“This Is Not the Ivy League” is a new memoir by Mary Clearman Blew and refers to Northern Montana College, a small but determined school in the Montana public higher ed complex. It is in the toughest part of a tough state. “The Ivy League schools are Yale, Princeton, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania. A gpa of 3.75 is required for admission to any of these schools.” If you want to suggest they’re pot-bound, it’s okay with me.
“Havre,” as we refer to it around here, is part of the "Sweetgrass League", a stubborn rhizomous institution that struggles along between vocational education so a person can get a job and humanities education so a person can be more human. Mary, who is suitably stubborn, grips that conflict and is gripped by it.
Mary and I (also Mary) have lived parallel lives (same age, same state -- mostly, same occupation -- sorta.) which qualifies me to judge whether she has written an accurate memoir, if memoir is defined as a person illuminating a particular time and place while delineating her own life. As some would have it, sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug, but the gut-spilling collision might be art. This one qualifies. It doesn’t give you every teeny detail, but it doesn’t shirk the truth, whether or not it is admirable.
Both of us were born stubborn and soon became print-addicted, both as readers and writers. Mary has far more of a gift for academic work and if she had gotten the scholarships I had, she would have had a different life. No reason why she couldn’t have had one since Ivan Doig (who is our age and from this town where I am) did. Our GPA’s and test scores were probably about the same, but Mary was interrupted by marriage and babies. (Ivan and I have no children and neither does James Welch who was also the same age and location.) Mary and I had tumultuous marriages and were accused of narcissism when we fought for our lives. Ivan and Jimmy had marriages based on the premise that they were writers who deserved support. Ivan and I attended NU on our scholarships,
Feminism responds to economics and since babies plus unreliable men means someone has to earn the living, this pressed Mary hard. Theatre, drinking and sex helped her to survive, just as it has helped many, even in the Ivy League, though they probably paid no price in stigma. On the Highline people talk.
A sub-theme I appreciated was the strange-o men who pass through such places. Sometimes stormy petrels and other times rodeo bulls, they make trouble and then pass on. Personally, I cannot resist the wonderfully charismatic men like Bob Blew any more than Mary can, and it is a heart-piercing tragedy when they fall prey to madness and death. One never quite recovers. Again, it was different for Mary because of the children.
We’ve already read plenty of books about ranch life, wood stoves, beaver slides for building haystacks, racing for the doctor, and so on. But I never get tired of it. Also, we’ve had plenty of accounts of female generations pulling and hauling on each other, sometimes in ways that help and other times creating unnecessary walls. It is necessary to testify, though the ones who could witness do not necessarily survive to do it.
Sometime in the Seventies, newly divorced from the “legendary Bob Scriver,” as the newspapers would have it, I overheard one man say to another, “The only woman writing in Montana is Mary Clearman Blew.” At that point she became a kind of marker for me. I WAS writing, but I wasn’t published and I wasn’t part of the magical circle of approved Montana writers who were considered the “Lariati.” High sales value.
Mary took writing classes from Leslie Fiedler, who had managed to run off Walter van Tilberg Clark. (Bud Guthrie told me this.) Decades later Fiedler had left, selling his house to the Missoula Unitarian Universalist congregation who called me as their minister 1982-85. By that time I had a degree from the University of Chicago, which some think trumps the Ivy League. So there. (But I didn’t understand Derrida either.) When I was in town, I slept in the basement bedroom where “Montana Gothic” was gestated. If you go to the Montana Festival of the Book, ask Peter Koch about Dirck van Sickle. Not all Montana writers stay in Montana or even in the West. Welch and Blew did. Doig left voluntarily. I kept getting thrown out.
Mary’s son doesn’t speak to her. My brother doesn’t speak to me. Who knows why? Are they threatened? Deeply wounded by something in the past? It’s impossible to figure out, since the means is the problem. But it seems somehow gender-related.
How does one decide whether one’s life is successful or not? Economically and family-wise, Mary has done well. She has a string of published books, praised but probably not money-makers. She has marked a generation that struggled through a transition from our homesteader grandmothers to beloved grandchildren. She’s been an effective part of the history of Northern Montana College, with particular success managing the traditional “women’s” field of nursing. In the end solitude is a rewarding state, happily interrupted by the need to shelter the next generation.
I suspect that someone pressed Mary to create a happy ending, an epilogue about a beloved child. The real ending is the one about Leslie Fiedler remarking on her short story in which the protagonist ends the story by running because it is the thing he does best. Mary goes on because it is the thing she does best. It is the women’s mantra, since their work is never done, because it is grassroots, rhizomous, tenacious stuff like sweetgrass, that prairie answer to lavender.
In fact, a young reviewer writing for the New York Times was a little irritated that Mary didn’t include some kind of Deus ex machina happy ending -- you know, the MAN. Or failing that, the Nobel Peace Prize. Why can’t you be happy? This is what books have come to mean and it is a corrupting pressure. Mary is NOT corrupted. She gives you reality. The reality is that as the head of the MFA program in Creative Writing for the University of Idaho, she is a success on worldly terms. In her heart simply being a writing academic is a profound and hard-won success. Glorious and satisfying as a prairie day in Indian Summer.