Russell Rowland, a Billings-based author, gave a reading at the Valier library last night from his most recent book: “Fifty-Six Counties: A Montana Journey.” Pleasant chat with lots of factoids and stories, a few unifying concepts. An excellent example of what we used to call “Montana books,” a label supposed to guarantee popularity. Local people will like this one. I fear that people from other places might not “get it.”
The book is from Bangtail Press which has devolved from a nexus in Helena: Falcon Press (which needs to be distinguished from other publishers with the same name), Globe Pequot (which moved away), Far Country, Riverbend, Mountain Press. These people may be the conceivers of the idea of “Montana literature” as a brand and coveted status. Certainly they provide the connectors between writers and readers who shared an obsession entangling the concepts of “last,” “best” and “place.” It defines a group of people as distinct as the cabal of Manhattan readers and writers that dominate publishing in other much more "sophisticated" ways.
Whether there’s money in the Montana writing obsession is open to question, but a lot of writers lost confidence and moved to Portland, the new hot spot. Some say because of a shortage of jobs that authors could do while still writing. Strangely, as the number of writers shrank, the numbers of publishers grew. The weight of writing and general humanities activity has moved from Missoula to Bozeman/Billings.
One of the locally published magazines most tightly linked into this community of writers has been Big Sky Journal. Allen Morris Jones, the editor, is himself a writer. His “indicator book” is “a highly-regarded look at the ethics of hunting, A Quiet Place of Violence.” High end hook and bullet stuff, philosophizing just short of Foucault, observable geology, liberal sentiments, cowboy university ideas, and gorgeous photography. The mag supports advertising for the quite wealthy but not all that sophisticated — a sort of peoples’ “wealth” of place and local persons.
No Indians. And the Indians don’t care.
This whole Montana context boils down to the statewide commodification of bourgeois people who require successful people to have virtue, hear the faint echo of Norse Valkyrie sagas, and love the outdoors even where there are cows. In the Flathead Valley, Missoula struggles with the Pacific Coast, temperature inversions scented by paper mills, and scandals.
In 1999 the Humanities of Montana (an independent organization), created in Missoula the Montana Festival of the Book, which I attended at first thinking it was a kind of think tank. But it was really a pop-up bookstore with promotional readings and panels, each controlled by a moderator who didn’t let anything get controversial. Over the years the “Festival” became more and more a tight circle of controllers and a wider loop of contributors until suddenly it seemed that Garrison Keillor had been living in Montana all along. Then it ended in 2014. I hadn’t attended since the death of Jimmy Welch.
Jim Whilt, Poet of the Rockies
Lately I’ve been thinking about Jim Whilt, who in the Sixties used to come around Scriver Studio to stock us up with new copies of “Mountain Memories” or some other chapbook of his local doggerel. Here’s a sample: Whilt's preface to Giggles from Glacier Guides (1935): “In submitting this little booklet to the public I am doing so for the simple reason that every season when I arrive in the park my suitcase had not stopped rocking before some dude asked me why I did not put some of the park vocabulary into print so they could take back home some of the western phrases so they could show their friends to just what extent the English language has been roped, abused hog-tied and even murdered. So my pen started leaking and this is what leaked out.”
Glacier Park writing is a small genre of its own based on the superiority of the colorful. (If only grizzlies could write.) Of course, cowboy poetry has developed into a cult of its own with festivals and famous writers — even songsters.
Getting back to Billings, Rowland co-edited a book called “West of 98: Living and Writing the New American West.” I’ve only read the introduction by Lynn Stegner, daughter-in-law of Wallace Stegner who was local (Montana and Saskatchewan) until he discovered Utah and then California. He identified the real definer of the West as water or rather the lack. Kim Stafford, writer son of the distinguished poet William Stafford in Portland, referred to this anthology as “renegade writers” but they look to me like the same familiar folks. University grads, edited, published, promoted and awarded honors. Good friends who write excellent blurbs for each other. Their writing is pretty damn good, I admit. But new blood is not welcome. They just say it is.
Sometimes I think about who I would include in a literary Salon d’Refuses. “The Salon des Refusés, French for "exhibition of rejects", is generally an exhibition of works rejected by the jury of the official Paris Salon, but the term is most famously used to refer to the Salon des Refusés of 1863.” Who would I name? And in the end, what would separate them from the popular published writers? I would suggest domestication. Many of the refusées are hot-heads and rebels, fueled by obsession and leaning towards terrorism. Others might be gay or too violently tough or give priority to feminist categories. The Missoula academic women seem to bump over to Idaho or Washington.
"Prospector" by Lyndon Pomeroy, a mentor of Rowland's father
Rowland tells the painful story of his father taking his welded cowboy art to a street fair in San Francisco. Like Bob Scriver and myself taking bronzes into Gump’s, it was being invisible, discounted, even disrespected. NOT successful. They just didn’t value cowboy stuff, couldn’t SEE it. But what I see is that art sales and writing — more than other things — are an interaction of forces, some social and some personal, some just a matter of timing and economic forces. It’s not about quality. You can accept it, adjust and succeed, or be defiant. Actually, I’ve learned another way. I do what I do for my own satisfaction and the rest is karma.
I think that some people believe that if there isn’t some goad to action, like fear of failure, people will sit down and do nothing. Related is the idea that there are “grades” to be awarded by authorities and that unless a person gets A’s, they fail. These are old school dogmas that ought to be spiked even in schools.
Rowland’s family sagas ring true to me — my own family’s land ownership conflicts (which are short of murder -- so far) center in Oregon timber and sheep country. But Rowland’s novels are quiet and competent, like Rowland, which may mean they sink below consciousness for many people. A local woman said to me once, “If anyone tries to write about my family, I’ll kill them.” In wide open country where things happen, secrecy is the name of the game. But, more than that, the feeling is superstitious — like aboriginals afraid of having their picture taken for fear of their souls being stolen. Make of it what you will.