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Close Reading and Analysis: Layli Long Soldier’s “38”

Layli Long Soldier’s “38” is an interesting case of writing in many respects. First and foremost, while it mostly follows the grammatical and syntactical conventions of formal English, it emphasizes these choices specifically and explains their meaning instead of leaving them “as is.” Apart from that, even though the text is prose rather than poetry, it is often constructed around images and associations rather than a guiding idea and rigid structure. Finally, the text is hardly what one would call a persuasive essay in the strict sense of the word, but it, nonetheless, aiming to convince its intended audience. With an interesting combination of formal and informal diction, brief yet telling examples, and a deliberately detached tone, the essay aims to convince American readers of the importance of remembering the sometimes unsavory past.

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At the first look, the language of the essay looks fairly formal, with grammar and syntax that would be a good fit even in a piece of academic writing. The author even begins by using a third-person perspective and passive voice, writing “the sentence will be respected” instead of “I will respect the sentence” (Long Soldier 427). Moreover, Little Soldier lets it be known that the reader should not perceive the text as a “creative” piece (427). While not necessarily related to diction directly, it adds to the same feeling of formality. Finally, the repeating comments about the function of certain grammatical, syntactical, or lexical choices certainly reinforce this impression as well. A suitable example is “I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue, a revealing moment” (Long Soldier 431). By discussing the mechanical purpose of the text’s element, the text itself acquires a mechanical, formal quality to the way it sounds and is perceived by the reader.

At the same time, it would be blatantly false to call the essay’s language entirely formal. To begin with, the author uses personal pronouns actively and even addresses the audience directly, as in “you might wonder, ‘What is the Dakota 38?’” (Long Soldier 427). Additionally and despite the author’s original promise, the sentence structure is not always respected. Sometimes the author leaves half of the line worth of black spaces between the sentence parts, as in “and let the body swing,” which is not compatible with formal English. With this in mind, one has no way but to admit that the text combines the features of formal and informal writing alike.

The purpose of such a combination is likely to make a text intentionally unemotional despite the fact that it deals with a heavy and emotion-laden topic of mass execution. The author clearly cares about the deaths of the Dakota 38 and points out that commemorative action is needed to “focus our memory on particular people or events” (Long Soldier 430). However, the repeating references to the peculiarities of grammar, syntax, and word choice break up any possible emotional build-up and relieve the text of any direct expression of feelings. A clear example is “the past tense of hang is hung, but when referring to the capital punishment of hanging the correct past tense is hanged” (Long Soldier428). The author discusses an emotion-laden issue of executing people for the rebellion against the inhuman conditions they were subjected to and then stops to provide a grammatical note. This approach results in a detached tone, as the author deliberately avoids appealing to feelings in favor of dry and even emotionless narration. As far as she is concerned, the substance of the events discussed is grave enough without any additional emotional emphasis.

The text also makes limited yet effective use of examples, most often to create contrast and, by doing so, strengthen the impact. For instance, Long Soldier points out that the hanging of Dakota 38 happened “the same week” as President Lincoln sighed the Emancipation Proclamation (427). By doing so, she creates a contrast between the lauded act of emancipating African American saves and the ignoble killing of Native Americans that is not nearly as famous. Even more important is the anecdote of Andrew Myrick, a trader who refused to provide credit to Native Americans and recommended them to eat grass instead. As Long Soldier casually mentions, when Myrick’s dead body was found, “his mouth was stuffed with grass” (431). Once again, this anecdote creates a contrast between a Myrick making cruel jests from the position of power and the same Myrick reduced to nothingness. These contrasts help the essay to create a series of impactful images that would remain in the audience’s minds and ensure the message is carried over.

Speaking of the audience, the author most likely aims at all American readers who prefer to ignore or conveniently forget the harsh and unsavory reality of the westward expansion. Even though she acknowledges that the readers “may… have heard about the Dakota 38,” the greater part of the text is still the explanation and enumeration of events related to the mass execution (Long Soldier 427). It means that the text largely aims at those who are not sufficiently aware of this particular episode of land appropriation from Native Americans and the broader social and political realities surrounding it. The motive of conveniently forgetting about the past for one’s profit is present throughout the essay’s discussion of breaking the old treaties with the Native Americans and drafting the new, even less favorable ones. The author even uses this wording directly in “the northern portion [of Dakota land] was ceded (taken} and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted” (Long Soldier 429). The message is clear: willingly ignoring the past can be extremely profitable but also paves the way for atrocities, which is why remembrance remains so crucial.

Hence, while “38” is hardly a typical persuasive essay, it still uses the expressive means at the author’s disposal to deliver an impactful and convincing message. The text combines formal and informal language, shifting from the first-person perspective to neutral remarks on syntax, grammar, and punctuation choices. This duality provides for an emotionally detached tone that leaves the reader alone with the grim reality of mass execution instead of trying to stress it with additional emotional appeals. Anecdotes scattered throughout the text crate vivid contrasting images that make the text memorable and, most likely, impactful for the author’s intended audience.

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