Essays

This is a course designed to help you think and write about natural and cultural history. The sequence of short essays will give you practice with the writing skills you will be using in the longer writing project. The conventions for these short essays will be familiar to students who have completed Thinking and Writing (a course I teach) or other courses in which writing is required.

Due Dates for Essays:

  • Tuesday February 2 Essay #1 on Chapter One, “Deserts”
  • Tuesday February 16 Essay #2 on Chapter Two “Mountains” or Chapter Three “Land of Fire”
  • Tuesday February 23 Due: Essay #3 on Chapter Four “Land of Water”
  • Tuesday March 1 Due: Essay #4 on the poems of Gary Soto (and Chapter Five “The Great Valley”)
  • Tuesday March 8 Due: Essay #5 on Chapter Six “The Fractured Province” or Chapter Seven “The Profligate Province”

Essay Three: The Poems of Gary Soto                        Due Tuesday March 1

This essay is designed to move you from your earlier work using mostly secondary sources to the use of primary source material—in this case, the poems of Gary Soto. Your California projects will be mostly based on primary materials and so this stage of your writing process is important.

The general purpose of your essay on the poems of Gary Soto is to explain California—in this case, the experience of California in the voice of a Chicano poet—by making use of the language of poems. Your essay will focus primarily on primary texts

  • a poem or a sequence of poems
  • quotations from the poems (primary texts) in every paragraph of your essay

You may also use secondary texts, but only insofar as you use this material to frame and/or elaborate on the language of the poems themselves:

  • Include any relevant context about Soto’s books, and poems, from a reliable secondary source: I recommend the Gary Soto Page at the Poetry Foundation’s web site, or volume 82 of the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Gary Soto (12 April 1952-) by Héctor Avalos Torres. Chicano Writers: First Series. 82 (1989), available through the Mason Library Databases or in hard copy in the Reference Section of the library
  • Include context using primary texts (other writing by Soto) and/or secondary texts (such as Fradkin, The United Farm Workers web site and archive, or professional literary criticism of Soto’s contributions to the art of poetry

In class on Tuesday this week we will talk through writing about primary text using the document Field Work

Essay on Chapter One, “Deserts”                                             Due Tuesday, February 2

Write a three-page descriptive essay that identifies a salient feature of the natural or cultural history of California and elaborates on what Fradkin says about it in his book using at least two print or digital sources in addition to any encyclopedia entries you may consult (such as a print atlas or biographical dictionary or online source, including Wikipedia).

The problem you face as a writer of the essay is that you do not know much about your subject. The solution to the problem is to find out more. The most successful essays will discover in that finding out something more that is worth knowing.

Here is a list of some of the possible people, events, places, and things Fradkin mentions in the chapter that you might explore:

Owens River, Mohave Desert, Lone Pine, San Gabriel Mountains, Fort Irwin Military Installation, China Lake John C. Van Dyke (an art historian), Mono Lake, William H. Brewer (author of Up and Down California in 1860-1864), Israel C. Russell (geologist), Roger D. McGrath (historian), Bodie (a town, now a “ghost town”), Mark Twain, David Gaines (Mono Lake Committee), Mary Austin (writer, author of Land of Little Rain), Owens Valley, Bishop, 1872 Earthquake in Lone Pine, Paiute Indians, The Bessie Brady and the Mollie Stevens (steam ships), Shoshone Indians, Emma Lou Davis (anthropologist), Creosote (a desert bush), William B. McLean, LA Department of Water and Power, LA Aqueduct, Indian Wells Valley, Tufa, Trona, Charles Manson, Mount Whitney, Furnace Creek, Death Valley

The essay will be three pages in length (double spaced) with a title, and will provide sufficient evidence using paraphrased material or quotations. The essay should be interested in what it is doing (explaining, elaborating) and interesting for both an informed reader (who may know something about what you are describing) and for a less-informed reader (who, for example, may have not heard of Mono Lake or William H. Brewer). That is, the essay should do more than summarize its subject.

How to Write the Essay

Formalized Curiosity. Poking and prying with a purpose. These are the words that the great writer Zora Neal Hurston uses to describe we we often call in school “research.” I would like you to begin by getting interested ad then seeing if that interest can take you somewhere. What was surprising in the reading you completed for this week? What might teach you something worth knowing?

But Where do I find more information? What resource will allow me to understand the role of David Gaines in the Mono Lake conservation and preservation efforts? What information of interest to me and my reader is available on The Mohave Desert or the Lone Pine Earthquake in 1872? What explains California?

Much of the emphasis in this course will be on digital resources–web sites, archives, repositories, digital portals. The links on the main page of this course web site will take you amazing places. Your job is to poke around and see what you can find.

The Mason Library has an American Studies Library Guide. This is a useful place to begin. The Mason Library has over 100 books in the stacks on California: you can begin at F859.3.F4 1967 with California: A Guide to the Golden State (1967), a book edited by Harry Hanson, and originally compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration for the State of California or go to the end of the shelves to Kathleen M. Coll’s book Remaking Citizenship: Latina Immigrants and the New American Politics (2010) at F870.S75 C65 2010. You could then move from these records to the Subject list in the “Details” section of the record that provides links to other titles that may be of interest. You could type in a subject search and get 5320 entries, a Title Search (596 entries), or a basic Keyword Search (401 relevant entries among the 5383 titles identified. Or you could look beyond the Catalog and focus on Databases and Journals.

An Example

Let’s say that I want to learn more about Mary Austin. So I discover the book she is most know for, The Land of Little Rain (Bedford: MA: Applewood, 1903) and I then discover that there is an electronic edition of the text. And I read this:

And yet—and yet—is it not perhaps to satisfy expectation that one falls into the tragic key in writing of desertness? The more you wish of it the more you get, and in the mean time lose much of the pleasantness. In that country which begins at the foot of the east slope of the Sierras and spreads out by less and less lofty hill ranges toward the Great Basin, it is possible to live with great zest, to have red blood and delicate joys, to pass and repass about one’s daily performance an area that would make an Atlantic seaboard State, and that with no peril, and, according to our way of thought, no particular difficulty. At any rate, it was not people who went into the desert merely to write it up who invented the fabled Hassaympa, of whose waters, if any drink, they can no more see fact as naked fact, but all radiant with the color of romance. I, who must have drunk of it in my twice seven years’ wanderings, am assured that it is worth while” (14).

Then, perhaps, I want to find out more about her wish for “much of the pleasantness” that goes along with experiences in the desert. Who else has written about this area or the desert regions in California? What have they said? How did they write?

Beyond the tragic key: Mary Austin and Writing about California’s Deserts

We will talk through a few additional examples during our class meeting.