Neatness Counts

Fritz Brantley '07, English 171, Sages, Satirists, and New Journalists, Brown University, 2005

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Maybe no one knows what time it is. The list has appeared in numerous essays we've read, but like Didion's many lists in "The White Album," Annie Dillard's is informed with a sense of notable paranoia.

I wake up thinking: What am I reading? What will I read next? I'm terrified that I'll run out, that I will read through all I want to, and be forced to learn wildflowers at last, to keep awake. In the meantime I lose myself in a liturgy of names. The names of the men are Knud Rasmussen, Sir John Franklin, Peter Freuchen, Scott, Peary, and Byrd; Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, and Milton Sublette; or Daniel Boone singing on his blanket in the Green River Company. The names of waters are Baffin Bay, Repulse Bay, Coronation Gulf, and the Ross Sea; the Coppermine River, the Judith, the Snake, and the Musselshell; the Pelly, the Dease, the Tanana, and Telegraph Creek. Beaver plews, zero degrees latitude, and gold.

Question: As noted in previous discussions, Didion's heavy detail is an attempt to note as well as account for the difficulty of transliterating reality into text. Are Dillard's moments similar? Divergent?

This discussion seems fruitful (no pun intended), as Dillard is in her way, attempting to write the unwritable -- the sublimity of nature. Many times, though, she is quick to efface the facts -- facts which seem important, given her context. In a previous set of questions, a student in an earlier class notes her inaccuracies in dealing with the loop of Henle, but there are other moments where she is quick to admit her faults.

"It could be, I reasoned, that ancient Roman naturalists knew this fact that has escaped us because it works only in Latin. My Latin is sketchy."

"In a required zoology course I once took..."

Is this important? Dillard is ultimately trying to jump the greatest hurdles of human existence -- faith, life, death. Should she be checking her facts better? The (post?)modern sage, of course, relies on these breaks to create ethos. Does Dillard successfully rebound and create greater ethos by aligning herself with us?

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Last modified 3 December 2006