Editing Adolf 

Dubious and far-fetched ideas.
Aug. 16 2000 3:00 AM

Editing Adolf 

He's feisty about semicolons. He explodes when you step on his voice. He's Hitler—and when you rewrite this guy, you're in for a war. 

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"Though Hitler was for a time a favorite commentator of Hearst's because he produced headlines and sharp, incisive copy ... he was never quite broken in by Hearst and his editors."

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—from The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, a new book by David Nasaw, that  recounts Adolf Hitler's tenure as a columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain.

Aug. 13, 1931

Hello, Mr. Hitler!

As you've heard, Chief is beet-red embarrassed about the clumsy editing job you got from Mr. Potler, and I've been assigned to shepherd your next lamb. You don't know me, but the Gus Boyd style is to be very honest and very direct with his writers, so I'm going to tell you something straight off: I'm a fan. I've been privileged to work with several world-class leaders who write for the Hearst chain—among them Mr. Mussolini, Mr. Lloyd George, and Mr. Franco—but I've always felt that you and only you craft your writings with a level of pep, lilt, and insight that says statesman. "Unfulfillable Versailles Pact, Dictatorially Imposed on Germany, 'Threatens Extinction,' Blasts Hitler" was a particular favorite.

Now for the less-good news: As much as I admire "Hitler Blasts Geneva Ratification Agreement as 'Unfavorable to Germany,' " Chief feels it best to back-burner that one for now and crash-edit something fresher. Time is short, so you and I have to hurry.

After eagerly reading through a pile of your not-yet-published finest, we both find ourselves smitten with "MY Vienna!"—though we also think the piece needs work. (Starting with the title, which feels ... too urgent. How about something simpler? À la: "Vienna!"?) You're aiming high here, which means great potential and great risk. In 15,000 tightly packed words, you're stepping into the ring with history's top memoirists—guys like Cardinal Newman, Lippman, and Aristotle—to all-at-once work through your painful feelings of loss and ruin during your student-flunkout days in the timeless, gaudy City of Pastry, confront your passionate feelings about that proud burg's uncertain future, and weave in this imaginary (I hope! [grin]) dream-sequence in which Christ, Arminius, Goethe, Wagner, and Little Hans (real kid? Legal Dept. needs a signed release if so) proclaim through word, deed, song, and volkdance that you are the Chosen Whosis destined to lead Pan-Germany to its appointed so on and so forth.

Much of this is working already, but there are missteps. Let's start at the beginning, which, in my experience, usually sets the tone for all that follows. You wrote:

Vienna spat out Hitler! BLIND and WRETCHED, clothed in the ragged raiment of IGNOMINY, POVERTY, and DEFEAT, he did perforce find the will to survive in a DECAYING world! Now Hitler is STRONG and can SEE, and he will RETURN to POSSESS it!

Hey, I like a jolt of morning fortissimo as much as the next guy, but take it easy. And while "possess it" is lovely—a deft flourish that captures an older man's longing for the unattainable past—you've lost me by then, because you've been boxing my ears with all the complaining. As Ye Olde Rhetoric Prof used to put it: Show me, lad, don't yell at me. I'd try this:

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