I’m reading Linda Karell’s book, “Writing Together/Writing Apart,” about collaborations in Western American Literature. This “Western” category makes the question of the value of collaboration much sharper (in the sense of knife, not wit) because there is nothing that will damn and confine a writer more than being “regional” or “local,” unless it’s collaborating. Although much of the time she seems to be talking more about reconciliation than collaboration, particularly reconciliation between a West that “was” (maybe) and persists awkwardly in the lives of the generation that must come to terms with the Post-WWII West.
That’s my generation, just ahead of the boomers. I’m about the same age as many of the writers Karell is considering. In fact, I know some of them glancingly which makes things even more awkward. Worse, I know the territory. Worse still, I’m one of those writers who has never been recognized. They’re in various places around Montana, scribbling away almost secretly but the people who control publicity ignore them. I’ve only been defined as “Bob Scriver’s wife.” Holy feminism!! I had an interesting ally: James Welch, Jr. James Welch, Sr., was Bob Scriver’s earliest best friend. Another friend not recognized here is Sid Larson, Jimmie’s cousin. Talk about breaching the generations. Talk about stumbling into history. Talk about crossing the rez line. (No, Karell doesn’t talk about those things. She’s into all that theory stuff.) Both Jimmies are dead, dammit. Sid is in Iowa, last I heard.
Karell’s first chapter about collaborators discusses the Erdrich/Dorris writing marriage, which was an intense and romantic collaboration. Everyone loved the idea. They were so good-looking and presented such a unified front! The train wreck at the end seemed to contradict all that had come before, which hooked us even harder. Still, they were arguably the most successful of the Native American Renaissance writers. Except maybe James Welch Jr. (Oh, Sherman, go away! You’ve always defined yourself as the “young upstart” -- even now, at forty, you’re writing YA fiction!)
The second collaboration considered is a little trickier since it is among parts within the same woman -- three interior personas of Mary Austin. Hmm. I got confused, partly because that’s MY name, too. Partly because this is heavily theoretical.
The third collaboration is conventional NA politics: “Cogewea” -- an authentic Indian woman writing sentimental novels according to a white pattern -- revised, augmented, contradicted and validated by a white man, McWhorter, who sometimes uses his “Indian” name.
The fourth collaborators are three memoir writers: Ivan Doig, Mary Clearman Blew, and William Kittredge, who are not collaborating with each other, but with letters from their pasts. These are three people I’ve met. Kittredge’s Oregon home ranch was near that of the woman my cousin married. Doig graduated from high school here in Valier. We went to NU together. Etc. We have somewhat the same DNA: Scots, introverted, word-drunk, rufous. It has played out quite differently. (If only I could have had a wife instead of being one.) But also his major was journalism; mine was theatre. He didn’t like living here; I do. The irony is that no one will buy his books unless he writes about here. (Oh, and no black people please. He rarely writes about Indians and that’s a good thing.)
The last chapter is about the outright and vehement charge of plagiarism against Wallace Stegner, one of the most revered and gallant of Western writers (among male readers), who made a novel of the letters of Mary Horton Foote, herself a major writer and artist. Well, HE didn’t think she was so major. He thought she was so minor that no one would really notice that he was rewriting her life, adding rather unsavory details. Karell does some very interesting ducking and dodging about layers of meaning since Stegner was writing a book, using Foote’s letters, about a novelist who is supposedly writing a book using his grandmother’s letters. Stegner is a special interest of mine, partly because of Sharon Butala who saved his boyhood home in Eastend. Like Doig, Stegner was glad to shake the dust from off his feet. Courtly and patronizing, he was totally earnest and well-meaning.
I think he put all these layers in his book because he was really writing about his mother and father. I think most of the novels he wrote were attempts to come to terms with his heart-deep problem of resolving the contrast between his genteel mother and his renegade father, which handily reflected the opposition between the Victorian East and the actual and brutal West. A.B. Guthrie, Jr. had the same sort of conjugal knot to figure out but he was a rougher character with a different angle on history. The third man I would put in this group, were I writing a book of comparison, would be Walter von Tilberg Clark, who like Stegner found civilization in Salt Lake City, wearing tennis whites, the sort of elevated society that lady mothers really approve. Clark's son worked in the Montana Historical Society library.
Now I’m going back to the Erdrich/Dorris chapter. I just watched the “Georgia O’Keeffe” movie that was filmed in 2009 with Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons about O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’ struggling relationship, which was what you might call an unreconciled collaboration. The puzzle I come back to again and again, my heart-puzzle, is the trade-off between one’s individual talents and the necessity of accommodating another person of equal intensity and gifts, but conflicting goals and behavior. I don’t think I’m the only one. This chapter does little more than lay out the public facts of whatever it was that happened between Erdrich and Dorris.
Erdrich read at Powells just after Dorris’ death. Her beautiful face was utterly ravaged with grief. It is a complication to know too much about a writer’s personal life or even to have sat at a reading, watching their faces and watching the faces of their spouses or even their children. I attended two memorials for Stegner, one for Jim Welch Jr., the graveside of Jim Welch Sr, a feschtshrift for Guthrie in Choteau at which Blew read the beginnings of the book that Karell describes as “collaboration” with the writings of her grandfather, his scribbles in pencil on wrappers and envelopes, sitting in a buggy by moonlight. Reading a book like Karell’s takes a lot of reconciliation with impressions of the real people. I value classroom diagrams and theories, but in the end it is the scribbling that counts.