The Men behind the Words

In 1974, a book by Theodore Rosengarten was published and went on to the win the National Book Award for Contemporary Affairs (a category that later became “Nonfiction”). The work itself was an oral history of a man identified as Nate Shaw (Ned Cobb), a sharecropper in Alabama who stood up against sheriffs who had come to take away a fellow sharecropper’s property. In 2000, Sean Crisden read Rosengarten’s account of Shaw’s words and recollections in the audiobook format of All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw.

In both print and audio formats, the work has received wide critical praise, and the man underneath the writing and then the performance of the written—Nate Shaw/Ned Cobb—remains alive through these interventions of other men’s voices. In effect, the fact of Nate Shaw can become fixed because his unscripted speaking was heard, recorded in written text, and now heard again through the oral performance of an informed actor. Instead of these interventions diluting the immediate and personal accounting of Mr. Shaw, they serve to extend the reach, and the permanence, of his witnessing to history.

And that, it seems, stands as a powerful demonstration of the community needed to make any one person’s experiences alive for others: the speaker, the listener, and the recorder, all of whom make possible that there be an audience beyond the immediate and singularly small original one.

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