Spring 1990, Volume 7.1
Abravanel! Reviewed by Ardean W. Watts
A View of It All and Other Essays Reviewed by Coralie Beyers
Pastoral in Antebellum Southern Romance Reviewed by Susan E. Gunter
Back before the World Turned Nasty Reviewed by Donna R. Cheney
Benediction: A Book of Stories Reviewed by Patricia Truxler Aikins
Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors Reviewed by Jeffrey S. Montague
This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing Reviewed by John Tallmadge
Abravanel! by Lowell Durham. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989, 216 pp., Illustrated, $25.00.
Reviewed by Ardean W. Watts, Professor of Music, University of Utah
Bravos to Lowell Durham and the University of Utah Press for bringing us Abravanel! The presentation is a class act from cover to cover. The silver letters on dressy black of the cover suggest the ambience of the concert hall. Fascinating photographs grace nearly every page, adding a "you are there" dimension to the congenial prose. The production is coffee-table quality at a paperback price. Above all, it is the story that matters. One might think conducting some of the world's greatest orchestras of the world by age 33 would satisfy the ambition of any musicain, but not Maurice Abravanel. He was not satisfied to reap where others had sown. Following in the footsteps of Brigham Young just 100 years earlier, Abravanel entered Salt Lake valley in 1947 to see if he was capable of building an orchestra which could do justice to the masterworks of the European orchestral tradition in the great western desert. Durham's Abravanel! is the story of his success.
Abravanel appears often in print as well as in record catalogs all over the world but Durham's is the first (and certainly not the last) full-length biography. Most recently, Five Thousand Concerts, a Commemorative History of the Utah Symphony by Durham's critic/colleague, Conrad B. Harrison, published by the Utah Symphony Society in 1986, gives 200 pages to Abravanel's 32 years as musical director. Scenes From Tanglewood by Andrew Pincus (1989) chronicles his post-Utah Symphony career at America's most distinguished music camp, referring to him as "permanent minister without portfolio." Several sets of personal interviews exist totalling hundreds of hours, among them "Conversations with Abravanel" which featured the Maestro and Durham as recorded and broadcast in 1980 by KUER, and NEH sponsored oral history at Yale University. Durham's liberal use of quotes from "Conversations" brings us into intimate contact with the personal warmth, charm, intelligence, energy and wit which are major ingredients of Abravanel's personality and musicianship.
Durham's perspective is that of an insider. Prior to Abravanel's arrival in Utah, Durham had already begun writing program notes for Utah Symphony programs, continuing in this capacity through 1984. In 1948 he was appointed assistant dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Utah and eventually dean in 1953. From the start he was a tireless supporter of Abravanel and the Utah Symphony and used his office to promote a symbiotic relationship between the University music department and the symphony. Thus, he was both witness and participant in the drama he unfolds, focusing alternately on Abravanel the hero, the gripping battle for the symphony's survival, triumphant musical events and local church/state politics.
As Durham explains in the preface, the idea for a book about Abravanel and the orchestra he built goes back to 1966 and a paper Durham delivered to the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters entitled "The Abravanel Years." Eventually, Durham decided to change the name to "Abravanel" in order to include several chapters of personal history before and after Abravanel's tenure as Musical Director. I find "The Abravanel Years" more appropriate to the content. Abravanel's childhood, student days, early career in Germany and Paris, the Met, Australia, Kurt Weill/Broadway, are tantalizingly telescoped into three short chapters, while in the Utah period we are distracted by dozens of mini-biographies of minor characters, interesting in themselves but reading more like a Who's Who in Utah Music than a biography of "Utah's most distinguished musical figure." It is apparent that in writing this book, there was a struggle between Durham, the journalist and Durham, the biographer. The struggle continues to the penultimate chapter devoted entirely to Abravanel's successors, of great significance to Utah's musical scene but adding nothing to our understanding of Abravanel.
