Monday, June 18, 2018

WEST OF THE REVOLUTION: AN UNCOMMON HISTORY OF 1776 by Claudio Saunt

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Of late American readers have been well served by a veritable cottage industry of works about the Roman Republic and Empire, and their respective falls, and various aspects thereof, and what lessons we, with our republic (or empire, as some would have it), purportedly at the precipice of analogous fiscal, ecological, military, social and/or  political Seneca Cliffs, might learn from them. History may not repeat itself any more than we can wade into the same river twice, but, of course, we can step into rivers that look more than a sight familiar. Sometimes a nicely behaved river—let’s dub it the Goth Swan—turns of a sudden into a drowning horror. Indeed, a close reading of Roman history does suggest, in blurriest outlines, some analogies with contemporary trends and conundrums. But there are perhaps more valuable insights to be parsed from our own little-known and, relatively speaking, recent history.

In West of the Revolution, Claudio Saunt, a noted scholar of early American and Native American history, spotlights nine places and formative events of 1776 that rarely raise a blip on the radar of even the most well-educated Americans. As Saunt writes in his introduction, “The American Revolution so dominates our understanding of the continent’s early history that only four digits—1776—are enough to evoke images of periwigs, quill pens, and yellowing copies of the Declaration of Independence.”

As for knowledge of what was going on west of the Appalachians in 1776, I can speak for myself, lo, many a decade ago, when I was a recent graduate of the University of Chicago. History out there west of the Appachalians had seemed to me then... like, totally vague. I’d heard of some of the tribes, those ones with interesting headgear, mainly from watching TV. Since I grew up in California, I had seen some of the Spanish missions. These had had struck me as absurdly drab and morbid. I was not Catholic, and the Spanish were well and gone, as were those Indians, I assumed. In elementary school, when we got our dose of state history, I must have been told the name of the local indigenous people—the Ohlone— but by the time I graduated from college, for 64,000 dollars, I could not have come up with it. Had I known the term terra nullius, I might have used it.

In the intervening years I had the opportunity to remedy my ignorance of California’s indigenous and mission history; perhaps the more for that, I found Saunt’s masterful historical narrative so rich and riveting. Writes Saunt in his prologue:

“Between the continent’s far edge and the Appalachians stood thousands of towns and villages, whose millions of residents spoke diverse languages and belonged to a multitude of nations. On the eve of the War of Independence, even the most fervid of American speculators could not imagine the extraordinary events unfolding in the West.”  

The events Saunt describes were indeed, extraordinary, and “in surprising ways,” he writes, “as pertinent to the twenty-first century as the better-known history of the American Revolution.”

 To begin with, in 1776, the Russians, having pushed across Siberia—their Peru, their Mexico—were several years already in the Aleutian Islands, their main modus operandi, when attempts to trade beads and such failed, to seize Aleut hostages in exchange for payment in furs. The Russians were voracious for furs to sell, above all, to Beijing—fox, seal, and what was so abundant in the Aleutians, otter, what they called “soft gold.”  >> [CONTINUE READING]


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Monday, June 11, 2018

Virginia Tufte's ARTFUL SENTENCES: SYNTAX AS STYLE

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Graphics Press
As of this year, the second Monday of the month is dedicated to my workshop students and anyone else interested in creative writing.

While I increasingly rely on the Internet for reference—I’ll more likely type a word into my on-line dictionary or thesaurus than pull a wrist-breaker of an old tome off its shelf—there is still no substitute for a writer’s reference library—real books on a real shelf, at-hand. And among the most useful works in my own reference library is Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. 
From the catalog copy:
“... Tufte presents—and comments on—more than a thousand excellent sentences chosen from the works of authors in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The sentences come from an extensive search to identify some of the ways professional writers use the generous resources of the English language. 
“The book displays the sentences in fourteen chapters, each one organized around a syntactic concept—short sentences, noun phrases, verb phrases, appositives, parallelism, for example. It thus provides a systematic, comprehensive range of models for aspiring writers.”
But Artful Sentences is not only for aspiring writers. Having written more books than I’ll bother to count, I still find that an occasional review consistently yields inspirations.
Where, and for what effect, can I limber up my writing? Perhaps I need to work in shorter sentences. (p. 9) Bright little ones! 
Or perhaps, I could play a bit with what Tufte terms “Catalogs of modifiers” (p.100)-- basically, a bunch, a spew, an avalanche of adjectives. 
Or perhaps, I might try an adjective as an opener.” (p.160) Open doors, don’t they seem more inviting?


Artful Sentences elucidiates the immense range of possibilities we have in the English language to arrange our sentences, and within them, the sounds and rhythms of words, the better to sharpen and strengthen what we mean to say. And that, my dear writerly reader, is power.

P.S. You will find more recommended reading on my workshop page. 
> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.