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Tales of five American travelers
A new standard for cuneiform
Get a life!

Tales of five American travelers

John Ledyard was a traveler. In 1773 he was a 22-year-old student at Dartmouth who, upon deciding to return home to Hartford, climbed into a canoe he'd made himself and paddled 140 miles down the Connecticut River. Three years later, after he'd ventured to England, he sailed with Captain James Cook on the latter's third (and fatal) South Seas voyage. By 1785, Ledyard was in Paris. Frustrated in his attempts to find backers to establish a fur trade in the Pacific Northwest, he decided to go home--by walking across Siberia. He damned near made it before Russian officials caught him and shipped him back to Europe because he lacked a Russian internal passport.

Ledyard became known in the newly independent United States as the American Traveler. The body of writing that arose from the journals of his remarkable peregrinations also made him the first American travel writer, and thus the first author discussed in Larzer Ziff's new book, Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing 1780-1910 (Yale, 2001). Writing as both critic and literary historian, Ziff (the Caroline Donovan Research Professor of English at Hopkins) discusses the work of a quintet of American travel writers: Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and Henry James.

Henry James abroad: "travel writing as art"
Photo courtesy Bettman/Corbis
Ziff devotes a section to each of the five writers. Stephens, who succeeded Ledyard in being dubbed the American Traveler, made his name in Central America and the Yucat‡n as the discoverer of nearly every Mayan site. Taylor was the first American to make travel writing a profession; he traveled expressly to provide material for the books that made his living. Twain brought a new comic sensibility to the genre, writing not as the intrepid traveler but as a tourist casting a sardonic eye on whatever he encountered, including himself. And James was the premier artist of the group. Ziff says, "I stopped with James because it seemed to me that he represents a level of attainment that justifies one's pausing at that point."

In Return Passages, Ziff uses narrative history to convey the reader from one critical insight to the next. The book's seamless melding of criticism and historiography prompted reviewer Michael Gorra, writing in The New York Times Book Review, to say, "No work of criticism I've read in recent years has offered such a combination of instruction and delight." As Ziff narrates their careers, he casts a critic's eye on their literary output. "Ledyard wasn't a writer and you can't pretend that he was," he says. "Stephens is just enormously readable; it's great literature. From a literary point of view, Taylor is the least accomplished writer. Taylor at his best was good journalism. No one has yet to surpass James's travel writing as art."

Ziff explores the uniquely American sensibilities of the five writers. He quotes Stephens, for example, who wrote of the society he encountered at a dance in Yucat‡n: "...the ball was larger and gayer of whites and those in whose veins white blood ran, while outside, leaning upon the railing, beyond, in the plaza, was a dense mass of them--natives of the land and lords of the soil, that strange people in whose ruined cities I had just been wandering, submitting quietly to the dominion of strangers, bound down and trained to the most abject submission, and looking up to the white man as a superior being."

The writers' travels influenced their perspectives on their native country, as well. Ziff notes their self-consciousness and insecurity as they encounter older, established cultures (especially European), their simultaneous conviction (sometimes bordering on boastfulness) of the superiority of America's new political order, and the sharpened eye they cast back at the shortcomings and inequities of American society. In their travels, what was new and raw encountered what was old and cultured, and from the encounter all five fashioned a literature that illuminated a new country figuring out who it was and how it ought to live. --Dale Keiger

A new standard for cuneiform

If you are a scholar working in cuneiform and you want to send e-mail that includes this ancient writing system, for the most part you're out of luck. If you want to apply computer search capabilities to locate cuneiform in a collection of multilingual texts, again you're out of luck, unless you can make use of transliterated texts.

No standard electronic archive of the original cuneiform exists because no standard exists for reproducing on a computer cuneiform graphemes--the familiar characters originally impressed by a reed on clay tablets. Dean Snyder, senior information technology specialist at Hopkins, is working hard to remedy the situation.

Snyder is also a philologist who trained in comparative Semitics at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. He has founded the Initiative for Cuneiform Encoding, an international group of cuneiformists, computer software engineers, linguists, and other specialists who want to establish a global standard for the computer encoding of Sumero-Akkadian cuneiform, the oldest known form of writing. The ICE group, which includes as faculty sponsor Jerrold S. Cooper, professor of Assyriology in Hopkins's Department of Near Eastern Studies, held its first conference late last year at Homewood.

A section of neo-Babylonian clay brick, held in Johns Hopkins's Archaeological Collection. When translated, the computer-encoded transcription (in black) means "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon." Says Cooper, "Since there are over 100,000 unread cuneiform tablets in museums and collections, and a relatively tiny number of trained cuneiformists working on them, this could be a great boon in making these unpublished tablets available to the scholarly community."

Computers store characters as numbers, according to a standard known as ASCII. But standard ASCII accommodates only 128 characters--"not even enough for the Western Romance languages," says Snyder, not to mention Russian, Greek, Hebrew, Japanese, etc. For these languages, scholars need additional proprietary encoding systems, which will work only on computer operating systems capable of recognizing them. Furthermore, separate encoding systems frequently assign the same number to two different characters.

Enter Unicode, a new encoding standard under development by a non-profit consortium. Unicode has the capacity to assign a unique code number to every character in every language of the world. Every major computing platform has adopted Unicode as the foundation for how it handles text. "Unicode is ASCII on steroids," Snyder says.

The Unicode Consortium is in the process of assigning code numbers to the characters of various world script systems. (Someone, according to Snyder, even proposed Klingon, presumably as comic relief.) ICE hopes first of all to enlist the world's 200 cuneiformists in determining the inventory of cuneiform graphemes and assigning to them Unicode numbers. This also involves deciding how to handle things like compound signs, and signs that over a period of time merged or split. Cuneiform was used for 3,000 years by several language groups, including the Sumerians, Akkadians, Eblaites, Hittites, Elamites, and Hurrians. It changed from century to century and place to place.

Once cuneiform has been encoded, ancient tablets can be scanned, and the image processed by optical character recognition software to create a rough transliteration that scholars can fine-tune.

Researchers will be able to transmit cuneiform by e-mail and to archived digital texts. The massive Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, in progress at the University of Chicago for more than 60 years, can be put online, or on CD-ROM in an international standard format.

Since Unicode is a widely adopted standard, not a piece of proprietary technology, it is more likely to endure.

Says Snyder, "These cuneiform tables have survived 5,000 years. We don't want data systems that are gone in 10." --DK

Get a life!

The suggestion box at the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Homewood prompts students to scribble on slips of paper asking that cell phones be banned, talkers shushed, and napping allowed. Virginia Massey-Burzio, head of Resource Services, posts responses on a bulletin board and her commentary has earned an avid following among students. Consider this exchange:

Suggestion: The Library should really be open 24 hours! Pleaseeeeeee. I need a place to study!

Answer: Do you want to live here or something? We opened all the floors after midnight. We're open until 2 a.m. and 24 hours during reading and exam periods. . . . It's important to sleep, preferably in a real bed (not here) and get a change of scene, see different people, go to a concert, a dance, play soccer, go to an art exhibit, see a movie in a theater with people you don't know or go to school with, take a train to NYC, you know, live. It's not all school. --Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

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