Reference should be made to Durham the music critic for the Salt Lake Tribune from 1948 to 1966. It is likely that Abravanel found some of his symphony reviews exasperating. But one of the Abravanel gifts was to be able to view everything in the light of its possible impact on the Utah Symphony. From that perspective, I have heard Abravanel acknowledge his debt to Durham the critic and his fair and knowledgeable reviews in reminding the musicians after each concert that they couldn't rest on their laurels. In addition to Durham, the critic, the reader of Abravanel! also gets Durham, the professor. Some paragraphs read like lecture notes for Music 101for instance, his elaboration of the role of the tuba in a symphony orchestra. But, it should be noted that he was a very popular teacher and even his occasional excursions into the teacher mode show evidence of good-natured Durham humor.
There are few Utahns whose lives have not been measurably affected by the life and work of Maurice Abravanel. More than a generation of public school students were witnesses to his dynamic effort to make the three B's as familiar as the ABC's. The Utah Symphony recorded over 100 LPs under his directon (several of which are regrettably not included in the Discography included as Appendix 1). Though a full decade has passed since he laid down the baton for the last time following an electrifying performance of the Verdi Requiem, by some special grace we are still privileged to have him as a friend and neighbor. I know he is pleased when people stop to shake his hand and recall some moment of musical magic that still reverberates in the memory. It is appropriate for a community to honor its heroes. Durham has done him honor with this fine book. Three cities have concert halls named for this great musician, including two in which he has never conducted. Hopefully, Durham's book will remind us how much we owe to this extraordinary citizen of our state and what an honor it would be to our community for the home of the Utah Symphony to bear his name. Thank you, Lowell, and thank you, Maestro.
A View of It All and Other Essays by Robert Anjou. Salt Lake City: Jasper Associates, 1988, 255 pp., $9.50.
Reviewed by Coralie Beyers, Utah State University(Return to top of page)
Robert Anjou's recent volume is a miscellany of essays whose title, at once modest and pretentious, raises expectations of the seriously-playful (or is it playfully-serious?) tone and intent that is characteristic of him. We might well presume "A View of It All," the title piece that is like a novella among thirteen short shorts, to be, say, commentary on A Room with a View, that is, pungent criticism of the middle-class Edwardian society Forster exposes in desultory dining-room conversation in fraying Florentine pensions. But such is not the case.
Anjou's essay turns out to be an extended consideration of the proposition that life's chief function is the acquisition and organization of energy. In Anjou's view this getting and spending has been accomplished in vast cultural "jumps," and the progress of human history is measured by these, for each jump "gives society a different and increasingly complex form." This meditative survey sweeps across three quantum jumps: the "tribal," which Anjou sees as societal cooperation at its most primitive and dominating history until the Agricultural Revolution; the "imperial," that significant interval between the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, marked by the rise and fall of political states, the ascendancy and then decline of religion, and the rise of science; and, finally, the "modern," dominated by the Scientific Revolution in a jump of nearly measureless proportions which, along with its innumerable caveats, has also provided humans "with life that is longer, more productive, more varied, more attuned to [their] own individuality than ever before." Ironically, though free from the superstitions and ignorance of their forefathers, and enjoying a leisure unimagined by them, modern humans run the risk of destroying everything that has been so laboriously accomplished and even the world itself. The rise of science at the expense of religion has not diminished the need for faith and belief, but humanity's "choices are difficult and made more so by the lack of established canon."
Reach may well exceed grasp in "A View of It All" because of the size of its topic and the brevity of its expression and lack of supporting detail. The essay, serious and formal, remains aloft in the abstract. The footnotes, though they run two and a half times the length of the essay itself, do not buttress the text with needed specifics but are themselves ruminative, discursive mini-essays.
But taken together, text and notes reinforce the moral tone and become a whole, a credo Anjou has developed in a lifetime spent examining the human condition through literature, religion, philosophy, and simple living. It is, as he says, his view of it all.
The Other Essays, on a variety of literary and cultural topics, express Robert Anjou's more familiar voice. In them our expectations are well met; humor and critical acumen combine agreeably like old friends. Several of these pieces, previously published as long ago as thirty years in academic journals, exude in their comfortable, personal style the vanished world of academe's kinder and gentler years. Some of us will remember a time when Lawrence's name evoked a heady union of eros and spirit in undergraduates who breathlessly read all of his novels. What other writer made one so aware of loins? Anjou recalls that time and the subsequent and inevitable dimming of this rapture when one took on the responsibilities of the mundane. The throbbing blood drums, the crucibles of fire, and the browner gods faded into distance as one, emerging at last from Xanadu, gratefully embraced "the glory of insignificance" in the Lake Wobegone of his own choosing.
