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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

A page from Thoreau’s Journal

This is a page from Thoreau’s Journal, scanned from a copy of the original volume held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. It startles me a bit to see the sketch of a familiar object like an acorn embedded in text that looks all but incomprehensible.

It’s a testament to the quality of the Journal that Bradford Torrey and Francis Allen were willing to decipher all two million words of it, then edit it for publication in the 1906 edition.

Today a team of editors at Princeton are revisiting the Journal for an annotated scholarly edition that has already taken longer to produce than the 24 years Thoreau spent writing it in the first place. Volume 1 appeared in 1981, Volume 8 is the most recent, and there is still a long way to go. 

Posted by geoff on 10/28 at 01:02 PM
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Categories: BooksNatureThoreau

A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Sunday, April 20, 2014

Non-Advice for Writers from Jeffrey Ford

imageJeffrey Ford, one of our best writers, recently posted this on Facebook. My wife, wisely recognizing it should not be lost, copied it and passed it along to me.

Recently a student at a writing program I’d visited wrote to me to ask for any advice I might have for his class about being a fiction writer. I told him I couldn’t offer advice. It’s not that I doubt good advice can be given, but I’m just suspicious as to whether it can be given by me. Instead I offered a list of things I, personally, believe to be true for myself (at the moment) and told them the more important question is what do they believe in for themselves. Here’s my list.

  1. You gotta love your work.
  2. Revision is the key.
  3. Master the skill of daydreaming and from time to time analyze its processes.
  4. Be a practiced observer.
  5. Take time to talk to friendly strangers.
  6. Only by forgetting about the money have I made money.
  7. Listen to children and animals.
  8. Speak your mind. Let the inmost become the outmost.
  9. Enjoy your freakin life.
  10. Be kind to other travelers you might meet on the path.
  11. Enjoy your colleagues’ successes.
  12. One must retain a zest for the battle.
  13. You will never learn more from a teacher or a workshop than you will from the act of writing.
  14. Swim through libraries.
  15. Family and friendships trump the importance of writing.
  16. Irony is the engine of the world.
  17. Vital fiction is not the result of hiding but an act of revelation.
  18. Be skeptical of advice.
  19. Always try to work with great editors.
  20. Never run with the pack as there is always a point where you will be left behind. Strike out on your own. Let your intuition be your guide.

Posted by geoff on 04/20 at 12:08 PM
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Category: Books

A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Thursday, January 30, 2014

“African Lives” on!

I’m delighted to report that my anthology African Lives has been reviewed at by Todd Steven Burroughs, who also blogs about popular culture at

Burroughs writes,

The anthology is heavy with writers recalling their empowerment through writing. “I had always told stories,” declared Laila Lalami, a Moroccan journalist and novelist, “but now I wanted to be heard.” Wisner ensures that the continent’s multi-hyphenated rainbow of nonfiction writing, old and new, at all edges of the continental compass, gets that chance.

Posted by geoff on 01/30 at 03:45 PM
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Categories: AfricaBooksRace

A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, January 04, 2014

Strong’s New Year

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time with the four-volume diary of George Templeton Strong (1820-1875), and tweeting selections at @StrongsCivilWar and @StrongsNewYork.

So how did Strong, the quintessential New Yorker, spend the early days of each year? Let’s see.

Went up to college to see the Sophomores inhale nitrous oxide.... I should have liked dearly to have tried to myself, but I didn’t care to make a fool of myself before half the Freshmen and all the Sophomores. 1.3.1838

Started for our yearly campaign at eleven and paid some forty visits, including card visits. It was savagely cold, and the only consolation we got in our progress was from Mrs. [Alexander] Hamilton, who said it was a mere trifle, nothing at all to the winter of 1780. 1.1.1840

Went out as usual with the paternal and made our usual tour.... Old Mrs. Hamilton was in uncommonly high feather. 1.1.1842

Cold, overcast, and occasionally snowing, to which comforts may be added that the streets are as slippery for pedestrians, and as hubby and dirty and perilous to those who prefer sleighs, as they well can be. Heard of six tumbles among the former class, and saw one grand jettison befall a party of the latter. It was very fine—cloaks and buffalo robes and three or four well-dressed bipeds all rolled out of the sleigh in a confused conglomeration, their hats rolled into the gutter, and horse and sleigh vanished up the street. 1.2.1843

Read Prescott’s Mexico this afternoon. Very clever book it is, and it can’t help being among the most interesting of histories. There’s a little striving after fine writing now and then visible that’s rather a nuisance, but on the whole I like the book much. 1.1.1844

Started with my father and got pleasantly through with our legitimate list of calls ... Paid a glacial sort of visit to Mrs. George Griswold. 1.1.1846

Turned out with Charley in a carriage and made about eighty calls ... To quote Mr. Hood, “it used to be the females first, but now it’s furniter,” and I busied myself much more with the rosewood and the red satin and with the estimated price of the carpets and the mirrors and the gas fixtures and the Dresden china than with the fascinations of any of the angelic beings with whom I exchanged views on the weather. 1.2.1849

