Common Place Book #7

“I have just finished the task of getting my things in some kind of order preliminary to packing for the long trip South. I noted that I say ‘finished,’ but that is not quite correct – I have just just stopped because I am tired and ‘out of sorts.'”

When Washington Was In Vogue by Edward Christopher Williams

I must admit that at first glance this phrase does not seem very striking. The reason that I picked it for a common place entry is because I wanted to explore the reasons for why the author point out that he actually stopped and did not finish. It seems to me, from the characters point of view, who is writing a letter to his best friend, that he would have been perfectly well off simply saying either one of the following: I have just finished or I have just stopped. Despite this negative first impression, some reflection has made me change my mind.

Two obvious rhetorical benefits of making the character contradict himself exist. One, the writing comes across as a flow of conscious, which better suits the epistolary (letter based) novel style. Second, the author emphasizes the presence of an outside force inhibiting the character, who will be called Davy from here on, from completing his packing. I would like to focus on this second point. The contradiction highlights the fact that Davey wishes he was done packing. In addition, the use of italics on the word stop also furthers my belief that the author is drawing attention to an unconscious force working against Davy’s will. Using these two sentences, two sentences that begin the letter, make it easily visible that Davey is in fact reluctant to leave.

Not only is his simple reluctance to leave highlighted, but so is the internal struggle the character is going through. The phrase ‘out of sorts’ indicates that his mind has been wandering, preventing his packing from being efficient. To understand the internal conflict, knowledge of the plot is necessary. The plot of When Washington Was In Vogue centers around and African American bachelor visiting Washington D.C.. While in D.C., Harvey (the bachelor) becomes good friends with a woman named Caroline. After growing close, a falling out occurs. In an attempt to not ruin the story, all I will say is that the falling out is most definitely responsible for Davey’s preoccupied thoughts. By beginning the letter with this sentence, the reader is prepared for the sad tone of the past letters to continue.

Overall, I believe the contradiction created in these two sentences by the author does an excellent job of setting the mood for the upcoming letter. Removing the contradiction would not be the end of the world, but it would make the present letter loose its flavor and become more plain. As a result, I believe that these simple sentences hold great rhetorical value.

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