Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Daegan Miller's "This Radical Land"

Daegan Miller has taught at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and his writing has appeared in a variety of venues, from academic journals to literary magazines.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, and reported the following:
From page 99:
They were on us and over us before we could get out of the way.... When the last line of Rebs had passed over me, I was left amid the bushes with the breath nearly trampled out of me, and an ugly bayonet-gash through my thigh; and mighty little consolation was it for me at that moment to see the fellow who run me through lying stark dead at my side, with a bullet-hole in his head, his shock of coarse black hair matted with blood, and his stony eyes looking into mine.... Never have I seen, no, not in that three days’ desperate mêlée at the Wilderness, nor at that terrific repulse we had at Cold Harbor, such absolute slaughter as I saw that afternoon on the green slope of Malvern Hill. The guns of the entire army were massed on the crest, and thirty thousand of our infantry lay, musket in hand, in front. For eight hundred yards the hill sank in easy declension to the wood, and across the smooth expanse the Rebs must charge to reach our lines. It was nothing short of downright insanity to order men to charge that hill; and so his generals told Lee, but he would not listen to reason that day, and so he sent regiment after regiment, and brigade after brigade, and division after division, to certain death....

It was at the close of the second charge, when the yelling mass reeled back from before the blaze of those sixty guns and thirty thousand rifles ... that I saw from the spot where I lay a riderless horse break out of the confused and flying mass, and, with mane and tail erect and spreading nostril, come dashing obliquely down the slope. Over fallen steeds and heaps of the dead she leaped with a motion as airy as that of the flying fox, when, fresh and unjaded, he leads away from the hounds, whose sudden cry has broken him off from hunting mice amid the bogs of the meadow. So this riderless horse came vaulting along.... When I saw this horse, with action so free and motion so graceful, amid that storm of bullets, my heart involuntarily went out to her, and my feelings rose higher and higher at every leap she took amid the whirlwind of fire and lead. And as she plunged at last over a little hillock out of range and came careening toward me as only a riderless horse might come... I forgot my wound and all the wild roar of battle, and, lifting myself involuntarily to a sitting posture as she swept grandly by, gave her a ringing cheer.
What is history: the past, or the sense we make of it?

Page 99 of This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, is the first of a four-page excerpt from W.H.H. Murray’s Adventures in the Wilderness, published in 1869, a standard guide to the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York State, which concludes with a far-from-standard final chapter called “A Ride with a Mad Horse in a Freight-Car”: a story, recounted by Murray, that he and his camping companion first heard when into the light of Murray’s campfire stepped a man identified only as the Stranger, a sportsman but also a veteran of the Civil War, an ex-Union Soldier, who tells them of a beautiful horse that he first saw while he lay gravely wounded in the field at Malvern Hill, a horse that followed him to the field hospital and became his mount and his constant companion—his true love, even—throughout the war’s final three years. Once the guns fell silent after Appomattox, the Stranger and his horse boarded a train to head home. But the horse went mad. She had contracted phrenitis—a swelling of the brain. The Stranger watched helplessly as she beat herself to death against the walls of the car.

That’s how Adventures in the Wilderness ends.

In one way, page 99 resonates only moderately with the rest of the book’s content: though it is a bridge between a part on the Adirondacks and the meaning of wilderness, and a part on the transcontinental railroad in the post-Civil War US. But the excerpt stands alone at the center of the book, the pivot point, a story within a story living at the heart of the history I tell.

And so page 99 lies near the point of the book—that who we are depends on the stories we tell ourselves, that those stories are plastic, that we make our histories just as we make our presents and our futures. Just like we make our world. I’d like that world to be green, just, and free.
Visit Daegan Miller's website.

--Marshal Zeringue