Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Writer and HIstorian as Detective


Some of the writers you most enjoy reading bring you to an emotional landscape you find comforting because of its honesty and insistence on an existence that is neither too dark nor too bright. Not straying for long from either.  Their narratives can take you back through the centuries or, for that matter, forward in equal measure.

Thus you’re reading family history, such as John Galsworthy’s Forsyth Saga, and Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall with the same abandon as Robert Heinlein’s A Stranger in a Strange Land, or Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News.

There are a number of regional writers you favor, men and women who take you to a part of the geographical landscape you’d never think to visit or, in some cases, revisit without thinking of them.  Names such as Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Daniel Woodrell, Tim Gatreaux, Carl Hiaasen, Harry Crews, and Joan Didion come to mind as trampolines for the imagination and for the visit to their special places, informed by their special moods.

One of your dearest friends, who once served as secretary to Sinclair Lewis, spoke of how Lewis would draw elaborate maps of his landscapes, to the point of who owned which property and who’d owned it before, his cityscapes having grids and monuments.  Lewis wrote in terms of these maps as well as his sense of characters and story, making his Main Street in the fictional town of Gopher Prairie as distinct and real as actual towns in the Midwest.

No wonder, then, you are so fond of two writers, a generation apart, who have created their own fictional landscapes with which to populate a narrative.  William Faulkner created Yoknapatawpha County in rural Mississippi, making of it a legendary place, yet one where anyone who wishes may travel to learn of the doings of individuals and families across the entire spectrum of humanity and social class.

Louise Erdrich has done much the same with her fictional Ojibwa Indian reservation, sequestered among the badlands and small, fictional towns of the Dakotas.  You have in actuality driven through and around such places, awed by their strangeness and rampant poverty, startled by occasional signs of affluence.

On one such venture in actuality, you stunned by the apparent lack of concern for a large, fallen totem pole, being in a real sense, carried away by armies of termites.  An individual who bore some tribal connection to the totem pole explained that this was the natural order of things rather than the tragedy you saw.  Thus were you given a lesson in another way to view things to the point where, fifty years or so after the fact, it has become a metaphor that helps you see life, existence, and a more functional sense of how Life works.

Erdrich provides you with an array of characters who want things, who have history, dignity, lust, and the kinds of humor you gravitate toward, humor that helps you see how to cope with the inevitable history, dignity, lust, and surprises inherent in Life.

More so than many contemporary writers, she, Louise Erdrich, nudges you by indirection to look back over the things you have written, most of them unrelated except that they come from the tenor of your emotional landscape at the time of writing.

There are a few overlaps, places where characters and themes persist to the point where you’ve begun visualizing histories and connections.  In larger measure, the individuals, with one notable exception, are left to their own devices.  The exception came to you when you were an undergraduate, and has remained with you over the years.  He has been many things, standing before you now in opening chapters of two novels set in the more or less immediate present, waiting to be made, at last, whole.  In a respectful sense, he is your Yoknapatawpha County and your Ojibwa Reservation.

Story is a necessary element, as your preoccupation with it in these blog essays will attest, but history and place are necessary and so are the myriad connecting points of your life.

In some real and vital senses, the detective, the investigator, is a historian, piecing together aspects of behavior and motivation to supply foundation for one or more existential problems experienced by other characters.  In the academy, historians are seeking solutions and interpretations to behavior that the sworn law officer or the private operative are familiar with on another level.

No coincidence or surprise that your undergraduate protagonist from a short story called “Fish” has morphed into what he has been all along, an investigator.


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