“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become…”

This is the greatest explanation I have ever seen for the concept of the call of the wild:

“Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources such as poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.”

The sentence is by a student who really does love Yellowstone National Park and chose to write about it. Why, then, the awkward sentence full of tepid language and absolutely devoid of energy?

“Beauty…has led itself to become” is grammatical enough but puts me in mind of Noam Chomsky’s exemplary sentence that is grammatically correct but conceptually impossible (the famous “colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” so famous indeed that it has its own Wikipedia entry—and if you go to the Wikipedia page be sure to look at the “related and similar examples” too, if you want some fun). Up until encountering the Yellowstone sentence, I thought only dogs carrying their own leashes in their mouths on walks could lead themselves anywhere. And leading oneself into becoming the subject of a source of something is very hard to get the mind around—a young woman talking herself into having unprotected sex might fit the sentence, but only by a willing suspension of disbelief well honed by immersion in Theatre of the Absurd.

That’s the most fascinating, or bizarre, aspect of my student’s sentence, but not the only stumbling block on the Yellowstone hiking trail. The beauty has led itself to become the subject of various literary sources. A little grammar punning is tempting here: If it’s leading itself, then itself is an object, not a subject—the object of the verb “to lead.”

But puns aside, the beauty has led itself to become a subject. My student shows that repetition does eventually communicate in his choice of “various”: he and many another student can be relied on generally to write “different” when they mean “various,” and I suggest this word change again and again in their academic essays. (They’re free to write “I like different kinds of candy” as often as they wish on Facebook, but saying that Dylan Thomas wrote “different kinds of literature” is misleading in most senses no matter how experimental some of his forms were, especially since students who write that will follow with a clarifying list: “poems, essays, stories, and plays.”)

Please notice that nowhere in this process does authorial choice intrude. Evidently various literary sources find their own subjects, or the subjects lead themselves into these sources. Perhaps the author just holds a notebook up to trap them when they arrive? Or do the subjects intrude on literary sources already written, shouldering aside the original subjects to make room for themselves once they have led themselves there, overpowering any feeble attempts on the author’s part to repel the invasion?

And then, to drain the sentence of any vestiges of interest, he feels compelled to give some examples of those “literary sources”—”poems, short stories, plays, essays, and novels.” Perhaps if he had begun his list with “in other words” he could have gotten away with this; but he begins with “such as,” implying that he could name several others if he wanted to tell all. He has, however, really hit pretty much every literary genre, unless we want to get obscure. So why “such as”? I’m afraid he probably was hedging his bets in case he had left any out, not telling me “there are more literary sources in heaven and earth, Prof. Horatio, than are dreamed of in your English 12 class.”

Finally, when I hear the phrase “literary source” I usually assume it refers to a source of literature, not a source that is literature—or if the latter, a source of literature that is itself literature, as Beowulf is the literary source of John Gardner’s novel Grendel. But in my student’s sentence the literature is a source that has a subject, and that subject is, by dint of its own sheer determination, the beauty of Yellowstone. The Wild calls unto itself and heeds the Call.

Because the components of this sentence aren’t identical, I can’t reasonably compare the experience of reading it to Matryoshka dolls, or Quaker’s Oats boxes; but it does give the sense of tumbling through oddly nested concepts into some black (but boring) hole.

Not a hole into Wonderland, alas, but definitely not a hole that can be found in Yellowstone National Park, either.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““Yellowstone’s great beauty has led itself to become…”

  • whitt88

    I wish I knew exactly what it is about your writing that makes it so funny. I know you set us up for expecting one thing (understanding the student’s intention,) then you go merrily off covering all the other interpretations, only one really fitting the circumstance. A real joy to read.

  • RAB

    Thanks so much! I find that once I give myself permission to look closely at what’s actually in the student’s sentence (aside from what the student THINKS is in the sentence) I find all sorts of bizarre possibilities. I appreciate your indulging me by reading them!

  • yearstricken

    This had me laughing aloud in several places, and I especially love this: “there are more literary sources in heaven and earth, Prof. Horatio, than are dreamed of in your English 12 class.”

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