Fascinating stuff from Paul Coover:
I was recently reading through some old Ernie Pyle stories because A) I graduated from a journalism school that bears his name on its main building, and was embarrassed about not having read more of his work and B) I want to continue to try to understand the best writing about the military for my current job. I came across something I think is pretty interesting.
I know “Death of a Racehorse,” by W.C. Heinz, is a much-loved piece of sportswriting among the Gangrey crowd. I love it, too — I’ve memorized some of the lines, and it’s what I return to when I need a reminder about how such tight writing can be so powerful. (I tend to get wordy, as you know.)
Anyway, “Death of a Racehorse” was written in 1949, and Ernie Pyle’s most widely-read column, “The Death of Captain Waskow” was written in 1944. The similarities are uncanny, and it seems unlikely to me that Heinz wouldn’t have been familiar with Pyle’s work, seeing as he was a contemporary and practicing a similar style of newspaper writing.
I’d love to see more established writers read the two pieces – do you think it could make for a Gangrey discussion? Not so much better/worse, but maybe they could break down the strengths of each and what we can take away?
I noted the following similarities, to start:
“Waskow”: “One soldier came and looked down and said out loud, ‘God damn it.’ That was all he said…”
“Racehorse”: “‘Aw —-’ someone said. That was all they said.”
Pyle uses “a low stone wall” nearby as a way to illustrate death’s indiscriminateness. Heinz used a loose pile of bricks in the exact same way (which Chris Jones expertly wrote about here.)
Finally, the length and rhythm are similar. Both eschew traditional quotes in favor of short bits of dialogue, often unattributed. And the titles, obviously, make me think Heinz was tipping his hat to Pyle, who was killed in action in 1945.
Read both. Thoughts?