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Saturday, July 23, 2011

From Writer's Purgatory to the American Dream

Granted, this topic has been hashed and rehashed ad infinitum...but not on the Two Fisted Blog, okay?

In the late 1990s I did not envision the revolution in publishing that is taking place before our eyes. But I wanted to write. The only respectable route to publishing for a non-celebrity who had no contacts in the biz then was the traditional method: send out hundreds of queries, receive hundreds of rejections and maybe, if the stars were aligned just right, somebody who mattered would read your query and sample chapters. If it was great stuff, and it just happened to be read by someone who liked it, and they just happened to push it up the food chain when the suit above them was having a good day, and a bazillion other variables all clicked in your favor, you just might wind up, a few years down the line, getting a book published by one of the Big (insert number here) of the New York Publishing Cartel.

"Tradpub", or traditional publishing, was the only game in town. So I prepared to play the game. Having learned in college the value of having others read and critique my written work (ripping it, and my ego, to shreds if necessary), I joined a writer's group.

I suppose all writer's groups consider themselves the best, most talented collection of literary geniuses the world over, but the group I was fortunate enough to be accepted into did have plenty of bragging rights. Several of the members achieved tradpubhood, accruing accolades from hoity-toity authorities like Kirkus; and the founder of the group attracted Hollywood interest with one of her books. I mention this not so much to boast, but more to provide perspective on some of the experiences I intend to share. And one reason I intend to share is that I'm convinced that the attitudes encountered in that writing group are very similar to some of the attitudes prevalent in the big publishing houses.

The first attitude I'll mention has to do with trust in the author.

Not everyone who reads fiction about cops and crime are themselves cops or criminals, and yet we know a lot of police jargon and procedures. Terms like "rap sheet" and "APB" were not always universally understood. How did we learn it? Not because we went to a police academy, or took a class about it, or read expository paragraphs in which the author spoon-fed us the information up front in most cases. Most likely we learned it from context--whether in a book, a movie or a TV cop show.

I've never been a medical professional, but I know what "scrub in" means. Not because anyone overtly taught me, but because the missus likes medical shows and I've watched enough of them with her to pick it up via context.

For those familiar with Star Trek, you didn't come to understand "beam me up" or "set for stun" or photon torpedoes or dilithium crystals because Kirk, Spock, Picard, Ryker or Gene Roddenberry lectured you on what it all meant. You picked it up by context. And if you're like me, you can learn stuff like this about subcultures that are new to you simply by reading a book set in that subculture by an author who will reveal these tidbits by context.

If the author's name is Stephen King, Tom Clancy, J.K. Rowling, etc., members of a writer's group will also learn this way. If the author is unknown, no matter how competent a writer, typical writer's group members will not trust them, and will demand the explanation of this new term, procedure, technology, whatever, be spoon-fed in full to the reader up front. (If the unknown author follows their advice, the red ink will fly again for insulting the reader's intelligence. But that's another story.) Ever notice how some people won't believe you, until they hear or read the same thing you said from some "expert?" Same principle in effect, here.

The next attitude I'll call "finding excuses to reject." I was accepted into the aforementioned group because the founder loved my prose (in a manuscript I as yet haven't published, BTW). There were no membership dues at the time, so I didn't doubt her sincerity. Plus, it was pretty doggone good, if I do say so myself. Ahem. Anyway, when I submitted that very same manuscript for a critique session, the critiquer I was assigned was all over me from the first sentence. (I could say quite a bit about this individual, and probably will one day, but don't want to get off-track here.) My competence came into question because I made a time reference, and the person assumed I meant pm when I meant am. Indeed, assuming pm made my introductory passage ludicrous; am was the only way it made sense. Now me, as a reader, I would have simply accepted the passage in the way that it made sense and read on. I tend to give people (politicians excepted) the benefit of the doubt, and there really wasn't much doubt to be found there.

Well, therein lies the distinction: They weren't reading it--they were searching for faults to criticize. This was a mild omen of things to come during this critique of a manuscript which did, honestly, have problems in need of correction. Unfortunately the actual problems, as I see them now in retrospect, went largely unaddressed by this person so intent on nitpicking everything they possibly could.