Anjou's good sense, moderate voice, and pointed pen take swipes at academic flummery in "Emily Dickinson's Curious Biographers," "The Muse at Length," and in "Call Me Doctor," which deftly twits the ego-gratification of academic titles. He examines aspects of contemporary culture that intrude between today's viewer of Shakespeare and the Bard. He pinpoints limitations in Hemingway's characters through their language, cultural gifts, and romantic preferences, commenting that "the verbal furniture in the Hemingway canon would not fit out an efficiency flat."
One hopes that in spite of having taken a view of it all, Robert Anjou will continue his scrutiny of the human condition and bring out yet another volume.
Back before the World Turned Nasty by Pauline Mortensen. Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989, 160 pp., $17.95 ($8.95 paper).
Reviewed by Donna R. Cheney, Department of English, Weber State College(Return to top of page)
At the 1989 Wyoming Conference on English, Jerome C. Harste of Indiana University ventured that the modern form of the American novel is a series of linked short stories. His examples included works by Alan Cheuse, Tobias Wolff, Richard Ford, Isabelle Huggins, Joan Didion, and Annie Dillard. Pauline Mortensen's collection, her first, which received the Utah Arts Council Publication Prize for 1988, belongs in this company. The stories interlock, using the same characters to support a central theme. And, although the protagonist is called Franki Sanderson, this work, like the other examples, sounds and feels like memoir.
The eleven stories in the collection focus on the Sanderson family; all but one are told in first person, as seen through the eyes of Franki. We share experiences Franki had at various ages, but the stories are told in retrospect, examined with an adult's perspectives. The author sees the world in terms of metaphor. Most are jarring, not just pleasant, reminiscences. The world turned nasty very early for Franki Sanderson; Pauline Mortensen shares the experiences with dark humor.
The title comes from the final story in the collection, "Graffiti on the Rocks." Franki is sixteen, working with her mother in a bar decorated with graffiti-like clichés. It is a situation of "Life on a bumper sticker." To make her own life easier, Franki's widowed mother is interested in marrying a much older, very rich man. Franki asks, "Mother, don't you feel just a little bit silly, a woman at your age?" and thinks, "What a cliché." At sixteen, she was "very much aware of the redundancy of adults." Franki prevented her mother's even considering marriage, depriving her of final financial ease after a life of crushing struggle, of working "like a dog." The clichés in the story become a metaphor for stupidity. The story ends with a grown up Franki hearing her mother's "echoing footsteps down the hall." This story indicates that the young are especially susceptible to clichéd, egocentric thinking, but one point of the collection is that "universal truths" need to be reexamined by everyone.
Each story is built on a central metaphor. Generally the metaphors are not particularly unusual: a hospital room as a window through which we examine life; snow as life which will melt away; a greedy, egocentric brother as a rat; sexual awakening as a boat floating down a river. But to each metaphor there is a twist. Just when a story begins to feel like a bath in nostalgia, the author hits us with a harsh truth. Within the snow-as-life metaphor, for instance, Franki says, "We are all poised on the powder of the inevitable." The phantom A-frames and log lean-tos the brothers and sisters have built in their dreams on the land they have inherited from their parents' industry may be all swept away with one good chinook. "It's all only a great 'What if.'" This metaphor interlocks with a later story in which her brother Jarvis, like a cunning rat, learns the art of surveying and threatens to take the title to the inherited land; the chain of family connections is weakened through selfishness and deceit.
Often Franki comments on her own status of being college educated. She seems to feel the education as another factor which weakens the family connection, standing between her and her family. She and they remark on the fact that being educated should make her function better than they. However, in college she has been trained to deal in theory, but the situations in which she finds herself are real, not theoretical. The stories are set in an Idaho where the people struggle to survive. The college-educated woman must plant trees beside her sixty-five year old mother in the cold rain on a hillside with thin, rocky soil. She helps her husband to transform a crooked tool shed, which has been riddled with her brothers' practice shotgun shells, into a cabin with cathedral windows which will be vulnerable to vandals. The education becomes a metaphor for the impractical. Over and over she must show herself and her family that a college-educated woman "can still swing a hammer."
