Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

It’s hard to choose a sentence to begin this project begin with—the expanse of the English language stretches out before me like the edge of the universe, still expanding—so why not start with one from the first book to ever get my attention?

Lee’s sentence thrums with music and with what James Wood might call “thisness” or William Blake might have called “the minute particulars.” Lee gives us the tired, oppressive heat of Maycomb by showing us how it turns ladies into “soft teacakes” despite their frequent bathing. And there’s great pleasure in all those Ss and Ts strung together over the last part of the sentence. The tongue has to do a little dance toward the front of the mouth.

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