The History of Humboldt (Part IV): The Art of the Ellipsis

Prestigious literary critics aren’t above hurling common schoolboy taunts at one another. The question that formalist critics like to antagonize their character-based brethren with is: “how many children had Lady Macbeth?” This question is meant to be a reminder that fictional characters are not real people, and thus it’s absurd to theorize over any aspect of their lives that doesn’t appear within the text.

Never one to ignore provocation, character-based critic extraordinaire, Harold Bloom, proudly answers the question: “just one, murdered with her first husband.” My answer deviates slightly from Harold’s. I suspect Lady Macbeth had two children: one murdered with her first husband and one from being artificially inseminated by David Crosby. (Actually, can you blame her for choosing a murderous epileptic with erectile dysfunction over David Crosby?)

The reason why Shakespeare confounds formalist critics is because he is the undisputed master of the theatrical ellipsis.

Ellipsis: (n) the purposeful omission of information within a literary work

If something is missing in one of Shakespeare’s plays (like nappyheaded Macbeth kids), it’s because the playwright doesn’t want the audience to know about it. Thus the situation is intentionally left blank. In Shakespeare’s day, a “blank” was the name for the center of an archery target (it’s what we today call a “bull’s eye”). The idea of an absence at the very heart of an object was one of Shakespeare’s absolute favorite metaphors.

The explanation for the Macbeths’ childlessness is as blank as Lady Macbeth’s name. (And why doesn’t Lady Macbeth have a name? Ever since the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, every time I think of Lady Macbeth, all I see is Lady Gaga in a meat dress; actually, this might not be such a bad analogy!)

Other classic Shakespearean ellipses include not knowing when Gertrude and Claudius’ affair began. (Not even a fishmonger like Polonius would dare ask: “So when did you two start dating?”), Iago’s ancestry (Whatever it was, I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Othello’s ancient wasn’t hugged enough as a child), and the rumor that Brutus was Caesar’s bastard son (murdering a would-be tyrant is one thing; stabbing your father in his babymaker is something entirely different!)

Upon completing The Kid from Cambridge, I couldn’t shake the sensation that I had left a glaring ellipsis within the manuscript. What could I have possibly left out? Hadn’t I mentioned everything about growing up in Southeastern Ohio?  I intended The Kid from Cambridge to be the kind of manuscript that if, a million years from now, aliens in some distant solar system found it they could flawlessly recreate life in Southeastern Ohio . (Enjoy those intergalactic drive-thru liquor stores, you wacky Tralfamadorians!)

Hoping to quell my doubts about a possible ellipsis, I made a quick mental checklist of everything that I had included within the manuscript: had I mentioned the rumor about John Glenn’s alien bride?… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned the night that the Shenandoah Inn was busted for “lot lizards?” (also known around Cambridge as “The Night the Shenandoah Went Down”)… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned that the Buffalo Bar and Grill is “Home to the King Frouk”?… [CHECK]. Had I mentioned my memories of drinking Zima?… [CHE… ur… I mean, I never drank Zima!] Had I mentioned why people call me “Toots the Baby Duck?”… [QUACK]. Had I mentioned the night that an undercover State Liquor Agent almost drank my urine?… [YUCK] (I mean: CHECK). And, finally, had I successfully entered the Guinness Book of World Records for “Most Hopalong Cassidy jokes made by a non-septuagenarian?”… [YEE-HAW!]

Wasn’t that everything? What could I possibly be forgetting?

After much contemplation, I realized that my ellipsis hadn’t been so much forgotten as enforced. What I had failed to mention was my own ancestry; in particular, the rumor that my family was related to John Brown. Of course, the reason for this omission was obvious: John Brown was one of the most humorless bastards to ever carry a bloody broadsword. His presence within a series of Thurberesque personal essays would have been totally out-of-place.

Pondering how to remedy my ellipsis, I convinced myself that no writer can survive on a diet of humorous personal essays alone (David Sedaris excluded). So I decided to discard my Thurberesque tone in favor of a return to Nietzsche. This decision, in a way, made sense. After all, on my calendar of strange literary holidays, Nietzsche’s birthday (October 15th) falls one day ahead of the anniversary of John Brown’s insurrection at Harpers Ferry.  What do these two events have in common? Absolutely nothing! But for a Nietzschean nerd who grew up being told that he was related to John Brown, this coincidence is Zarathustastic!

