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[Detail] Vue de Quebec, capitale du Canada. 1755.

Writing: Using Anecdotes

Writers often use anecdotes—short accounts of interesting incidents—to make a point in an understandable way. For example, consider the following anecdote from "A Description of the English Province of Carolana," by Daniel Coxe:

In a new colony, the first care is to provide food for their subsistence. The Great Duke of Rohan, famous for wisdom and valor. . . advances it as a maxim, that he who will be a great warrior must, in the first place, make provision for the belly. . . The Spaniards tell a pretty, and I think instructive story; that upon the discovery of the immense riches contained in the mountain Potosi, in Peru, two Spaniards resorted thither. The one bought slaves, hired servants, overseers, and found a rich vein of silver ore. The other (land being then common in the neighborhood) fed sheep. The mine master wanting wool for the clothing of his servants (that place being much colder than others in the same latitude), and food for his overseers (who could not be satisfied, being Spaniards, with the poor fare of the Indians and negroes), bought flesh and wool of the shepherd; and after some few years, the shepherd grew rich and the master-miner poor.

From "A Description of the English Province of Carolana," page 257

  • What point was Coxe making in this excerpt?
  • How did the anecdote support Coxe’s point?
  • What other technique did Coxe use to support his point?
  • Which strategy do you think was more effective—the anecdote or the reference to an authoritative source? Why?

Anecdotes may also be used to convey something of the character of a person. After describing the accomplishments of Thomas Jefferson, the Marquis de Chastellux included the following anecdote in his travel narrative:

I recollect with pleasure that as we were conversing one evening over a bowl of punch, after Mrs. Jefferson had retired, our conversation turned on the poems of Ossian. It was a spark of electricity which passed rapidly from one to the other; we recollected the passages in those sublime poems, which particularly struck us, and entertained my fellow travelers, who fortunately knew English well, and were qualified to judge of their merit, though they had never read the poems. In our enthusiasm the book was sent for, and placed near the bowl, where, by their mutual aid, the night far advanced imperceptibly upon us. Sometimes natural philosophy, at others politics or the arts were the topicks of our conversation, for no object had escaped Mr. Jefferson; and it seemed as if from his youth he had placed his mind, as he has done his house, on an elevated situation, from which he might contemplate the universe.

From "Travels in North-America, In the Years 1780, 1781, and 1782," Volume 2, pages 45 and 46

  • What did the writer intend this anecdote to convey about Thomas Jefferson’s character?
  • How might the anecdote have been self-serving? That is, what did it communicate about the author’s character?

Think of a popular adage or saying. What anecdote could you use to illustrate the meaning of the saying? Think of someone you know well. If you were writing a character study of that person, what anecdotes would you use to convey his or her character? What would these choices communicate about you?