The Stevenses of Bleecker Street were lively and cordial, but there’s a painful sense of arduous exertion that I feel whenever I meet them. They are always in a state of effort, like the statue of an athlete with every muscle in its anatomy straining and turgid, gasping to maintain or to establish the exalted social and intellectual position of the family and all its members… 1.3.1852

I hereby wish myself a happy New Year. The First of January was rainy and filthy; walked a little way and made a dozen calls or less round the square, and as far as Mr. Ruggles’s. 1.4.1853

New Year’s Day inaugurated 1857 pleasantly and with diligent work. I achieved forty or fifty visits ... Principal novelties, a nice Miss Palfrey of Boston and a very rough-hewn and truculent General Leslie Coombs of Kentucky with a many-colored poncho of Mexican wool. 1.5.1857

At John Sherwood’s I had a pleasant talk with his handsome and buxom sister-in-law, Miss Charlotte Wilson, and at Mrs. William B. Astor’s with her very intelligent granddaughter ... Of course, a very large percentage of this aggregate of radiance and hospitality is social sham. But there is still left a certain very valuable residuum or balance of sincere good feeling which is brought by this much reviled institution of New Year’s Day. 1.3.1859

Reports from Washington indicate that our wretched old Chief Magistrate [President Buchanan] begins to exhibit symptoms of a backbone at last. 1.2.1861

It was a pleasant day, but in these times one cannot get rid of the presence of national peril. 1.2.1862

The President has signed the bill admitting “West Virginia” as a state. And be it remembered, with gratitude to the Author of all Good, that on January 1st the Emancipation Proclamation was duly issued. 1.3.1863

By these presents, I wish a Happy New Year to all mankind except Jefferson Davis and his group. To them, I wish virtue enough to withstand urgent daily temptations to hang themselves. 1.1.1864

Mrs. Lucretia Heckscher (née Stevens) has been living out of town ... I established an intimacy with two boys of hers, the elder of whom confided to me, in a fearful whisper, his doubt whether there was any Santa Claus at all. 1.2.1865

The New Year opened with cold rain that froze and covered all out of doors with a slippery veneering of ice.... I won’t walk in overshoes into a lady’s drawing room (though I saw some swells who thought it right to do so), and taking off one’s overshoes in entries is a piece of work; and then I nearly broke my neck in ascending and descending door steps on more than one occasion. 1.2.1869

The great Fisk died this morning. No loss to the community—quite the reverse—but it’s a pity he should have escaped the state prison in this way. 1.7.1872

Nothing very new, except that the Spanish Republic is dead, and Alfonso XII sits on the uneasy throne of Spain—poor young gentleman. 1.2.1875

Posted by geoff on 01/04 at 09:34 AM
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Categories: BooksGeorge Templeton StrongNew York

A Natural Curiosity - Geoff Wisner's Blog
Saturday, December 07, 2013

Mandela’s memoir

Among the memoirs I wish I could have excerpted in African Lives is Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. (The publisher’s permission fee was beyond my means.)

Fortunately, the book is easy to find, and will be read for many years to come. Here’s a section from the chapter I planned to reprint. In it, Mandela describes the first days of what became twenty-seven years of imprisonment, most of it on Robben Island.

At midnight, I was awake and staring at the ceiling — images from the trial were still rattling around in my head — when I heard steps coming down the hallway. I was locked in my own cell, away from the others. There was a knock at my door and I could see Colonel Aucamp’s face at the bars. “Mandela,” he said in a husky whisper, “are you awake?”

I told him I was. “You are a lucky man,” he said. “We are taking you to a place where you will have your freedom. You will be able to move around; you’ll see the ocean and the sky, not just gray walls.”

He intended no sarcasm, but I well knew that the place he was referring to would not afford me the freedom I longed for. He then remarked rather cryptically, “As long as you don’t make trouble, you’ll get everything you want.”

Aucamp then woke the others, all of whom were in a single cell, ordering them to pack their things. Fifteen minutes later we were making our way through the iron labyrinth of Pretoria Local, with its endless series of clanging metal doors echoing in our ears.

Once outside, the seven of us — Walter, Raymond, Govan, Kathy, Andrew, Elias, and myself — were handcuffed and piled into the back of a police van. It was well after midnight, but none of us was tired, and the atmosphere was not at all somber. We sat on the dusty floor, singing and chanting, reliving the final moments of the trial. The warders provided us with sandwiches and cold drinks and Lieutenant Van Wyck was perched in the with us. He was a pleasant fellow, and during a lull in the singing, he offered his unsolicited opinion on our future. “Well,” he said, “you chaps won’t be in prison long. The demand for your release is too strong. In a year or two, you will get out and you will return as national heroes. Crowds will cheer you, everyone will want to be your friend, women will want you. Ag, you fellows have it made.” We listened without comment, but I confess his speech cheered me considerably. Unfortunately, his prediction turned out to be off by nearly three decades.

Posted by geoff on 12/07 at 04:38 PM
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Categories: AfricaBooksPoliticsRace

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