Zarathustastic: (n) the urge to rush into a nearby courtyard and embrace a horse, and then rush back to your room, strip naked, and dance the night away

To rectify my ellipsis, I began work on a new manuscript. To borrow Michel Foucault’s description of History of Madness, I intended this new manuscript to be written “beneath the sun of the great Nietzschean quest.” As I wrote, my tone became less casual, more philosophical. The humor was still there, but it was subtle and slightly off-kilter. (Nietzsche actually has a great sense of humor, but it’s that weird ‘Now of Sprockets We Dance!’ kind of German humor). In addition to altering the tone, I also tinkered with the narrative’s structure. The sections grew shorter, and many of these sections were only loosely connected to each other. Upon finishing the manuscript, I bestowed a title on it: The Minotaur & the Midwest.

As with The Kid from Cambridge, the first section of The Minotaur & the Midwest tells the reader where I’m from.

Here is an excerpt from the manuscript’s first chapter:

“The Great Ohio Desert”

Listen and I will tell you how the history of Ohio was written. In the beginning, the state was a terra tabula rosa. It was a beautiful land. From the round hills of the Appalachia Mountains to the east, unrolled a giant scroll that stretched across miles of farmland flattened by a glacier’s ancient steamroller. For an inkpot, the state was capped by a great lake. For a scratchpad, the south was spectacularly carved by the chisel of a mighty river.

Once the surface was perfect, a giant, white hand materialized and began writing right to left. This hand first wrote of rivers tracing the route of many a meandering riverbed with its index finger. The giant finger gently tipped the water, parting its surface slightly, and leaving behind it a turbulent, troubled wake.

But soon the hand grew tired of riverwriting; rivers were too lazy and limiting. A new tool appeared, the shovel, and with this new tool the hand began violently scratching the earth’s surface. Deep grooves appeared in the ground, resembling scars. The hand filled these scars with water. These new man-made waterways became long appendages tacked onto a river’s complete sentence.

Yet the hand soon grew bored with canals too. The work was too laborious, shovels were too cumbersome, and the sentences they wrote were too bulky and awkward. What the hand needed was a sharpened saw! Using this new tool, trees were assaulted. A forest’s density was dispersed. Shafts of sunlight sliced through once thick foliage. Within these shafts of light, pickaxes pricked the earth as if creating thousands of precise punctuation marks. Where there was once soil, now there was steel, as a black, grid-work ladder was laid upon the earth. This ladder clung to the ground, stretching with perfect two-point perspective past the horizon.

And still the hand was not happy. The sentences that railroads wrote were noisy, messy run-ons. What the hand wanted was to write calligraphy. For this, the hand invented a new tool: the fountain pen. This new tool was filled with concrete, and this liquid permanence pleased the hand immensely. The hand wrote extensively. The permanent penmanship of concrete calligraphy eventually covered the entire state. A new machine was invented to rule these concrete rivers: the automobile. Of this new machine, people said the most wonderful things.

“It’s so quiet,” they whispered.

“It’s so clean,” they murmured.

“IT’S SO GREEN!” they screamed.

And still the hand could find no satisfaction. It looked skyward and sighed. Gravity was an overbearing editor and the hand yearned for the freedom of flight. When two brothers built an elaborate flying bicycle, the sky suddenly became an endless ream of blue paper.

But gravity and its demands remained, and soon enough the thrill was gone. The hand grew bored. The sky was just not high enough. Skywriting? The hand scoffed. Spacewriting! For this, a man needed to be shot into the stratosphere.

And so the story ends with a small man from a small town strapped into a small spacecraft, which sprung into the boundless infinities of space. As this spacecraft circled the circumference of the earth, a single celestial letter was written … O


All acts of faith cling to the myth of their creation. From canals to concrete, rivers to railroads, caravans to minivans, highways to runways the creation of the Midwest is written in transportation. Over time, the verbs change: paddle, push, pull, drive, fly, but the action has always remained the same: progress. And so too has the direction remained constant: westward.