I once had an otherwise great, helpful critiquer in this group take issue with my use, without explanation, of the acronym "GPS". Correct me if I'm wrong, somebody, but GPS is a household term that civilians and everyone else is familiar with. (In case I am wrong, it stands for Global Positioning System, though the term is routinely misused, referring instead to a device that accesses the GPS. OK?)

When a member of this same group looked at my first draft of Hell and Gone, they raised the red flag when I wrote that one of my characters dove "to the prone." Granted, that's not Oxford-approved English, but it is exactly how that term is used in the military. She must have caught me during an insecure moment, because I wound up changing it to "the prone firing position."

Ah, insecure moments. I've had plenty, as a writer. In another manuscript, I mentioned that my protagonist sat down to breakfast. One group member, who undoubtedly read one of those "how to write fiction" manuals, thought I should reveal what he ate. I changed it so that the reader knew he was eating biscuits and gravy. The next person who gave me feedback wanted to know why he ate biscuits and gravy. Well, what he ate and why he ate it was not crucial to the chapter or the overall plot, but in another insecure moment I revised, figuring I could use it to work in some character background (after all, that's why those "how to write" manuals drill these things into critiquer's heads) and decided that biscuits and gravy was a habitual breakfast choice from when the character was going through financial difficulties, since the meal is both cheap and filling. The next person who gave me feedback thought, by reflecting on this, my character was wallowing in self-pity. At this point I considered omitting any mention of breakfast or any other meal altogether.

This maddening, time-consuming process was probably an effective orientation for the publishing biz at that time. Agents, editors and assistants don't read manuscripts; they search for excuses to reject them. Pick any 50 of them and each one will find a whole different set of excuses to reject Gone With the Wind. That's not entirely a sarcastic exaggeration--experiments like that have been conducted by frustrated writers, illustrating the mercurial subjectivity in the tradpub lottery.

There are reasons why the suits in New York have this attitude: They are buried under tons of manuscripts (most of which are garbage), they have very little time, and they're under constant pressure to pick only winners. Stamp your approval on too many books that don't sell enough to cover expenses and you're out of a job.

Valid reasons to be picky, right? So then, even with their Remorseless Rejection Machine set to Maximum Filtration, why do they still wind up publishing so much crap? Including crap that doesn't even sell? And non-crap that doesn't sell, despite all their marketing clairvoyance and gatekeeping wisdom?

I once had a publishing insider explain something about the selection process to me. I can't remember all the percentages she gave, but the gist of it is educational. This was a minority woman, BTW, who had worked for a major publishing house, and a major literary agency.

During a given fiscal year, a tradpub house only has so many books it can publish. First dibs go to the proven heavy hitters like Stephen King, whose grocery list would become a New York Times Bestseller as long as his name is on it. Next in line (and this is nauseating, if not surprising) are the writers who "know people" inside the industry. There is a little more scrutiny/quality control here than for the big name authors, but this is where a lot of the worthless drivel comes from. Next on the pecking order are female minorities. Then male minorities. (Homosexuals have been given quota parity with racial minorities for quite a while. Now they are one of the most powerful special interest groups in existence and I have no doubt this is reflected in the current pecking order.) Then women in general (which sometimes includes men who write for female audiences and/or who write female protagonists, plus men who use female pseudonyms). Everyone not heretofore mentioned is at the bottom of the slush pile, competing for the very smallest portion of the publishing pie.

And for those fortunate few whose manuscripts are actually opened by somebody with a modicum of decision-making authority, the axe chops something like this: First to get the axe are those manuscripts that fail qualitative inspection. Fair enough. Next are those with a low Crystal Ball Factor ("This is about a rogue submarine captain. It's never been done before. There's no market for it." "Rogue submarine captain stories have had a good run, but the market is now saturated with such fare. I sense the popularity of this genre will wane by the estimated print date." "Mysteries concerning racehorses aren't trending well right now." "A school for witches and warlocks is just plain silly." And so on.) Somewhere in there (unless the author is a celebrity with clout), the book must pass the ideology test--the politics must resonate with that of the New York Publishing Cartel, and any characters in the book who believe differently had better be either from the Archie Bunker/Frank Burns/Denny Crane cookie cutter or, better yet, the next Hitler or Darth Vader. Next on the chopping block are the books that offend the personal tastes of the gatekeeper ( "I don't like the main character's name."  "This character reminds me of my ex-husband." "The hero drives a car that I hate." "Happy endings are stupid." "Sad endings are depressing.").

