Many memorable essays, memoirs, and narratives reach dramatic heights from such calm beginnings. In Cold Blood is remembered for its transfixing and frightening account of two murderers and their victims,9 and it might have started in any number of dramatic ways. In fact, it starts with a measured10 descriptive passage:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West.
Although a bias toward the quiet beginning is only a bias, a predisposition, it can serve as a useful check on overreaching.11 Some famous beginnings, of course, have been written as grand propositions (“All happy families are alike...”) or sweeping overviews (“It was the best of times ...”).12These rhetorical gestures display confidence in the extreme, and more than a century of readers have followed in thrall.13 Expansiveness is not denied to anyone, but it is always prudent to remember that one is not Tolstoy or Dickens and to remember that modesty can resonate, too.14 Call me Ishmael.