Tuesday, September 01, 2015


This map linked above is of the high prairie as much as it is a Montana map.  It lists only 6 authors.  They are:  Mary Clearman Blew (“All But the Waltz”), Wallace Stegner (“The Big Rock Candy Mountain”), A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (“The Big Sky”), Rick Bass (“The Book of Yaak,”) Judy Blunt (“Breaking Clean”), James Welch (“Fools Crow”).  The map is the work of Humanities Montana, which means it is Missoula-based and framed by academic standards.  All college grads.

Wallace Stegner

Sharon Butala

Two of these writers are simply too big and important to ignore:  Wallace Stegner has been a foundational force for good, founder of a famously influential writing program.  A.B. Guthrie, Jr. came out of a journalism background.  They are gone now.  I have connections to both of them: Stegner’s boyhood home was in Eastend, Saskatchewan, and when Sharon Butala, an important writer herself, spearheaded the preservation of his home, which is now a writers’ retreat, I was serving the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon and often passed through on the way to and from Browning.

If this map is opened to Canada, then there is a whole other set of authors to explore.  The map will be black with names.
"Bud" and Carol Guthrie

Guthrie lived in Choteau and had a ranch where Bob and I hunted in the Sixties.  He didn’t know we were there, but might not have cared since he was still unredeemed by a devoted wife.  I visited with him on video but don’t know where the final product went.  Maybe it will show up on YouTube some day.
James Welch, Jr with his French medal

James Welch I knew in part because his father was Bob Scriver’s playmate in the Twenties and in part because of a landmark conference in Eugene, OR, organized by Sid Larson.  Then later he participated in a Guthrie festschrift in Choteau where we had a chance to visit.   Judy Blunt  and Mary Clearman Blew were also there.  Rick Bass I contacted in passing at the Montana Festival of the Book.  These four are about my age.  The point is that a specific generation, people who have been involved with Montana Humanities for a long time, are in the majority.

Judy Blunt

Mary Clearman Blew

Of course, the University of Montana has been the assigned humanities university since its founding.  “Montana Margins” and “The Last Best Place” were the Missoula-originating indexes to Montana writers.  They don’t seem to know what to do with the renegades, the movie people, the gays (even the closeted ones), Indians, or bloggers -- those granular novelists.  Even Montana gothics and extreme lit writers are not acknowledged.  Many poets and historians, genre writers (unless they lived in Missoula and wrote crime novels), just aren’t there.  If you fight these people, you will be deleted.

Rick Bass

I will flatly assert -- and be happy to be contradicted -- that two forces defined Montana literature in its heyday, which is now past.  One is the hegemony of the academics and the other is the hegemony of the bourgeois merchant classes.  When books stopped selling as well as iPods did, the Montana Festival of the Book withered.  When it became clear that the category had been mostly a selling platform, the “idea” of Montana literature -- the bookstores and publishers moved out.  The NA writers are invisible because they all went to the Indigenous Studies department, even those with low quantum -- choosing to identify with NA’s rather than Montana writers.  Homestead-focused writers (mostly women) went to history and moved to Idaho.  The gays and the goths went to California.

The bourgeois merchant classes have gone online.  They don’t buy books as much as they buy computers and become absorbed in the technicalities of production rather than the literary content of Kindles.  Anyway, that is a global community that sells online, not at festivals.  They buy apps, not books.

Native Americans are much more comfortable with the global community, which for many years has been growing a network of political indigenous communities.  They are not bourgeois, but what some call “Class X,” educated and sophisticated but not necessarily wealthy people.  France has not consciously caught up with them, though they use the post-modern tropes that are written in French.  New Zealand is “on it.”  Maybe Argentina.  Hawaiians lead the way.  But it’s problematic to translate an oral culture into a written one.  Video solves the problem.  Music is key.

From early days the gay community has had a special interest -- even romance -- with American Indians, just as have the Irish and the Jewish communities.  This is partly related to oppression and stigma and partly to their feeling of “being different,” even from their own culture.  Of course, the American holocaust of the prairie clearances is less than a century earlier than WWII.  Latin America is much interwoven with Native Americans and shares stigma, though it is whites who are the first immigrants to the Americas, then forcing blacks to immigrate, chained in the holds of ships.

Looking at this little map list in terms of book contents instead of the authors, four are autobiographical or memoir, that is, drawn from the authors’ lives.  “All But the Waltz”, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain”, “The Book of Yaak,” and “Breaking Clean.”  The events in these books are in Montana, except that Stegner’s family went into Canada.  “The Big Sky” and  “Fools Crow” are historical but located in Montana places the authors knew because they lived there.  These are romantic books, as contrasted with debunking mythology.  Even “Breaking Clean,” about Blunt leaving an abusive and entrapping situation, is not news and not nearly so appalling as some less-famous accounts.  All six books would fit into "borderland studies."

Narrowing the scope of Montana literature comes from the academic and bourgeois forces, which don’t like scandal or controversy.  They can handle victimhood better than injustice, but their understanding of science is pretty much focused on technology that will make money.  They like sex but only if it is sentimental and semi-hidden; they do not indulge in graphic description.  They’re Garrison Keillor people, not William Vollman people.  They think “religion” is about “God” and must be “Christian.”  (Zen stuff is not considered real -- a kind of poetry.)

There’s nothing wrong with that, really.  It’s just that there is a lot more happening on the high prairie. that is much more likely to be explored by Canadian writers.  The presence of the KKK, Fenians, the crime belt in the borderlands, insanity, Mafia cooling safe-houses, trafficking and the like are not published.  I have no doubt someone is writing about these under-cultures somewhere that publishers don’t know about or reject.

The environmental writers, by contrast, are booming.  Resource exploitation, species extinction, overpopulation, genetic tinkering, drought, and all the rest of it abounds with built-in scandal and danger.  Since the regional newspapers feel that what sells now is “happy stories,” nonfiction in these fields has an online presence, strong in terms of conferences and networks, international alliances, and political energy.  They’re entities almost overwhelming on blogs and websites.  They have left high school behind.  They know Wallace Stegner’s writing.

Humanities Montana has not kept up.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A thoughtful survey of the state of literature in Montana. Livingston, once a bright literary locale, has largely vanished. The arbiters of the Montana canon still reside in Missoula. Environmental literature, emanating from Bozeman and northern Montana, is the consequential literature of these times.