Here is W. C. Heinz’s most famous newspaper column:
Two generations later, writers are still deconstructing Heinz’s work to figure out how he got everything so right. And we return to “Death of a Racehorse” because it is about economy, precision, and restraint. And it was written on deadline. Jeff MacGregor, who wrote a memorable piece about Heinz for Sports Illustrated, once called the column, “the Gettysburg Address of sportswriting. A run of words so slender and moving that nothing can be added or taken from it.”
In a message board chat, MacGregor added:
There’s so much going on here that’s remarkable, let’s just talk a little about story architecture. Check the meter and the sentence length at the beginning. And then at the end. Compare the sentence, “‘Air Lift,’ Jim Roach said. ‘Full brother of Assault.'” to the last sentence in the piece. Compare the long sentence beginning “Assault, who won the triple crown…” to the last sentence in the piece. Notice the reiteration of the statement, “Full brother of Assault,” in the middle of the piece.
The column is built a little like a poem or concerto. Certain meters and phrases recur and repeat. Heinz knows going in how he wants the column to land, so he front loads the phrase “Full brother of Assault,” then reinforces it again halfway along. By the time he strings together that last long sentence, with its inexorable drive, those now-familiar meters and phrases have the rhythm and power of music in them, and the story resolves, like a great song, on a chord that is not only completely satisfying, but at once surprising and inevitable. Hence the chill most people feel when reading it.
This piece is a tiny, nearly perfect machine of art and engineering. There’s a lot to learn here about story structure, and lyric, and what’s possible in only a small space. Heinz learned a lot of that from Hemingway. Heinz’s powers of observation and description and his matchless ear for dialogue are his own, of course, but he was a true student of Hemingway’s work, and often reread him very closely in order to figure out exactly how a certain effect had been achieved.
So maybe part of the lesson here is that to become better writers, we need to become better readers.
Chris Jones, in an appreciation for the Nieman Storyboard, writes:
Heinz never makes the mistake of telling us too much, of becoming sentimental or maudlin. We see the blood. We hear the jockey’s crying. We shiver with each clap of thunder and the coming rain. These are the only things that matter in the world.
…He doesn’t do much else to set the scene. Yes, he describes some of the crowd, but only vaguely. He describes the coming storm. But he hasn’t written so much as he’s reported. Nearly every sentence in this story contains a fact and that’s about it. There are no metaphors or similes, unless you count his note that the gun is shaped like a bell. There are very few adverbs, and every quote is said – not exclaimed or opined or bleated. And in this place where this horse died, there was a pile of loose bricks.
Finally, back in 2008, Gare Joyce wrote a fine portrait of Heinz for ESPN. Worth checking out.
My grandfather gave me his copy of “The Elements of Style” in 1988 when I was a junior in high school. The edition was published in 1959. I keep it on my night table and return to it often. “Death of a Racehorse,” understated and beautifully crafted, is like that. Something to revisit to see how it’s supposed to be done.
“Death of a Racehorse” is reprinted with permission from Gayl Heinz.