The one story which seems to shift perspective is "Woman Talking to a Cow." In this story Franki's mother is venting her frustrations and anger through a monologue to the family's one cow. We discover how difficult the mother's life has been. She has been married to a tyrannical husband who expects her to make do under remarkably impoverished circumstances. She has mothered a large, uncaring family. And through it all, she has done the best she could. Metaphorically, by juxtaposition, the mother's life is shown to have been worse than the cow's life. The latter gets fed and cared for while the mother nurtures but is herself valued at less than the cow.
In other stories, we see at least two primary reasons for this devaluation of the mother: first, that she is a woman, and second, that she was born a Hunsaker, not a Sanderson. In one of the strongest metaphors of the book, we are shown the family as a house with a rotten floor. "Bloodlines always showed." The children have been taught by their father that the Hunsakers are like Attila the Hun, "Hun-sackers," while the Sanderson line comes through William the Conqueror. Yet the father is the rotten floor; rather than providing a solid base, he has been petty and self-seeking. When he dies, the old house is torn down, and the family fights over the land. The mother becomes the hero of this novel, the strong one who maintains the connection, who somehow has managed to love the father, the one who has said over and over, "Life must go on."
Despite some repetition of episode (the result of previous independent publication), the stories in this collection are similar in their tone of mordant humor, and together they form a significant vision. Pauline Mortensen views life as a continuing, but worthwhile, struggle. This is, finally, a book of "antecedent reality." To provide meaning and substance in the struggle, as she says in the opening story, "The human chain is not such a bad idea."
Pastoral in Antebellum Southern Romance by Jan Bakker. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1989, 107 pp., $20.00.
Reviewed by Susan E. Gunter, Department of English, Westminster CollegeSalt Lake City(Return to top of page)
Roland Barthes, in The Semiotic Challenge, tells us that in classical rhetoric "The places are in principle forms; but these forms quickly tended to be filled, always in the same way, to require certain contents, at first contingent, then repeated, reified" (67). In his scholarly study Pastoral in Antebellum Southern Romance, Jan Bakker fills these rhetorical forms as he carefully explicates the use of place in several often neglected American authors of the first half of the nineteenth century, and in so doing provides a fertile model for applying Aristotelian rhetoric to literary studies.
Bakker examines the works of southern antebellum writers William Alexander Caruthers, John Esten Cooke, John Davis, Isaac E. Holmes, John Pendleton Kennedy, the Reverend Doctor Henry Ruffner, and William Gilmore Simms as they make use of the pastoral genre and its locus amoenus, or ideal landscape. Even today the rural South connotes images of peaceful country havens, of lush flowery landscapes and forested hillsbut it is Bakker's thesis that the disruption of such an Eden began long before the Yankees brought death and destruction to a peaceful, agrarian land, and that this very disruption in fact constitutes a major theme in pre-Civil War romances. Bakker reads the pastoral mode as complex allegory, where the seemingly peaceful pastoral becomes a mask for critiquing one's world and where writers create their own particular loci amoeni only to destroy them. Humankind and paradise, in this genre at least, are inherently antithetical terms.
Bakker's painstaking study succeeds on a number of levels. First, it constitutes a record of authors who, with the exception of William Gilmore Simms, have suffered critical neglect. Pastoral is carefully documented and accurately indexed; and it provides copious references to seldom-cited works. Bakker's judicious plot summaries provide just enough background on unfamiliar works, like John Esten Cooke's Of Leather Stocking and Silk, for example, to illustrate his thesis and put them in a wider context. A passage from William Alexander Caruthers's The Kentuckian in New York (1834), for instance, recalls Thomas Grey's "Elegy in a Country Churchyard," another bucolic pastoral eulogizing death.
Second, Bakker's study provides a method for combining genre studies and rhetorical analysis under the umbrella of literary criticism. He draws heavily on previous critics' explication of the pastoral as genre and applies these findings to regional authors seldom placed within the tradition. And while it may seem a manifest strategy to apply the use of classical rhetoric to writers whose culture glorified the classical ideal, Bakker is the first critic to employ this "obvious" device. And his method does have wide application. It would be of interest, for example, to investigate how the concept of the locus amoenus operates in Native American literaturewould the concept be an ironic one, as it is in nineteenth-century Southern writers, or would the "pleasant place" operate as an Elysium attainable only to those who held to tribal ways? Bakker's study invites such comparisons.
