Contributor Post Created with Sketch. First Sentences

 

Troy’s post, below, on worthy second-tier presidents, got me to thinking about Ulysses Grant, which got me to thinking about Grant’s memoirs–a really magnificent work, and if you haven’t read it, then a joy awaits you–which in turn reminded me of this: images-1.jpgFor my money, Grant and Richard Nixon got off the two finest first sentences in the whole field of American autobiographies.

My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.

–Ulysses S. Grant, Memoirs

I was born in the house my father built.

–Richard M. Nixon, Memoirs

Care to recommend a favorite first sentence or two of your own?

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  1. EThompson Inactive

    1) “Don’t expect to build up the weak by pulling down the strong.”

    -Calvin Coolidge

    2) “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money [to spend].”

    -Margaret Thatcher

    • #1
    • August 25, 2012, at 1:09 AM PDT
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  2. Glenn the Iconoclast Member
    Glenn the Iconoclast Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “It is at once the result and security of oppression that its victims soon become incapable of resistance.”

    It is quoted in Coin’s Financial School; I’ve been looking for the original author for 30-odd years. Anyone?

    • #2
    • August 25, 2012, at 1:35 AM PDT
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  3. Glenn the Iconoclast Member
    Glenn the Iconoclast Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Peter Robinson

    Troy’s post, below, on worthy second-tier presidents got me to thinking about Ulysses Grant, which got me to thinking about Grant’s memoirs…

    As an aside, until I read the joint biography of Grant & Sherman a couple weeks ago, I thought of Grant as a big, bluff, genial, drunken buffoon. Well, I was partly right about the “genial.”

    He was 5’8″, 140, serious, sober (except when separated too long from his family), shrewd, upright, and eloquent. Excerpts from his correspondence, personal and professional, demonstrate this.

    I must have read too many Confederate memoirs describing his low intellect, winning battles only through superior manpower.

    • #3
    • August 25, 2012, at 1:51 AM PDT
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  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    For best first sentence, it is tough to beat:

    The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.

    – G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

    • #4
    • August 25, 2012, at 4:32 AM PDT
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  5. flownover Member

    ” The last time I tried to quit my job I was turned down – on the grounds I was incompetent .”

    – J. Lileks , Falling Up The Stairs

    • #5
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:04 AM PDT
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  6. MichaelC19fan Inactive

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

    Jane Austen – “Pride and Prejudice”

    • #6
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:17 AM PDT
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  7. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    If we’re not confined to American autobiography, and we can use first paragraphs:

    “There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks.” –Raymond Chandler, “Red Wind”

    “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day. I was just fourteen years of age when a coward named Tom Chaney shot my father down in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and robbed him of his life and his horse and $150 in cash money plus two California gold pieces that he carried in his trouser band. Here is what happened.”

    -Charles Portis, True Grit

    (I’m recycling these–I used them in a similar post several weeks ago. But, you may have missed it…)

    • #7
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:25 AM PDT
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  8. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    And:

    “The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.” Ian Fleming, Casino Royale.

    • #8
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:26 AM PDT
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  9. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    And keeping to American autobiography:

    “One of the longest journeys in the world is the journey from Brooklyn to Manhattan–or at least from certain neighborhoods in Brooklyn to certain parts of Manhattan.” Norman Podhoretz, Making It

    And more from Podhoretz, the master of intellectual autobiography:

    “I have often said that if I wish to name-drop, I have only to list my ex-friends.” –Ex-Friends

    And:

    “I was nine years old when I met my father.” –Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son

    “Henry was about to become a father again–if he lived that long.” –Thomas Sowell, A Personal Odyssey

    • #9
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:33 AM PDT
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  10. Benjamin Glaser Inactive

    “Two centuries after the founding of the new nation called the United States of America, we need to renew our understanding of the beliefs and the laws which give form to American society.”

    — Russell Kirk “The Roots of American Order”

    • #10
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:34 AM PDT
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  11. Crow's Nest Inactive

    To go with more contemporary mass market fiction first lines that are great, I can think of few better than the opening gambit from Stephen King’s The Gunslinger:

    The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

    • #11
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:34 AM PDT
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  12. Matt Blankenship Inactive
    Crow’s Nest: 

    I went down to the Piraeus yesterday with Glaucon, son of Ariston, to pray to the goddess; and at the same time I wanted to observe how they would put on the festival, since they were now holding it for the first time. [Plato, Republic] · 6 hours ago

    So friendly, so casual, so inviting. A great first line that casually lures the reader into one of the deepest, most challenging, sometimes difficult discussions…

    • #12
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:37 AM PDT
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  13. Manfred Arcane Inactive

    OOOh, this is fun. How about Russell Kirk’s first line (‘A Creature of the Twilight’):

    “All my days have I done evil.”

    It continues on to frame perhaps the best first paragraph (shall we start another thread, Mr. Robinson?): 

    “All my days have I done evil. Knowing godhood thrice, no man can endure wholly sane. At one period of my existence I was Dionysius; at another, Dis; at a third, Ares. All this divinity, you are to understand, found lodging in the little person of Manfred Arcane-to employ the name by which I have chosen, for some years, to be known.”

    • #13
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:42 AM PDT
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  14. Cordelia Inactive

    “Among the many and varied literary and artistic studies upon which the natural talents of man are nourished, I think that those above all should be embraced and pursued with the most loving care which have to do with things that are very beautiful and very worthy of knowledge.” ~Copernicus “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres”

    • #14
    • August 25, 2012, at 5:48 AM PDT
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  15. Jason Hall Member
    Jason Hall Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    If we limit it to presidential memoirs, this first sentence is easily in the Top 40. It might even be the best ever, if your criteria is the amount of meteorological and geographic information contained therein:

    “Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana.”

