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Comparing Tom Wolfe's "O Rotten Gotham: Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" with Bill McKibben's "Late Afternoon"

Tom WolfeTom Wolfe's "O Rotten Gotham — Sliding Down into the Behavioral Sink" and Bill McKibben's "Late Afternoon" convey primarily the same message, yet the ways they go about doing it are drastically different. Both the expository patterns and the writing styles of the two essays are dissimilar.

Content-wise, both essays cover the same ground. For instance, both works are fine examples of essays that touch on man's failures. According to "O Rotten Gotham" humans have failed in that they have become detrimental to each other and to themselves with a rat-race style of living and overcrowding. With a lifestyle such as this, humans stoop to the level of animals. In "O Rotten Gotham," human life is devalued when it is compared to that of rats in a cage. "It got to be easy to look at New Yorkers as animals," says Wolfe. (Wolfe, 217) In "O Rotten Gotham", both humans and animals are referred to as being in the "Behavioral Sink," (Wolfe, 220) extending the analogy of humans and animals (this is mentioned later in detail).

Bill McKibbenBill McKibben's "Late Afternoon" also stresses man's failures. Humans have failed in that they are letting technology get in the way of life. McKibben has realized that "..living in linear time means living with a different, and in many ways, poorer set of assumptions than living in cyclical time." (McKibben, 586) Living in linear time encourages an unnaturally hurried pace of life. The linear view of time makes this fast pace seem acceptable. Furthermore, in regressing from a cyclical view of time to a linear view, man has failed to get a sense of the fullness of life.

In linear time, "..there is no rhythm… [it seems] very strange to grow old and die." (McKibben, 587) Death has no place in linear time, because we fail to prepare for it. (McKibben, 588) In "Late Afternoon", death is viewed by the cyclical-minded people as a natural part of life. (McKibben, 588) In "O Rotten Gotham", death (premature death) is viewed as a negative consequence of overcrowding. (Wolfe, 220)

The major difference between the two essays is that "O Rotten Gotham" focuses more on the similarities between modern man and nature, where as "Late Afternoon" focuses primarily on differences between modern man and nature. "Late Afternoon" tells that modern man and nature operate differently, as they have two different views of time. "O Rotten Gotham" compares modern man with animals, stressing that the similarities will one day lead to our demise.

Expository patterns

The essays use different expository patterns. In "O Rotten Gotham", Wolfe has mastered the analogy. He uses the "people are like animals" analogy extensively and exclusively: "The floor was filled with the poor white humans running around...making a sound like a pen full of starlings or rats or something." [Wolfe, 217]. In using the "people are like animals" analogy, Wolfe conveys to the reader that human beings are not too different from animals. He also implements a subpattern of cause-and-effect, warning the reader that overcrowding ravages the human body. Examples of animal overcrowding are also provided.

On the other hand, the cause-and-effect pattern is used as the primary expository pattern in "Late Afternoon", while an analogy is used as a subpattern. The cause-and-effect pattern explains to the reader that with increasing technology comes a shift from cyclical time to linear time, which in turn hampers man's view of nature and clouds our view of what life is all about. The analogy subpattern that McKibben presents are representatives of linear and cyclical time: television and nature. "...the whole day is one long transition...By contrast, life, especially TV life, seems to insist on more lines, more borders." (McKibben, 587) This nature-vs.-technology analogy occurs numerous times throughout the essay.

Writing styles

The two essays also have differing writing styles, with Tom Wolfe's "O Rotten Gotham" being the more informal essay of the two. It is informal the way natural human thought and language is often informal. Wolfe seems to be saying exactly what is on his mind and ignoring certain grammar rules. Take, for instance, the last sentences of paragraphs one and six: "O Rotten Gotham." and "The Sink!" Not every writer can get away with using such awkward sentence fragments. Wolfe also explores the other end of the sentence spectrum, as paragraph twenty-four closes with an eighteen-line run on. (Wolfe, 221-22) But in creating a run on of this proportion, Wolfe gives the reader a little first-hand glimpse of what the essay is all about — stress and sensory overload. Wolfe implements irregular sentence patterns with skill and proves that he is in control of his work.

Bill McKibben's "Late Afternoon" is the formal essay of the two. McKibben takes a more conservative approach to writing in "Late Afternoon", yet he manages to create vivid images. In utilizing low-level abstraction, McKibben makes a confusing topic like linear/cyclical time easier to comprehend. If "Late Afternoon" had been written using high-level abstractions, readers would have a much harder time following it.

Both essays are fundamentally sound in their own right, and they convey similar messages: humans should take life easy, slow down a bit and give themselves room to breathe. These two essays prove that there is more than one right way of conveying this message.

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