Two hundred fifty years ago, on April 15, 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first edition of his Dictionary of the English Language, compiled and written almost wholly by himself. It appeared in London in two folio volumes. Like most dictionaries, there is a rigorous serenity in the look of its pages. The language has been laid out in alphabetical order. The etymologies and definitions bristle with italics and abbreviations. The quotations that exemplify the meanings of the words present a bottomless fund of good sense and literary beauty.
But I wonder whether anyone has ever had a more dynamic or volatile sense of the language than Johnson did. We tend to remember him as an older man, grown heavy, his face weighed down as much by indolence as industry. But in April 1755 he was not yet 46. With the publication of his dictionary, he returned from his researches into the English language the way an explorer returns from the North Pole, with a sense of having seen a terrain that others can see only through his account of what he found there. Instead of a wilderness of ice, he faced what he called, in his preface to the dictionary, “the boundless chaos of a living speech.” Instead of voyages into Arctic waters, he talks of “fortuitous and unguided excursions into books.”
It’s tempting to think of a lexicographer in terms of the dictionary he produces, and Johnson’s is certainly one of the great philological accomplishments of any literary era. But it’s just as interesting to think of what the dictionary does to the man. Johnson says, quite simply, “I applied myself to the perusal of our writers.” But reading “our writers” to find the materials for a dictionary is unlike any other kind of reading I can imagine. It would atomize every text, forsake the general sense of a passage for the particular meaning of individual words. It would be like hiking through quicksand, around the world.
Johnson lived in turmoil, and the sense of vigor he so often projected was, if nothing else, a way of keeping order in a world that threatened to disintegrate into disorder every day. And what was the disorder of London to the chaos of the language? “Sounds,” he wrote, “are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride.” Johnson published his dictionary not as the conqueror of the language but as the person who knew best how unconquerable it really is.
A River of Two Nations
Edited by Jan Reid
University of Texas Press
San Antonio Express-News
Often, word of another arty, glossy book about Texas means it’s time to clear off space on the coffee table. But Rio Grande, a thick collection of short pieces and black and white photos of the river and region, is a book that begs to be read, not merely admired.
Edited by Texas Monthly contributor Jan Reid, Rio Grande offers the work of three dozen writers from both sides of the border, covering more than a century of river experience, starting with the first boat ride down the Big Bend canyons.
The authors range from the familiar, such as John Reed, Larry McMurtry and Elena Poniatowska, to the just arriving, such as Don Henry Ford Jr., an ex-doper with a storyteller’s gift whose resume includes time in federal prison.
Other bylines include Woody Guthrie, Americo Paredes and Western novelist Elmer Kelton, who is represented by an excerpt from his classic Texas novel, The Time it Never Rained, which examines the charged dynamic among a West Texas rancher, a U.S. Border Patrol agent and three undocumented Mexican immigrants.
Among the other intriguing contemporary pieces are an essay by Tom Miller about smuggling Mexican parrots across the river and one by Robert Draper about the killing of Redford, Texas, goat herder Ezequiel Hernandez by U.S. Marines in 1997.
And, in a piece by former Express-News reporter Cecilia Balli, the book confronts the border’s modern horror in Ciudad Juarez, where scores of young Mexican women working in maquiladoras have been murdered and dumped like refuse in the desert.
The book is divided into five sections, each corresponding roughly to a larger theme, and Reid sets up each part with a longish introduction providing history, color and political context.
For all the nostalgia and sentimentality it contains about the Rio Grande, the book does not shy away from confronting the river’s present debased state. The opening essay finds Reid standing at the dry mouth at Boca Chica near Brownsville, Texas, contemplating a river that no longer even reaches the Gulf of Mexico.
“The river belongs to two countries, and as a consequence it is protected and managed by neither,” he writes. “It is a broken river now, over-used and abused and in peril. Yet it still glows, emerald-like, in the collective imagination. And that mystique is its best hope for salvation.”
Whether the Rio Grande can be saved or restored to anything resembling its former majesty is very much an open question. Whether this book delivers a rich and complex picture of the river and region is not.In reaching back into writings new and old, both high and low, Reid has delivered a profile of the region’s most fabled river. For anyone who has ever gazed at the now diminished stream and wondered what the excitement was all about, this book has the answers.