As I mention in my biography (pp. 66-67), an early short story Edith Wharton wrote called “The Line of Least Resistance” caught the eye of Henry James, a writer she was dying to meet. It was the beginning of a long friendship between “The Master” (as James was known) and the up-and-coming Edith. That same story got her in a lot of hot water with the Sloan/Vanderbilt family, neighbors of Edith’s in Lenox, Massachusetts. They were convinced the story was based on a family affair of theirs and they were not amused by it. Edith had to smooth some ruffled feathers and pull “The Line of Least Resistance” from her upcoming story collection.
Voice of America has recorded “The Line of Least Resistance,” in a slow, carefully enunciated reading, for use with English-as-a-second-language students. The reading will probably seem too slow for fluent English-speakers but listening to it reminded me of how perfect Edith Wharton’s grammar was, how carefully she chose each and every word, how she varied the structure and length of her sentences.
When I first started writing picture books, someone advised me to gather a stack of my favorites and copy them out in longhand, one by one. It turned out to be a wonderful exercise. I had the illusion I was writing very good children’s stories…even though someone else had written them for me! I got a feel for what putting great words on a page was like. Listening to this very careful reading of “The Line of Least Resistance” had a similar effect. The words came so slowly I could almost pretend I was writing them; I could think, during the pauses, what word I might choose next. I found myself noticing writerly things that might have slipped by me if I’d been listening to a more dramatic, energetic reading.
If you teach English as a second language, this Voice of America recording is a great tool to know about. And you writers out there might also want to give it a listen!