Who can translate all of this transportation? Surely if anyone is able to decipherable the Midwest’s miles of hieroglyphic roadwriting it should be one of her own.  In other words, if anyone is able to understand the Midwest, shouldn’t it be a Midwesterner? But who really is a Midwesterner?


The indigenous population of Aotearoa New Zealand feels a great affinity with the indigenous population of North America. While I was living in Auckland, the director of the National Museum of the American Indian, W. Richard West, Jr., was invited to deliver the keynote lecture for a three day symposium on international museums. I attended this lecture with a small group of classmates from a Museums and the Culture of Politics class.

Before West spoke, a number of local dignitaries addressed the crowd over a wide array of museological issues. Seeing how the majority of these issues related to Maori artifacts, I found myself constantly badgering my classmates to translate unfamiliar words.






Sacred Ancestry, for both people and objects

“Tangata Whenua?”

People of the earth



“Me? You mean Americans?”

No, people of European descent

There was a thinly veiled note of rancor in the way my Maori classmate spoke the phrase “of European descent.”

Was she inferring that I was “of European descent?” That sounded so dignified! Wasn’t I just a whitebread Ohioan? An American in Auckland? If I did possess anything remotely close to European descent, it was from the European country known as Chicago. European? I was about as European as kielbasa. (As many Chicagoans know, the word ‘kielbasa’ was born in their city; it first appeared in print in Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March.)

While still pondering my Europeaness, W. Richard West, Jr. took the podium. When West was finished speaking, the event progressed into the standard Q & A session. During this session, a question was posed regarding the museum’s name. In Aotearoa New Zealand, there is a strictly enforced protocol of politically correct bilingualism.

“Shouldn’t America’s Tangata Whenua have insisted on their own language appearing within the museum’s official title?”

W. Richard West Jr. shrugged. To him, the title of the museum was inconsequential.

“Every American Indian knows that the phrase ‘American Indian’ is complete nonsense. No one says, ‘I’m an American Indian.’ People say, “I’m Sioux,” or “I’m Southern Cheyenne,” or “I’m from Wyoming.”

I am not an American Indian. I am not from Wyoming. I am not “of European descent.” Although I eat kielbasa and read Saul Bellow novels, I am not from Chicago. I was born in Cambridge, Ohio.

But where exactly is Cambridge, Ohio?


David Foster Wallace was a wolverine. And yet he chose Cleveland, Ohio as the setting for his debut novel. Within this novel, the Governor of Ohio, Raymond Zusatz, is worried that the state is getting soft. To combat this concern, he calls a meeting of his top aides and advisors.

“People are getting complacent,” the Pynchonian-named governor laments. “They’re forgetting the way this state was historically hewn out of the wilderness. There’s no more hewing.”

Governor Zusatz proposes a radical idea to stave off the state’s perceived softness. His proposal involves creating a “wasteland” that will function as an “other for Ohio’s Self.”

As looks of bewilderment travel around the conference room, the governor gets to the point.

“We need a desert.”

A location for Zusatz’s proposed wasteland is agreed upon. The desert will consist of a hundred square mile radius around the city of Caldwell. As the meeting draws to a close, a Gubernatorial aide suggests a name for this new wasteland: The Great Ohio Desert, or the G.O.D. for short.


Cambridge, Ohio is twenty miles north of Caldwell. According to Wallace’s parameters, the city would be the G.O.D.’s largest metropolis. And because the city squats upon the nexus of two major Interstate Highways, it can also be said to occupy the region’s geographical center. North, south, east, or west, navigating the G.O.D means traveling through Cambridge.

And how does it feel to navigate the G.O.D.?

By the daylight hours, the G.O.D. appears to be an enchanting pastoral. Picturesque tableaus of green rolling hills and flat farmland fly past a traveler’s windshield. In the summer, livestock can be seen insouciantly grazing upon grassy knolls. Tractors mow incessantly. And if you’re lucky, you might even catch a fleeting glimpse of an Amish buggy barreling down a dirt road.

But these are the daylight hours. Once darkness descends, the desert extends. The first thing you notice is how the exits along the highway become fewer and fewer. Great gaps grow between glowing structures. Darkness stretches for miles. Lights flash and pass, and then there is nothing but mile upon mile of unbroken night.

John Brown

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