Finally, Jan Bakker exercises a form of literary criticism in danger of disappearing. Although he makes use of recent genre studies and discusses "double voices" in his text, his book cannot be classified as "theory." Rather, it is literary criticism in a more traditional sense. He includes interpretation, thematic study, and literary-historical trends. His style is readable and direct, his points carefully made and supported by extensive textual evidence. Only his conclusion seems abrupt. The book ends with a chapter on a specific author, but a final summary, a comparison of all the seven authors studied, or implications for futher work would have been useful. An earlier chapter does forecast possible future studies derived from Pastoral, but a reminder of these would be appropriate. The material Bakker covers is so unusual that we wish to be reminded again by means of a brief conclusion of where we have been.
Benediction: A Book of Stories by Neal Chandler. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989, 194 pp., $14.95.
Reviewed by Patricia Truxler Aikins, Department of English, Westminster CollegeSalt Lake City(Return to top of page)
It is with that quintessentially American religious groupthe Mormons, who have democratized even Godthat Neal Chandler peoples his universe in his new collection of short stories, Benediction. Here he examines with keen and penetrating insight the extraordinary price of the ordinary life, what T.S. Eliot had early called, in The Cocktail Party, "making the best of a bad job." Sometimes Chandler illuminates the problem of making the best of a bad situation with humor, as in "The Only Divinely Authorized Plan for Financial Success in This Life or the Next," and sometimes with pathos, as in "Roger Across the Looking Glass." But in either case, his language is crisp, clean, vivid, and vital, the sound ever so accurately echoing the senseor nonsensewe live. Chandler blends in watercolor landscapes a portrait of the late twentieth-century American dream, a vision not of moral so much as of material urgency, complete with such middle-class Mormon staples of semi-affluence as cars and campers, crepe-paper red punch and flouncy summer dresses, "true consolation of natural herbs, the joys of honey. . . the regenerative power of legumes . . . the open revelation of whole, home-ground wheat," and yes, the promise of financial and moral superiority à la Amway.
Yet what Chandler seems to understand with almost stubborn contrariness is that humor and pathos are flip sides of the same coin; and in his country, faith is the currency of the realm. Thus, what makes Benediction such a pleasure to read is that Chandler, amidst the argument with existential angst to which so many of his contemporaries have succumbed, has surrendered to the simple corollary of faith-abiding hope.
But one need not be a Mormon to enjoy, indeed delight in, the stories collected in Benediction. In "Roger Across the Looking Glass," Chandler speaks with uncanny poignancy to any woman who has ever married for intellectual and moral compatibility and gotten instead an aesthetic wasteland. In the title story, he speaks with raucous humor to any believer who has ever had his faith challenged by the capacity of his religious superiors to reduce matters of faith to the ridiculous, in this case, the Gospel Doctrine teacher's argument that Sylvester Stallone's Rocky is but a twentieth century manifestation of that first century Rock, St. Peter. Thus, his stories do not challenge any theology so much as they challenge us to keep the faithany faithin a world of political freaks and theological hucksters. And his characters, for the most part, do keep the faith, not because they are too stupid to be enlightened but because they are too stubbornand ultimately too smartto abandon hope. The test of faith with Chandler seems to have to do not so much with how many ludicrous logical fallacies you can endure but how gracefullyand hopefullyyou can endure them.
What all the stories in Benediction have in common, besides the excellence of construction, is the awareness that moral superiority is not the consequence of birth or behavior, but of inarticulated intellectual superiority. And in this sense, Neal Chandler is truly a voice crying out in the wilderness of contemporary American fiction, asking us to make safe the way of the ordinary man or woman who is too busy surviving life to question the wisdom of having it
Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors, edited by Edward Lueders. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1989, 124 pp., $10.00 paper.
Reviewed by Jeffrey S. Montague, Writer and Radio & TV Producer, Salt Lake City(Return to top of page)
When Edward Lueders was appointed University Professor at the University of Utah for the 1987-88 academic year, one of his challenges was to fashion a series of public programs that would further the cause of liberal education. His response was ingenious, and successful, if overflow crowds on midwinter nights are an apt measure. He invited seven practitioners of what we have come to call "natural history writing" (with himself making eight) to sit in comfortable chairs on a stage, two each night for a month of Mondays, and in unscripted dialogue explore the mysteries of their craft and its peculiar creative process, or processes.
