Friday, May 29, 2009

The grit in the oyster

I can’t help myself; I’ve been a copy editor for too long. When I read for amusement, I notice things that go awry, and they stick in my mind.

I recently read, and mainly enjoyed, Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Hendry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. It was a refreshing, somewhat novelistic survey of the writers of the Concord circle.

But Martin Van Buren was not the incumbent president in the election of 1852, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, not April 19, and noticing these slips in the text leaves me wondering how many other, unnoticed errors it might harbor.

This week’s book was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries. Looking at Lincoln and his administration through the perspective of John Nicolay and John Hay (and William Osborn Stoddard, about whom I had previously been unaware) was informative both about Lincoln’s character and his management of his administration. Mr. Epstein’s book is also gracefully written and insightful.

Still, I doubt that Hay was the bridegroom at Nicolay’s wedding and suspect that he was instead the best man.

I sat with my son in the October sunlight last year at the Festival-on-the-Hill in Bolton Hill, with a glass of McHenry beer and a plate of oysters on the half shell. That is nearly as good as life gets. The oysters were a little gritty, which did not erase the joy of the day, but it would have been a keener pleasure without the grit.

I admire and enjoy the work of Ms. Cheever and Mr. Epstein, but my pleasure would have been uncorrupted if someone — say a copy editor — had gone through their texts on the alert for the mishaps that befall even the best writers.


  1. Well, if recent pronouncements are to be believed, Ms. Cheever and Mr. Epstein just need LESS editing, which -- as was recently posited -- would make them better writers. Isn't that how it's going to work?

  2. It is amazing. I read an article about my home town that got the number of high schools it had and counties it is in wrong. Made me doubt anything in the article I hadn't already known...

  3. Speaking of errors, is "Hendry David Thoreau" the way it actually appears in the title? Or is that your own typo?

  4. With all due respect, however, the erroneous "d" in the book title does appear to be your mistake, John, and not Cheever's...

  5. I just want to say, "Here here!" to your article, John. Typos are one thing...erroneous presentation of facts is quite another.