In Memoriam

James Jackson Kilpatrick, RIP

America has lost its greatest wordsmith.

By 8.17.10

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America has lost its greatest wordsmith: James J. Kilpatrick has passed away at the age of 89. To those of us in the writing business, the loss is incalculable. I feel it personally because I was privileged to know Kilpatrick and have experienced his warmth, great intellect, and generosity.

From the moment several decades ago that I first read the greatest book about writing ever written -- his The Writer's Art -- I have felt a friendship with Jack about which more in a moment.

Born November 1, 1920, in Oklahoma City, Kilpatrick began his newspaper career in 1941 with the Richmond News Leader, where he stayed for twenty-six years, rising from reporter to chief editorial writer to editor, and began his syndicated column -- on writing, of course -- calling it "The Writer's Art."

Jack's column -- which continued until 2008 -- was his personality in full, as well as instruction to us all on the proper use of American English. His instruction was even directed, occasionally, at his very close friend and fellow master wordsmith, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Patrician Buckley had an enormous vocabulary, which he used effectively throughout his career. But when WFB got carried away with a word such as "decoctable," "anfractuosity" or "endogamous," Kilpo would take him to task.

But why? This wasn't a matter of rivalry, and there was no hint of enmity or anger. But our language, and its usage, was a matter of metaphysical import to Jack.

Because, as Kilpo wrote, journalists' first duty is to communicate clearly: "if your aim is chiefly to be clear, keep this in mind: Short words are ordinarily better than long words. Short sentences generally are better than long sentences."

From the chapter of The Writer's Art titled, "Faith, Hope and Clarity":

Another time, I was writing a column about the remarkable increase in the number of political action committees. In 1972 these committees numbered 113; ten years later they numbered 3,149. I wanted a word to describe the proliferation. Now, proliferation in itself is about a two-dollar word, but that was not enough. The devil was in me.

At precisely that moment, a word wandered by. These things are like knowing sin. Sitting at their typewriters, all writers know the experience. The word is seductive. It slithers along, wet-lipped, scented with exotic perfume; it gazes at the writer with a come-hither glance. "Take me," says this gorgeous creature. "I dare you." Thus we are led into temptation.

The word was mitotically. I could not resist.

But he usually did, and so -- as a direct result of his teaching -- American writing now is clearer and more compelling. There are too many other examples from his book and column to catalogue here. In his column, Jack often convened his "Court of Peeves, Irks and Crotchets" in which he'd rehearse a few "horrid examples" of abuse of our beautiful language and lay out the Rule that should govern forever more.

Kilpatrick took the national stage, for a few years, on the CBS Sunday show 60 Minutes in its "Point–Counterpoint" segment. There, Jack debated liberal Shana Alexander for about five minutes each week. Though most people who remember that at all only remember the Saturday Night Live parody of it with Dan Aykroyd playing Kilpatrick, it was, in fact, a seminal feature. Much of what we see on cable television "news" shows today is an evolution of the "Jack and Shana show."

Long after the 60 Minutes segment passed into television history, my encounter with Kilpo began entirely by accident.

Graduating from law school after having barely scraped through engineering school, I entered the practice of law as an Air Force judge advocate. I was a truly awful writer, but at least I knew it.

I read Strunk and White's The Elements of Style again and again, and nothing seemed to register. And then I read The Writer's Art.

It was an epiphany. Why, I wondered, hadn't anyone tried to teach me these things when I was younger? The truth was that someone probably had but, like too many other young men, I was too busy gazing at the girls in my class to have learned these things.

Writing was suddenly easier for me, and as I re-read Kilpatrick's book and continued to write it only got easier, and better.

I learned how a writer has to trust not only his "mind's eye" but his mind's "ear": if something sounds good in your head when you read it to yourself, it's probably going to work just as well for the next guy who reads it.

In 1991, after a brief term in the Pentagon as political appointee, I re-entered the law practice with the Virginia office of a large Richmond law firm. Chatting idly with one of the receptionists one day while waiting for a client to show up, I mentioned my admiration of Kilpatrick and she quickly volunteered that she was his goddaughter. I then had the audacity to take issue with something he'd written in a column on the usage of the word "caliber" in describing a firearm.

A few days later my home phone rang, and the gent on the other end of the line said, "Jack Kilpatrick here." I told him about my disagreement with his usage -- as I recall -- of the term "9mm caliber."

A rather cold "humph" came through the line, followed by "why?"

I explained that "caliber" was a measure of the diameter of the projectile (or inner diameter of the barrel of the weapon) in hundreds of an inch. Hence ".45 caliber" meant 45/100ths of an inch. "9mm" is a parallel expressed in metric terms, so to say "9mm caliber" was to combine incompatible measurements. Better, I said, to convert "9mm" into the mathematically equivalent ".38 caliber."

I was answered with a warmer "hmm." And then came an invitation to join him the next time I visited Charleston, South Carolina.

When my wife and I visited Jack and his first wife, Marie, in Charleston, she was quite ill. And Jack, already in his seventies, gave her loving attention every minute of the day. They were deeply in love and he -- a Southern gentleman in the best sense -- worked hard to make her burdens lighter and courted her every day.

A short while after Marie passed away in 1997, Jack moved to Washington and married newspaper columnist Marianne Means in 1998.

We spoke from time to time, by telephone and e-mail, and on the rare occasion a dinner including our wives.

Jack continued to write his weekly column and was always ready to referee language disputes. I remember one I had with my pal Greg Garrison, Indianapolis radio host, lawyer, and all-around good guy. He used "anxious" where I said he should use "eager" and Greg wouldn't budge. My point was that "anxious" included an element of fear or anxiety and that "eager" shouldn't be limited to descriptions of puppies and little boys even though it connoted a degree of happiness.

I submitted the argument to His Honor, the Chief Judge of the Court of Peeves, Irks and Crotchets, and -- within the hour -- the decision was rendered. I was right, Kilpo pronounced, saying he'd resorted to three dictionaries to be entirely sure.

Kilpo said all writers should strive to write at least one perfect sentence each month. If we don't, it's not because his good-natured instruction failed us. It's because we were too lazy to follow it or too inattentive to absorb it.

Here's my best shot for this month: Every American writer should be thankful for all of Kilpo's peeves, irks and crotchets, because each one more finely tuned our minds' ears to our readers' needs, and made us better at our lives' work. God rest ye, Jack. I shall miss you greatly.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. You can follow him on Twitter @jedbabbin.