    I’ll let you guess the source.

    • #15
    • August 25, 2012, at 6:07 AM PDT
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  16. Matt Blankenship Inactive
    Jason Hall: If we limit it to presidential memoirs, this first sentence is easily in the Top 40. It might even be the best ever, if your criteria is the amount of meteorological and geographic information contained therein:

    “Early on the morning of August 19, 1946, I was born under a clear sky after a violent summer storm to a widowed mother in Julia Chester Hospital in Hope, a town of about six thousand in southwest Arkansas, thirty-three miles east of the Texas border at Texarkana.”

    I’ll let you guess the source. · 22 minutes ago

    Oh, how the American language has changed from Grant–and Nixon!–to Clinton. Was the late 19th Century the apex of the English language for combined beauty and clarity in everyday use? See the letters of that era.

    • #16
    • August 25, 2012, at 6:37 AM PDT
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  17. Eric Voegelin Inactive

    ‘He was a great thundering paradox of a man, noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy, the best of men and the worst of men, the most protean, most ridiculous, and most sublime.’

     — William Manchester’s biography of Douglas Mac Arthur, American Caesar

    • #17
    • August 25, 2012, at 7:05 AM PDT
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  18. Macsen Inactive
    Willy Pell: Peter, I see your Richard Nixon and raise you Mick Jagger,

    “I was born in a crossfire hurricane.” · 7 hours ago

    I see your Jagger and raise you a Martin:

    “I was born a poor black child.”

    • #18
    • August 25, 2012, at 7:05 AM PDT
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  19. Profile Photo Member

    Speaking of Grant’s autobiography, there are passages here and there that could only have been written by Mark Twain, his publisher.

    • #19
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:07 AM PDT
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  20. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    Jerry: I know that’s a common accusation, but what’s the evidence, other than circumstantial? Grant’s letters–certainly written by him–read as well as the Memoirs.

    • #20
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:16 AM PDT
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  21. Boots on the Table Member
    Boots on the Table Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    “All the States or Governments by which men are or ever have been ruled, have been and are Republics or Princedoms.” – The Prince – Niccolo Machiavelli

    “Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our Nation; that ’tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for’t.” – The Treatise of Government – John Locke

    “Some writers have so confounded Society with Government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins.” – Common Sense – Thomas Paine

    “Great art Thou, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Thy power, and Thy wisdom infinite.” – The Confessions of Saint Augustine

    On a lighter note, from an old western novel, of which I do not remember the author – “He felt the gun buck in his hand.”

    • #21
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:28 AM PDT
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  22. Tom Roberts Inactive

    ‘The fierce tribesmen overwhelmed the small garrison, and carried her off to their camp in the mountains of the North West Frontier. She was taken to a tent where the swarthy chieftain awaited her, and “A Stranger in Town” began to play on an old gramophone. It was just as she feared – it was the Dark Khan’s Torme night.’ (From memory, a past winner of the Bulwer-Lytton contest – I paraphrase)

    • #22
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:39 AM PDT
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  23. Adam Freedman Contributor
    jeffp: From the novels of Peter de Vries:

    “Call me, Ishmael.” (The Vale of Laughter)

    “The trouble with treating people as equals is that the first thing you know they may be doing the same thing to you.” (The Prick of Noon)

    “I had just been through hell and must have looked like death warmed over walking into the saloon, because when I asked the bartender whether they served zombies he said, ‘Sure, what’ll you have?’” (I Hear America Swinging) · 9 hours ago

    Jeff – my top pick too! DeVries is a national treasure – so sad that few people read him today. Just about any one of his first sentences could make it into the pantheon.

    • #23
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:50 AM PDT
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  24. Adam Freedman Contributor

    This is one of my favorite games. Peter DeVries is my favorite – also, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (as already mentioned) is one of the great first lines.

    To which I would add:

    Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep: “It was about 11 o’clock in the morning, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain the clearness of the foothills.”

    Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier: “This is the saddest story I know.”

    Stephen Fry, The Hippopotamus: “The fact is I’d just been sacked.”

    • #24
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:54 AM PDT
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  25. Matt Blankenship Inactive

    On DeVries: all I’ve read by him is Blood of the Lamb. Definitely not funny. Maybe the saddest book I’ve read. But great.

    • #25
    • August 25, 2012, at 8:55 AM PDT
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  26. MaggiMc Inactive

    I was hooked on Charles Frazier’s Night Woods from the first paragraph:

    “Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she’d find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clenched. Neither child displayed language at all, but the girl glared murderous expressions at her if she dared ask where the rest of the rooster went.”

    Mmm, yes, please tell me more.

    • #26
    • August 25, 2012, at 9:04 AM PDT
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  27. Jaclyn Inactive

    “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follett, The Key to Rebecca

    • #27
    • August 25, 2012, at 9:22 AM PDT
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  28. Virshu Inactive

    All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy, Anna Karenina.

    I first heard this hypothesis in fourth grade, and then spent several years evaluating its veracity. Yes, I was a nerd.

    • #28
    • August 25, 2012, at 10:19 AM PDT
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  29. DocJay Inactive

    James Crumley, “The Last Good Kiss”

    When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

    • #29
    • August 25, 2012, at 10:20 AM PDT
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  30. DocJay Inactive
    Virshu: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way – Tolstoy,Anna Karenina.

    I first heard this hypothesis in fourth grade, and then spent several years evaluating its veracity. Yes, I was a nerd. · 0 minutes ago

    Who wasn’t?

    • #30
    • August 25, 2012, at 10:22 AM PDT
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