Longtime Baltimore Sun readers will recall Peter A. Jay’s op-ed columns that ran for some 24 years, from the 1970s into the 1990s, because they were a delight — even if you didn’t agree with his conservative take on things. Jay’s was certainly some of the most elegant and clever prose to run in the morning edition. Those of us on The Evening Sun (until the ownership killed the afternoon paper in 1995) had a lot more freedom to experiment with writing than did our buttoned-down colleagues on the morning paper. The Evening Sun had an excellent stable of sportswriters; the stylish columnist and editor Brad Jacobs; the two-time Pulitzer winner Jon Franklin, who crafted superb science and medicine features; Carl Schoettler, the best feature writer on either staff; and novelist Laura Lippman got her start as a reporter on the Evening Sun. The morning paper generally preferred straight prose, and it was until the 1990s, when John Carroll was editor, that writing with flair received as much emphasis as reporting. Certainly the morning paper had top-notch reporters and writers who flashed brilliance, but Peter Jay’s column was consistently so and from an earlier time. He was as comfortable writing about Maryland and national politics as he was writing about the Chesapeake Bay and the passage of the seasons on his Harford County farm. Now some of his best (and timeless) work has been collected in a book, “Timepieces: Three Decades of Commentary in The Baltimore Sun,” and published by TidePool Press.
Here’s a column Peter wrote about column writing. He filed it just before taking a break in August 1997. I especially appreciated his insights about the columnist’s relationship with readers. “Taken as a whole,” he wrote, “reader response is the main reason why column writers — or this column writer, anyway — find the activity worthwhile. Without response, it’s a Sisyphean task. The writer pushes his 800 words up the hill every few days; then they vanish like smoke on the wind, and he has to start again. But as long as someone notices, whether to applaud or throw fruit, the effort doesn’t seem wasted.”