One source of interest inherent in Professor Lueders's project was that the term "natural history writing" is a sort of baggy monster. Broadly speaking, contemporary natural history writing combines elements of what in Thoreau's time was called the nature essay with the language and intellectual rigor of the trained natural scientist. But the term seems to be evolving before our eyes, and it is a very democratic rubric, admitting many to the fellowship and excluding few. In natural history writing, metaphor and statistic have equal heft. Human culture is fair game, if it yields the spotlight at appropriate moments. One can be scientist first and writer second, writer first and scientist second, or scientist not at all. What one cannot be is writer not at all.
Fortunately, those chosen to participate in these dialogues were not only fine writers but eloquent speakers, and the graceful language is one of several pleasures in the volume of edited dialogues, with a perceptive introduction by Tom Lyon, published as Writing Natural History: Dialogues with Authors. Barry Lopez and Edward O. Wilson, Robert Finch and Terry Tempest Williams, Gary Paul Nabhan and Ann Zwinger, Paul Brooks and Ed Lueders himselfall are exemplars in their various ways of the fluid core at the heart of natural history writing, where the task can be seen in metaphysical terms by a scientist, as when Gary Paul Nabhan says of naturalists, "We read the landscape as a reflection of our own spiritual journey."
Writing Natural History is not without its drawbacks, even taken on its own terms. It suffers in places just from being what it is, an edited oral history event re-created in an alien form. It is bestrhetoricallywhen the speaker is most controlled and prepared with notes, when the speech is most like writing, as when Edward O. Wilson and Barry Lopez are center stage. But moments that must have been filled with tenderness and emotional truth, the exchanges between Terry Tempest Williams and Robert Finch, for example, lack both passion and context on the printed page. And the book is not, reader be warned, an introduction to the genre. It is very much a conversation among the adept.
What the dialogues do accomplish, however, is considerable. Beyond the charm and astonishing felicity with words demonstrated by all participants, the dialogues furnish clear cumulative evidence of certain common features among those who call themselves natural history writers, in effect supplementing the work of writers like Stephen Trimble, whose 1988 collection Words from the Land had an extended introduction which attempted to grasp the genre by locating common threads in the philosophies and working styles of fifteen natural history writers.
One thread obvious in this text is that natural history writing is approached by its practitioners with a clear sense of being involved in something tinged with holiness. This sense of gravity and high purpose permeates the dialogues. "How can precision, analysis, and specialized vocabulary, the hallmarks of the scientific idiom, be married to the rich metaphorical language of literary expression, which is the ancient ancestral mode of expression?" Edward O. Wilson asks. Barry Lopez speaks of the position of the storyteller in the community, "which is not to be the wise person, the person who speaks from his own wisdom, but to create an atmosphere in which the wisdom of the world becomes apparent."
The corollary to high purpose and beautiful language is the "gentility" of the enterprise. Paul Brooks and Ed Lueders both exemplify and speak of this quality in past and present natural history writing. Even the "set" for the dialogues, a comfortable living room rather than, say, a boxing ring, reinforces the atmosphere of polite conversation rather than combat. Add to this the lack of competitive ego in these writers, an observation made first by Stephen Trimble, brought up in conversation by Barry Lopez ("deference," he calls it), but clear also from reading the dialogues, and you have something close to a portrait of a community of saints.
Whether we sanctify these writers or not, it is difficult not to admireeven envythem their sense of "connectedness." And an envy that leads the reader to action is, it turns out, a kind of structural strategy of the genre. Each of the participants in Writing Natural History seeks to move the reader to action. You won't save the swamp in your town unless you know the red-wing blackbird is there, says Paul Brooks. "We walk through the world with blinders on," says Gary Paul Nabhan, "and the trick of nature writing is to stimulate the reader to put the book down, to go and make his or her original discoveries about a place." What these dialogues make clear, that was not clear to this reader before, is how much our desire to put the book down and go out looking is born not in the words we have read on the page, but in our passionate desire to become like the person who wrote them, to discover, as we come to believe they have, what Gary Paul Nabhan calls "a greater pattern.
