Friday, July 13, 2018


Louisa May Alcott, Lucy Maude Montgomery, Ivan Doig, and a host of others were all cursed by writing books that everyone dearly loved.  Though popularity in great numbers and over generations are supposed to be the goal of many who want to be writers, when the reality arrives it turns out to be a cage.  The people who loved the first book demand more of them -- just like that first one.  The human -- indeed, mammalian -- love for what is familiar and therefore safe, is so strong that publishers pitch the next book as a variation on the first and then a third and so on.  Until Montgomery, for one, committed suicide because of depression possibly from being locked into the original formula.  J.K Rowling, has used a pseudonym to escape Harry Potter.  Daniel Radcliffe has escaped through growing up, though performing nude in the theatre could have helped break-up the stereotype.  

An example in Montana might be Richard S. Wheeler, who writes rather tongue-in-cheek Westerns.  An example of a son in a proud family who is encumbered with the obligation of being a great success in life, it took him a while to hit upon this niche, but by inventing colorful characters and listening carefully to other writers tell about their plot points, he was able to build a career on a specific sort of story.  At one recent point many of the Western writers who belonged to the same "club" discovered that the take-down of the Cowboy West meant that their stories were hard to sell to publishers.  

As the culture of the West moved farther along the timeline from gunslingers and settlers to a West understood as a treasured environment and "Indian wars" gave way to indigenous peoples, the number of people who wanted to read stories written by other people their age began to diminish.  Now stories featuring gays, Muslims, and persons seeking enlightenment became what sold.  Wheeler and other Western writers tried murder mysteries for a while, and changed their names to fit the genre, but it was not wholly successful.

Even porn writers had to move from stories about sophisticated, naughty and secret events to earnest young dancers struggling for a place in a ballet company and first loves.  Following a burst of change-of-life men leaving their marriages because they finally decided to leave the closet, there has been some about old men with rich lives helped by young partners.  But our Age of Individualism has meant separating into new categories not based on the sameness of the stories but on the sameness of the readers.  Unless there are enough self-identified people like the particular writer, sales are limited.  Seduced housewives want to read about other seduced housewives.

Let's return to Ivan Doig.  In the beginning (in 1957 we were in the same English class, the size of an auditorium).  Ivan was a serious journalist and historian, but that wasn't the route he took, though he moved to Seattle where such a career was possible and he had the right education.  His first book, "House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind" 1978, is cited as one of the ten best memoirs of the West.  It is heart-felt memoir, bitter-sweet, intense as a prairie wind.  It could be argued that it was the best of his writing ever.

The next two books, "Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America (1980) - an essayistic dialog with James G. Swan", and "The Sea Runners" (1982) were serious research-based books, much respected but not best-sellers.  These were the sort of thing he had expected to do.  They were written while I was attending seminary in Chicago.  We were coming to forty years old, getting serious about the meaning of life.

Beginning in 1987, the trilogy about the fictional McGaskill family was published with the success that defined the rest of his writing.   English Creek (1984), Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1990) remain much loved, reassuring, almost-but-not-quite remembered as reality.  The rest are much like these with the exception of "Prairie Nocturne" (2003) which offered a black character who disconcerted some readers.  He died in 2015.

Now and then my path would cross with his, but he was cool, distant.  His style, almost lapidary in its care and semi-poetry, was always aspiring to be the best, the classic, the irreproachable -- even as he got shoved back into regionalism and the "Western" period.  Keeping history, he wrote about the big industrial projects of dams and what the boom/bust cycles did to people.  Often he was in danger of writing what I call "pinafore sagas" about cute kids and mildly alcoholic eccentric uncles.  It's a genre we cherish as our nostalgia for the past becomes less realistic.

So Ivan Doig had a career as a writer: distinguished, occasionally powerful, popular in the genre, not quite escaping those who like to patronize, likely to persist for many years.  His life summaries list many awards and much praise, in addition to genuine affection.  He was constantly published though at some points it was his wife, Carol, who as a literature professor paid the bills.

Ivan and I come from the same stock: red-headed Scots, but I have a strong streak of Irish.  I have only "published" two books, one at an academic Canadian university ("Bronze Inside and Out" about Bob Scriver) that is baggy and indiscriminate but all-there, and "Sweetgrass and Cottonwood Smoke," an anthology of sermons about the theology of the prairies.  

For the past decades I've written daily 1,000 word essays as posts on a blog, -- this one.  I began posting about Blackfeet; Ivan never wrote about Blackfeet. though he grew up next to them.  Another writer, Jimmy Welch (d. 2003), WAS Blackfeet, enrolled, the same age as Ivan and I and educated as a boy in Minneapolis, then in Missoula.   His dad, also named James Welch, was Bob Scriver's playmate.  Young Jim was always warm and friendly to me.  I write as well as they do, probably as much as they have.  I have a "better" education that either of them  (U of Chicago religious studies. MA, 1960).

There's another writer, Darrell Robes Kipp, about our same age but died in 2013.  He was a careful writer but a better speaker, a more expansive and visionary person than any of the other three of us.  And certainly 100% "Indian."  Probably there are others our age who write without being known.

So what is it worth?  What does it mean?  Was Doig, a white conformist, too tame?  Since Darrell published nothing, does that mean he wasn't worthy?  Did I live longer because I'm not done yet or because I'm female or because I haven't stretched to achieve?  Did Darrell, 100% "Indian" write any differently than the other three of us?  Should we be assigned to our own kind or a specific genre?  All Westerners, are any of us more than that?  We were all connected to Academia -- does that matter?

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