper remember being assigned to this duty on the twenty-seventh, Varnum went to work on the twenty-eighth, and there are reports of burials on the twenty-ninth. Soldiers detailed to hide the remains were overcome by nausea, vomiting and retching while they tried to dig graves, so the business was simplified. Bodies thought to be those of officers were nudged into shallow trenches. Each officer’s name was written on a slip of paper which was inserted into an empty cartridge and the cartridge was hammered into the top of a stake or a length of lodge pole set beside the trench.

Those thought to be enlisted men were hastily concealed beneath sagebrush or a few shovels of dirt. Some attempt was made to identify them though not much. Few could be recognized. Very often the features were distorted by fright or anguish.

from Son of the Morning Star: Custer and the Little Bighorn by Evan S. Connell: on the difficulty of translating Native American names

Oglala is difficult to translate. There was a derogatory gesture among these people–flicking the fingers–which might be likened to throwing dirt, and long ago when they resolved to separate from their Brule relatives the Oglalas expressed their feelings with this gesture. According to Hyde, “we have always known that the name Oglala means scattered, divided.” He thinks it could have originated during the eighteenth century when the Oglalas attempted, like the Minconjoux, to raise crops and were therefore spoken of contemptuously as dust-scatterers. Which is to say, somebody was finger-flicking the Oglalas, not vice-versa. Maybe everybody did it, just as today a certain insulting gesture is commonplace. But the word might have meant wanderer, and because on one government treaty it has been spelled O’Gallalla there are those who suspect these Indians must be Irish.

from Americana by Don DeLillo

The door of Quincy’s office was orange and his sofa was dark grey. Some of us in Weede’s group had doors of the same color but sofas of a different color. Some had identical sofas but different doors. Weede himself was the only one who had a red sofa. Weede and Ted Warburton were the only ones with black doors. Warburton’s sofa was dark green and so was Mars Tyler’s door. But Mars Tyler’s sofa was ecru, a shade lighter than Grove Palmer’s door. I had all this down on paper. On slow afternoons I used to study it, trying to find a pattern. I thought there might be a subtle color scheme designed by management and based on a man’s salary, ability, and prospects for advancement or decline. Why did no two people have identical sofas and doors? Why was Ted Warburton allowed to have a black door when the only other black door belonged to Weede Denney? Why was Reeves Chubb the only one with a primrose sofa? Why was Paul Joyner’s perfectly good maroon sofa replaced by a royal blue one? Why was my sofa the same color as Weede’s door? There were others who felt as I did. When Paul Joyner walked in to find a new sofa in his office he immediately started a rumor that he was being fired. But this sofa incident had taken place two years prior to the current rumor, the origins of which were never disclosed. He had not been fired; it was not that easy to find the connection. The connection was tenuous but I was sure it was there. At least a dozen times I had taken that piece of paper out of my files and tried to correlate a man’s standing with the color of his door and sofa. There had to be a key. If only I could find it. What I would do when and if I found it was a question that did not disturb me. I would do something. I would change something. I would have protection. I would know the riddle.

from The Chosen by Chaim Potok

“Reuven, do you know what the rabbis tell us God said to Moses when he was about to die?”

I stared at him. “No,” I heard myself say.

He said to Moses, ‘You have toiled and labored, now you are worthy of rest.'”

I stared at him and didn’t say anything.

“You are no longer a child, Reuven,” my farther went on. “It is almost possible to see the way your mind is growing. And your heart, too. Inductive logic, Freud, experimental psychology, mathematizing hypotheses, scientific study of the Talmud. Three years ago, you were still a child.You have become a small giant since the day Danny’s ball struck your eye.You do not see it. But I see it. And it is a beautiful thing to see. So listen to what I am going to tell you.” He paused for a moment as if considering his next words carefully, then continued. “Human beings do not live forever, Reuven. We live less than the time it takes to blink an eye, if we measure our lives against eternity. So it may be asked what value there is to a human life. There is so much pain in the world. What does it mean to have to suffer so much if our lives are nothing more than the blink of an eye?”He paused again his eyes misty now, then went on. “I learned a long time ago, Reuven, that a blink of an eye in itself is nothing. But the eye that blinks, that is something. A span of a life is nothing. But the man who lives that span, he is something. He can fill that tiny span with meaning, so its quality is immeasurable though its quantity is insignificant. Do you understand what I am saying? A man must fill his life with meaning, meaning is not automatically given to life. It is hard work to fill one’s life with meaning. That I do not think you understand yet. A life filled with meaning is worthy of rest. I want to be worthy of rest when I am no longer here. Do you understand what I am saying?”