This Incomperable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing, edited by Thomas J. Lyon. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989, 495 pp., Illustrated, $29.95.
Reviewed by John Tallmadge, Center for Environmental Studies, The Union Institute, Cincinnati(Return to top of page)
As the Cold War ends and issues like global warming, tropical deforestation, and acid rain move to the fore, our relationship to the earth becomes increasingly a concern of every educated person. For over three centuries, American naturalists and philosophers have probed that relationship in vivid and provocative accounts of their response to the North American landscape. Their works occupy an important place in our cultural history, yet until very recently they were excluded from the liberal arts curriculum. Literary scholars preferred to focus on poetry, fiction, and drama in their research and teaching. No one had heard of writers like John Muir, Aldo Leopold, or Rachel Carson.
This sensitive and elegant anthology goes a long way toward correcting this unfortunate situation. Professor Thomas J. Lyon, who teaches English at Utah State University and edits the journal Western American Literature, has ingeniously solved the key problems of selection and audience. His roster of twenty-two authors is suggestive rather than comprehensive. It emphasizes the two richest periods (1850-1900 and 1945-89), and of course one can always complain that he has left out someone important (Aldo Leopold, for instance, or Loren Eiseley). But any concerns of this sort are more than adequately addressed by a detailed critical history, running to nearly a hundred pages, and an annotated bibliography of more than five hundred entries. Either of these alone is worth the price of the book; together with the selections, they reveal a literary landscape as fascinating and varied as the face of North America itself.
The book makes excellent reading. Professor Lyon has aimed for the widest possible audience, reaching out to his fellow scholars as well as to the intelligent general reader. His own style is crisp, energetic, and unpretentious, blissfully free of jargon. He brings to his material the same unbiased attentiveness and passionate regard that his naturalists bring to the land and its creatures. As a result, we enjoy his excursions as much as theirs.
Underlying both the anthology and its scholarly accompaniments is a provocative theory of nature writing, whose "main burden" Professor Lyon sees as conveying "pointed instruction in the facts of nature" (5). He proposes a taxonomic spectrum ranging from field guides and scientific papers on one end to philosophic treatments of humanity's role in nature on the other. In between we have natural history essays, rambles, accounts of solitude and backcountry living, narratives of travel and adventure, and discussions of farm life. These are all types of non-fictional prose, differentiated less by purely aesthetic factors than by the way the writer approaches and experiences the land.
Surveying the history of nature writing from its beginnings in the travel and exploration narratives of the seventeenth century, Professor Lyon sees it as expressing the viewpoint of "a distinctly nonconforming, even heretical minority" (19). In one form or another, these writers opposed two dominant tendencies in our cultural history: the "frontier mentality" of a civilization that seeks ego security through relentless expansion, and the preference for utilitarian, linear thinking that conceptualizes nature as a storehouse of potential wealth rather than a network of interdependent creatures.
According to Professor Lyon, the nature essay in its modern form arose "after the Romantic movement in philosophy and literature had helped give the individual experience of nature, in all its intuitive and emotional vagueness yet penetrating insight, some credibility and standing" (19). It was Thoreau who first saw in a "parochial" genre (to use Gilbert White's term) the possibilities for sophisticated artistic and philosophical experiments. Ever since Walden, nature writers have combined the scientist's reverence for fact and observation with the poet's delight in mystery, symbolism, and story. They have produced a distinguished body of literature that substantially affected our cultural outlook and laid the foundations for an environmental enlightenment.
It has often been said that Americans are a displaced people, restlessy moving from one job, city, or climate to the next, more and more cut off from the land itself. We lack a pervasive, common mythology of the natural world that would tell us our place in the universe and so help us enter into sustaining, dignified, and healthful relations with our fellow beings. In this mythic vacuum, we are thrown back upon the groping authenticity of personal experience, like children just venturing forth into the world. Our nature writers are spiritual trailblazers for us, bearing witness to the possibilities for right relationship with the earth. Their wisdom is sorely needed today, and they deserve a place in the liberal arts curriculum. Professor Lyon's anthology, the best available, is both a tribute and an invitation.