Yech. I just depressed myself. Enough about the old regime.

That's one of many fantastic aspects of the indie author/POD/E-Book revolution: none of that can keep a book from being published anymore! It's all up to the reader now. If the book is gonna be rejected for some unfair, subjective reason, it will be case-by-case. If it's rejected for political reasons, same deal. The reader gets to decide, instead of some suit in New York deciding whether or not the reader should even have the opportunity to decide. Now there is a big step toward true democracy!

Yeah, there's a whole lot more literary garbage available to readers now, just like there's a whole lot more video garbage on the internet. It's a trade-off I and most readers will gladly take. With free sampling, we have as much chance of avoiding purchase regret as we did before. And there are refunds. I've bought some horrible tradpubbed books over the years, but I never, ever, asked for a refund of a book purchase until a couple nights ago, when I realized I could get a better E-Book value from a different edition. My refund was granted promptly, with no fuss at all.

So far, reactions to my own books have been overwhelmingly positive. That's because (as an example) readers who buy Hell and Gone actually want to read a paramilitary adventure. They're not looking at it because it's their job or because they're fellow members of a writer's group (but would rather be promoting their own erotic lesbian vampire coming-of-age diary).

I'm idiosyncratic in many ways, but in one aspect I believe I'm in synch with book lovers everywhere: I would much rather enjoy a book than find reasons not to enjoy it. Readers would prefer to read than nitpick line-by-line.

BTW, I quit the writing group earlier this year, mostly due to my schedule and an inability to keep up with group email, exercises, etc. I left on good terms, and was assured I would be welcome back. Maybe I will re-join some day if time permits. I did learn some important things there. But at this stage of my life/fledgling career in fiction, I believe I'm learning more by being a published author than trying to get New York's blessing to become one. I hear from readers, listen to their opinions (on my books and others), likes and dislikes, plus what interests them outside of fiction.

I have no interest in even attempting to be tradpubbed anymore. I could spend the rest of my life trying to win that lottery. And if I did, I'd lose the rights to my own creative work indefinitely, and, statistics suggest, be making less money than I am now. That ship is sinking, anyway. What's happening to Borders Books is a harbinger of what's coming to the industry as a whole. Maybe the New York Publishing Cartel will adapt and survive in some form (I hope not via more criminal misuse of my tax dollars), but certainly not as we have known it.

It's hard to believe how close I came to never taking the indie route, but my eyes are open now. I don't plan on closing them again.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When in Rome, Don't Capture an Ape Man

Coming out soon is a film version of John Carter of Mars, but up until now, pulp writer Edgar Rice Burroughs' most famous character (especially on the big screen) has been Tarzan the Ape Man. Between all the movies, TV shows, comic books and Burroughs' own stories, Tarzan is a household name and most people have at least some idea what he's all about. This volume in the Tarzan series appealed to me because I've got a soft spot for lost civilization tales.

The jungle lord is approached by one of his civilized (European) friends, and asked to search a vast canyon where the guy's son, Erich Von Harben, is believed to have disappeared in search of a "lost tribe of Israel." What Von Harben found instead were two rival Roman city-states, perfectly preserved since the canyon was colonized in the 1st Century. Not a bad find, actually, and Von Harben also discovers love at first sight with a noble Roman girl, as can only happen in a classic pulp. But alas, not everything is sunshine and puppies in this anachronistic canyon, and Von Harben finds himself in prison due to corrupt politicians and their paranoia.

Tarzan, who entered the other end of the canyon, has also suffered a mishap that landed him in prison in the rival city-state (one is Castra Sanguinarious and one is Castrum Mare). Both Tarzan and Von Harben find allies among the political prisoners in their respective cities, but time is running out for the Ape Man to rescue Von Harben before the tyrannical Caesar has the suspicious outsider killed for sport in the arena.

