“The archangel loved heights.” That’s the soaring first line of Henry Adams’ classic work, “Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres.” Something reminded me of that line and a conversation I had years ago with Donald “Casey” Jones, who was the ombudsman (reader’s representative) at the Kansas City Star, where I worked for some time. One of the pleasures of that job was stopping by his desk to pass the time.
The conversation turned that day to great first lines in literature. “The archangel loved heights” was at the top of Casey’s list along with “Call me Ishmael,” the first line of “Moby Dick.” Both are succinct, surprising and attention-grabbing. Adams’ proclamation humanizes the archangel and makes his statue on top of Mont St. Michel seem like a living creature with flesh-and-blood desires.
Casey also evoked the opening line of “Anna Karenina”: “All happy families are the same; unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way,” an irresistible invitation to read on. Ernest Hemingway is known for his terse prose, but Casey paid homage to the first flowing lines of “A Farewell to Arms”: “In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plains to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.” Also, of course, the famous beginning of “The Old Man and the Sea,” that manages to tell entire tale in one sentence: “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
Casey was a bibliophile. You could mention any book and chances are Casey had read it and remembered more of it than someone who had just finished it. He’d read Francis Parkman’s entire seven-volume history, “France and England in North America,” and all the prodigious output of the little known English novelist Arnold Bennett. I don’t know how many times he’d read Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” but he loved to open that monumental work at any page and read a few paragraphs, just for the beauty of the prose.
Every day at the office, he published his dreaded “Casey-gram,” a document that mercilessly ferreted out mistakes in the paper, factual, grammatical, logical. He read the entire paper word for word every day and rarely missed an error. One time he noted that the sail on the weather icon was on the wrong side of the boat for the day’s wind direction. Many reporters resented his blunt corrections, but Casey was almost always right and we were lucky to have a reader who held us to the highest standards.
When Henry James died, Ezra Pound said that now there was no authority a writer could take his questions to. In our post-literate world, where would you find a Henry James — or a Casey Jones? It was not a pedantic greed for knowledge that impelled him, but simple curiosity and love of learning.
Intelligence is over-rated; it often comes without a grain of common sense. But some minds are works of art. Such a mind was Casey’s. I never walked away from his desk without feeling refreshed and enriched.
“The archangel loved heights. Standing on the summit of the tower of his church, wings upspread, sword uplifted, the devil crawling beneath, and the cock, symbol of eternal vigilance, perched on his mailed foot, Saint Michael held a place of his own in heaven and on earth.” Those words make a fitting memento for Casey Jones. I imagine him navigating between heaven and earth through the vast libraries of the, looking for truth amid sublime poetry and the daily news.
— George Gurley, a resident of rural Baldwin City, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.