Reading on a computer screen is not normally my thing, but I agreed to review Linda Hasselstrom’s renewal of her book about her South Dakota ranch family, and it seemed practical and time-saving to just do it entirely on the computer. This particular book — if you check Amazon, you’ll see Linda writes quite a bit — is an account of a year in which her own journal as her basic text is running alongside the journal of her mother and that of her step-father. All three were hard-working, colorful, and sometimes problematic people. The mother was a “high-strung”, high maintenance woman who went frankly psychotic for a while and the step-father was wonderfully protective until Alzheimers invaded him in old age. Then he was hostile, selfish, and confused. Linda has seized sanity and gripped it by the neck. She saved the ranch partly by establishing “Windbreak House,” which is a writer’s working retreat on the ranch that includes coaching by Linda.
“Ground-testing” is a scientific term used by people who make satellite maps from very high. It means that no matter how accurate a photo might be, someone eventually will need to go down there and walk the terrain to confirm that what seems like it’s there really exists and is as it was identified from up high. There can be surprises when you look from a slightly different angle or in closeup. But being “grounded” is a good thing, esp. if you love the land and it’s inhabitants.
Biography — and I suppose even autobiography — is a sort of mapping. There used to be a magazine that published a map at the end, but quite differently from Rand McNally. One was a map of all the dogs in the neighborhood. One was a map of the water and sewer pipes under the streets of a neighborhood. One was an ethnic map of a city. Some biographies, including those of the Hasselstroms, are folded into an ethnography about the kind of people who are involved; in Linda’s case South Dakota farmers, some of them second generation immigrants. There are no Native Americans because of history, not Linda. There are no owners of ranchettes because who wants them? Not Linda.
Since a bio or autobio is about a life, it must include the dimension of time. Linda has the advantage of dated diary entries. Once I kept a Progoff journal which is begun by identifying “stepping stones” which could be (for the left-brained sorts) the practical cultural markers like graduations, marriages, moving to a new house, a new job; or for others maybe a list of major turning points: a time of illness, a relationship, a new skill, discovering a new identity. Taking all this into consideration, a person’s life might fit into a larger context of history so that something like WWII, the Seventies, the exploration of outer space, could be a pattern for the exploration of inner space. Or, particularly in the case of autobiography, the writer might choose free-association, counting on his subconscious to link episodes, ignoring the calendar.
Different kinds of biographies are produced by different kinds of biographers. Linda’s writing has been about her location, rural South Dakota, so her main ordering principle is the farmer’s almanac, the seasons as they develop through one year. Her parents’ lives are told entire, at least as much as she could, documenting with those journals plus letters and remarks from other people.
Erik Erikson and Justin A. Frank have written psychoanalyses of famous people, Frank most recently offering “Obama on the Couch” and now working on “Trump on the Couch.” These fit real lives into schematics used by shrinks as diagnostic means, attempts to provide skeletons for formless flesh and — as you might imagine — controversial both because they can be invasive and because it’s problematic for any one person to really know another. On the other hand, psychoanalysis can create a kind of strict poetry like a sonnet, vivid images contained in a pattern.
The problem is that these schematics go in and out of popularity or even suitability over time. The kind of insights provided by Lytton Strachey are not impressive now. We are more friendly to something like “Lincoln in the Bardo,” almost only a flight of fancy. (Would anyone write something like “Teddy Roosevelt in the Bardo”?)
On the other hand, the strength of Progoff’s “Intensive Journal” thinking is the constant challenge to come up with a metaphorical image for stretches of one’s life or for the turning points. Was it being swept over a waterfall? Was it being in a tall tree and seeing all around? Was it slowly blooming when sunlight came? Or was it a drug trip? Whether or not the actual subject of the “graph” would accept the shape of his or her life, would they recognize the forces at play and how they were moved along? Or resisted?
The kind of writing about one’s self that shows up in venues like “Medium.com,” tends to be anguished or transcendent — highly emotional and often both ingenious and gorgeous because they are written by dramatic, sensitive people, the kind of people we think authors must be. They have a bit of a tendency to watch themselves write. (We call that narcissism. Is it?) Progoff ran very prescribed workshops to combat mental wandering and self-indulgence. One sat in a room with others and wrote in timed intervals, tracked by a sort of monitor. Such a Germanic classroom sort of atmosphere — traditional in our schools — would shut some writers down, hardly helping to get into the mood of free spirits who ditched school early in life.
I like lists and used to pursue sanity by writing life lists in block print, sometimes not even in sentences. It was the time of fountain pens with those little cartridges of ink and I chose green. At least I didn’t dot my “i” s with little hearts. On a computer I go for strict legibility, plain fonts, and I number my list elements. It’s pleasant to fiddle with them — add and subtract, print out so I can write in the margins.
Autobiographers have the problem of getting out of their own way. I still haven’t abandoned revenge. Or at least self-serving explanation and rationalization. Then there are the problems that come with being read. Now that old enemies from the Sixties are dying, I find that when I nail them for how I know them, the family hagiographers of those opportunists and thieves will fight back. None have sued me yet, but it has happened to others. What do we do with our secrets? Readers expect revelations.
This is not the review of Linda Hasselstrom’s book that I will write when I finish the whole manuscript, but she’s welcome to take blurbs from it. That's part of the game.