Burroughs was fairly enlightened for the time in which he wrote (the first edition of Lost Empire was printed in the 1920s), but I still cringed a bit at the underlying attitude toward black Africans. You've got to take those factors into account when you read something this old. Something else I struggled with were the names. So many characters had authentic-sounding Roman names my head was swimming trying to keep track of them. Another annoyance was due, I think, to the fact that this book was originally written as serialized pulp--each episode a given length according to the requirements of the periodical it was written for, with a cliffhanger ending to be continued next issue: Tarzan came off almost skitzophrenic due to his changing opinions about whether he could escape and when he should attempt escape, etc. And one final criticism I'll offer is that for a pulp tale about a feral savage raised by gorillas, in an adversarial position vis-a-vis hordes of sword-wielding legionaires, there wasn't nearly as much action as you might expect. And what action there was disappointed me a bit--particularly in the arena.

I must give credit where it's due, though: when Tarzan is paired against a gladiator, his goose is cooked until the fortuitous intervention of a newfound Roman friend. Tarzan is a bad dude, but not invincible. He can't match up against a master of single combat who lives or dies by the sword just because he is the hero of the story, knife or no knife; ape-like agility or no ape-like agility. Weapons and all other factors being equal, the only individual who could have stood a chance against an experienced gladiator was another experienced gladiator, and Burroughs knew this. Thank-you, Edgar. No eye-rolling from me on this aspect.

This concept had heaps of potential, but fell a bit short in my opinion. I still hope to read Tarzan and the Ant Men some day.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Dawn of Apartheid: Power of the Sword by Wilbur Smith

I discovered Wilbur Smith by chance. The public library just happened to have Triumph of the Sun in audiobook and I just happened to find it when desperate for something to listen to during commute time. Since then I've been looking for his titles.

Smith's chosen genre is one I guess I'd label "historical adventure." He follows the Courtney family's generations through different periods of history, but always somewhere in Africa, so far as I can tell. Some of his novels strike me as sagas while others, like this one, might be described as "epics." For some reason Africa has always fascinated me, and the continent comes alive through Smith's skillful prose.

This novel's setting is South Africa, from the early days of the Great Depression up to the beginning of Apartheid. I've long considered Wilbur Smith an armchair social anthropologist, and it may not be as evident in the characters of this book, but he certainly gave every last one of them some serious much so that it's difficult for me to decide who the hero is. I guess I'd have to name Centaine Courtney as the heroine. She may be an adulterous, ruthless capitalist opportunist who destroys those who get in the way of her ambitions with no remorse, but the author bothers to show sympathetic traits in her perhaps more than any other character.

She seems like a choir girl compared to ganglord/political organizer Moses Gama; his half-brother Swart Hendrick; Centaine's bastard son Manfred, who grows up to become a fanatical Nazi; or even her ostensibly legitimate son, Shasa, who grows up to be a pampered, womanizing, shallow fop. I think my sympathies lied mostly with Lothar De La Rey, father of bastard Manfred.

At the very beginning of this tale, Lothar has just gambled all he has on a fishing business and through cunning and determination, has just brought in a haul that will pay all his debts and put him on firm footing to build an inheritance for Manfred. That's when Centaine shows up to utterly wreck him and his business. She has bought up his debt and now prefers to let his fish rot in the cargo holds than to let him can them and use the profits to get in the black. She has bad blood for her former lover and it's about to cause a vicious cycle.

Lothar decides that an eye for an eye is in order, and plans a robbery of Centaine's diamond mine. It's a clever and detailed plan, actually, with multiple safeguards...all rendered moot by fate, Centaine's tenacity, and, most of all, Lothar's fits of mercy. It goes downhill from there, and I must admit I skimmed a bit when I got too disgusted with the characters. Not just the deceit of Moses or his revolting behavior; or the corruption of the weak-minded Swart Hendrick; but also the gullibility and stupidity of the book-smart Manfred. And what he does to the girl who sincerely loves him. Of course my disgust is probably testament to the author's masterful orchestration of the elements of fiction.

Half brothers Shasa and Manfred are on a collision course that has ramifications well beyond the looming global conflict. When they do come full circle, their meeting was rather disappointing for my taste. Still, even at his worst (?), Wilbur Smith is a master storyteller, and despite my issues with this book, it's rich with South African history, geography and cultural insights. And for those who like family dynasty drama on an epic scale, this book is dripping with it.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Good News For Pulpy Action Adventure Fans

Today it became official: Virtual Pulp is a recognized corporation, ready to do business in these United States. Just minutes ago, I received my tax ID # from the IRS. I'm not quite on the path to world domination just yet, but this is a significant milestone for me after months of misfires, mistakes, mucho legal mucky-pucky and financial follies. Now the real work starts and I'm hoping this is where it starts getting fun.

This business endeavor could possibly grow into something I've wanted to do since I was a teenager: run a publishing company...of sorts. With the publishing industry in the state of flux it's in now, who knows if this will ever be feasible. For now, Virtual Pulp, Inc. is going to be an online store focusing on fiction and film that falls under the action-adventure umbrella.

I've already undertaken a virtual recon by starting an Amazon affiliate store. That's what the Action Central ads on the right and at the bottom of the blog are all about. Amazon has made it easy for people to start these online stores (and somebody with both more business acumen and time to pimp their products would probably already be banking by now), but the navigation and some other features are not quite what I want.

This means that I'm starting with a clean sheet of paper. I'll be building/designing the Virtual Pulp store as I try to build on my rudimentary web-developing skills. I've got a concept that doesn't look too bad, but I need to learn how to incorporate all kinds of widgets, and I've got a LOT of product to add/link to. I know some people who could theoretically help me put it together, but with the amount of work involved they would probably want to be paid. Greedy capitalists. So this project will have to creep along in between my writing, blogging, and real job. Yup, that's what I need: more irons in the fire!

This will differ from Amazon and other online bookstores in that I intend to keep it focused on dude-lit (action-adventure; military/war; western; heroic fantasy; post-apocalypse; etc.) and, on the movie side, dude-flicks. Therein is one of the advantages I see for the customer: since I'm not trying to sell everything to everyone, fans won't have to browse for hours to find titles in these genres among the mountains of other stuff. I'll have already narrowed it down so that guys like me can choose between several titles that appeal to them, instead of wearing out their eyes, wrist and mouse button trying to find one among the thousands that don't. To the best of my ability, I will also weed out the phony, false-advertised "action adventure" or books that truly are action-adventure (classic pulp; new pulp; post-modern-pulp; dude-lit; whatever) but are terribly written.

Another advantage the VP store will have, for both readers and authors, is that I won't discriminate against those who have bypassed the New York Publishing Cartel. I fully intend to mix the product so that books by talented indies will have equal billing with those by tradpubbed authors. A browser may have read everything published with Don Pendleton's name on it (or is that even possible?), but right next to that thumbnail of an Executioner is Jack Murphy's latest, or M. R. Kayser's, or Jack Badelaire' get the idea.

In case you're wondering: Yes, my books will be available in the store, too. (If you're not wondering, sin loi!) Speaking of that, every ebook I publish from now on with my name on it will have the Virtual Pulp logo on it. My little "publishing imprint." Hopefully a portent of things to come. Other pulp fans/bloggers/writers have proposed uniting under one heading, logo, meme... but so far as I can tell this has not happened yet. So fellow writers and authors, this is for you:

I'm willing to extend the Virtual Pulp logo beyond my own fiction, as a sort of stamp-of-approval. VP is not a full-blown publisher so I'm not looking for a cut of anyone's profits. There is no prestige associated with the VP logo yet, but over time with consistent quality, I hope to build trust among readers so they know, when they see it, odds are it's a good read no matter what the author's name. Like I said: others have mentioned doing something like this, and it still may happen. And I will welcome it and probably want to help or participate somehow if it does. In the mean time, I'm offering this. If you'd like an ebook (or print book, for that matter) placed under the VP umbrella, I will consider it. If I read it and it passes muster, you're welcome to use the logo on that book.

Back to the VP online store: I plan on adding a forum. Maybe a swap meet section too. I'd like to do more than just sell stuff on the site. I'd also like to present some sort of free content there...videos, podcasts, articles, blog feeds, maybe all of the above. Suggestions and advice are welcome now, and probably always will be.

So Virtual Pulp Press is taking its first baby steps now. I hope to have the store online and open for business in the near future.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Murder, Mass Media and Indira Gandhi: Deadline by Richard Sanders

Last year I reviewed The Seventh Compass Point of Death, my introduction to author Richard Sanders and his Quinn McShane character. McShane is a media insider, reformed alcoholic/junkie and ex-con, who functions much like a traditional fiction private detective in the two books I've read, now. Perhaps that puts his adventures somewhere between cozy and hard-boiled.

McShane is an editor at a magazine owned by a news conglomerate in New York. One day the heads above him on the totem pole dispatch him to California for an investigation of a loose cannon on their payroll. Trish Fenellosa (the loose cannon in question) has tilted to the weird side of eccentric lately, after an apparent attempt on her life, and tried to dedicate an entire issue of her trendy girl-talk magazine, Trish Dish, to Indira Gandhi. "Why a subject that will sell exactly eight copies?" McShane's boss asks. "You tell me."

As a teenager, Trish Fenellosa was tried as an adult and convicted of murdering her sister, whose body was never found. Trish served some hard time, but the case was reopened, conviction overturned due to reasonable doubt, and she was free again at 22 years old. She quickly parlayed her infamy into a publishing deal for her magazine, which became a sensation and the cornerstone of an empire. Some 20 years later, her weird behavior is worrying the suits in New York and Quinn McShane is off to Frisco.

I believe this book is a bit longer than Seventh Compass Point, but still a quick read. Characters are developed well, dialog is good, and the narrative voice has a comforting familiarity. Also, the Indira Gandhi role-playing scenes were progressively hilarious. Over all, a very enjoyable book.

Unfortunately, the author has tweaked some pet peeves of mine. I'll mention two that many authors of detective fiction also rub:

1. McShane pulls his gun a lot, when he's not prepared to use it. Most of the time, seemingly, it's only to lose or surrender it.

2. McShane needs to find a guy called Sumo (great name for a heavy, BTW). He puts himself on stakeout at a place Sumo frequents. Sumo shows up, but doesn't know McShane is tailing him. McShane knows about Sumo but Sumo knows nothing about him. All kinds of options, right? Continue tailing him or use your advantage of surprise to get the drop on him, something like that. Instead, even though he knows exactly where Sumo is (right there in the same restaurant), McShane starts asking a waitress about him--how he can find him, meet with him, etc. The waitress claims complete ignorance. He gives her $100. She says come back later and maybe she can help. He leaves her a $10 tip and walks away. Of course she tips off Sumo, who calls in backup and bushwhacks McShane on his way to make the alleged rendezvous. C'mon, McShane--they would have suckered you for free. No need to pay $110 bucks to get doublecrossed and piss away your advantage of surprise. I'm not sure what to label this pet peeve. Suffice it to say that our hero was something less than streetwise.

Pet peeves aside, this was a good read and Quinn McShane makes an interesting guide through Richard Sanders' off-kilter mysteries loaded with bizarre and sometimes convention-busting characters.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Independence Day

No, I'm not referring to that summer blockbuster from 15 or so years ago. I'm not reviewing today, just taking a minute to express my appreciation for this country.

There's a lot wrong with America, and more all the time, but there's still more people trying to get in than get out. This was even more true in previous generations, when our uniqueness was even more pronounced. What escapes the intellect of those who want to make America more like other countries is that, as you do, it begins to have the same drawbacks as other countries (we become "unexceptional," in a word).

There's a popular assumption, sometimes spoken, sometimes not, that the United States of America was (or is) a racist nation, because some states allowed slavery prior to 1865 (and because people who live here are free to believe and speak as they choose--including racists). Slavery was a reprehensible practice, imported with the Europeans who settled on this continent long before we became a nation. But we fought a war to end it--the most costly war in our history, measured in American lives lost. And if you want to look at numbers, there have been far more people of color who came from Africa to settle here of their own free will than ever came across on slave ships.

There's nowhere else I would have rather grown up. And nowhere else I'd have a better chance, now. Sure, I'd have more money if I was born into the ruling class of some other nation. But I'm a working stiff, born to regular people, and even though I've bobbed from middle class to lower middle class all my life, I've had it pretty good compared to other folks around the world.

The reason so many have had it so good here for so long is because some individuals in the 18th century had the intelligence to design a unique system of government; the courage to fight for it, and the moral fortitude to keep fighting when the going got tough.

I couldn't care less about firecrackers, or if I see any fancy rockets bursting pretty patterns in the sky. In a time when our independence is more threatened than ever, I thank God for what I have enjoyed and still enjoy. Freedom has a price. I'm thankful for the men who pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor for the cause of liberty that Americans have benefited from since then.