William H. Gass loved words. “A word is a wanderer,” he wrote in “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses.” “Except in the most general syntactical sense, it has no home.”
Gass longed to make worthy homes for words. He often chose lists.
Lists were his secular litanies. Lists allowed Gass, who always longed to be a poet, to ladle his words into natural meter.
We are lucky if we find a sentence or paragraph to hold onto—as a reader, as a writer. We write them on index cards and impale them into cork board. We let them collect dust under a lamp. We are strangely blessed if we can find a writer who can carry us even further—through a book, through a life.
I return to Gass like a pilgrimage. His final offering, The William H. Gass Reader, is a gift. Nearly a thousand pages of his essays about writers and artists, his theories about fiction, and selections from his novellas and novels.
When I say Gass loved words, I mean he genuinely, audaciously, absolutely loved words. Language seemed an infinite gift that he grasped. A typographic deity.
“I am an octogenarian now and should know better, but I recently let a sentence reach print so embarrassingly bad its metaphors seemed frightened into scattered flight like quail.” He was not afraid to fail.
“Skepticism was my rod, my staff, my exercise.” Gass was pessimistic. He was clothed in doubt.
Yet that skepticism, as it does with the best critics, gave foundation and significance to his celebrations. You cannot love words without also loving writers. Gass loved writers.
He loved Gertrude Stein. Her play, her power. “There are texts,” he writes in “Fifty Literary Pillars,” “and there are times, and sometimes both are right and ring together like Easter changes.” He thought Stein “did more with sentences, and understood them better, than any writer ever has. Not all her manipulations are successful, but even at their worst, most boring, most mechanical, they’re wonderfully informative. And constantly she thought of them as things in space, as long and wiggling and physical as worms.”
We need critics who can admire. We need critics who can feel awe.
Gass loved: Plato (“His dialogues are among the world’s most magical texts”). Virginia Woolf (Her diary “alters your attitude toward life”). James Joyce (“Finnegans Wake is the high-water mark of modernism, and not to have been fundamentally influenced by it as a writer is not to have lived in your time”). Samuel Beckett (“Beckett wishes to save our souls by purging us—impossibly—of matter”). Katherine Anne Porter (“From her first tale to her last, she was in complete command of her manner—a prose straightforward and shining as a prairie road, yet gently undulating, too”).
Gass makes us want to read more, and to read better. He believed reading was an athletic act.
He was not an athlete. But as a boy, he was a member of a speed reading team, and in “On Reading to Oneself,” in his typical self-deprecating form, he writes of how he learned to read as an act of love. He writes of how the “speeding reader drops diagonally down across the page, on a slant like a skier; cuts across the text the way a butcher prefers to slice sausage, so that a small round can be made to yield a misleadingly larger, oval piece.”
His vision of the world was always slightly bent. He turned us toward his curves.
He thought we were a mess. “Evil,” he wrote, “is as man-made as the motorcar.” He didn’t have much faith in us—our track record has not been particularly splendid—and concluded, “we shall probably be eaten by our own greed, and live on only in our ruins, middens, and the fossil record.”
He knew what we are capable of, and it scared him.
In an essay on Ezra Pound, Gass wrote of how Pound, in his later years, apologized for his anti-Semitism, calling it a “mistake” and some “suburban prejudice.” Gass’s rebuke is powerful: “The tone of that repentance is all wrong, suggesting that Pound had made some error in arithmetic on his tax forms which turned out to have unpleasant consequences. Anti-Semitism is not a ‘mistake’ or even a flaw, as if it left the rest of its victim okay and in good working order. As with racism, a little does more than go a long way; it goes all the way.”
Peel aside his play and Gass, truly, was one to trust.
What can a Catholic learn from an agnostic Protestant? More than I could ever imagine when I discovered Gass as an undergraduate—I devoured (to use his word) “The Pedersen Kid,” which is rightfully included in full within this Reader. I would never be the same. We both have an affinity for the word soul, and let me not parse our differing theologies: I appreciate the contours of his unbelief, for they live within a state of wonder.
What a wonder it is to make a world of words.
“Words are with us everywhere. In our erotic secrecies, in our sleep. We’re often no more aware of them than our own spit, although we use them oftener than legs.” Words “lift our spirits—these poor weak words. They guide and they coerce. They settle fights, initiate disputes, compound errors, elicit truth. How long have we known it? They gather dust, too, and spoil in jokes which draw our laughter like the flies.”
While a graduate student at Cornell, where he studied philosophy, Gass took a course with the legendary M. H. Abrams, a seminar course on Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The students read not only the Biographia Literaria—but also “every book it quotes from, mentions, alludes to.”
Gass said the method “taught me how to read, how to reread, even how to overread.” He learned “never to rely on secondary sources, but to trust only primary ones—a teaching that leads directly to this ideal: write so as to become primary.”
Literary awards please almost no one. As William Gass famously complained, “any award giving outfit is doomed to make mistakes and pass the masters by in silence.” Each year, nominees are announced and each year readers and critics love to grumble. The 2004 National Book Award Nominees for fiction, however, inspired a level of grousing rarely seen in the last decade.
Each nominee for the shortlist was a woman, and each woman lived in New York City. Immediately, both the mainstream press and the literary blogosphere started throwing about terms: Elitist. Insular. Sameness. The New York Times gleefully reported that none of the women nominated had sold more than 2,000 copies of their books and quoted the literary editor of The Atlantic as saying, “I thought this was a really weak year for fiction, but I still wouldn’t have guessed that any of these would have been strong contenders.” Major newspapers that had not reviewed the books attempted one-fell-swoop pieces in which they treated the five disparate works as some sort of literary quintet, complete with facile pronouncements about their collective shortcomings. Chairman of the judges panel Rick Moody took a good deal of criticism for imposing his aesthetic with too heavy a hand. Caryn James of the Times searched (and claimed to find) common links between all the nominees, writing: “all five are built on compressed observations that easily veer into precious writers’ program language, too woozy and poetic for its own good.”
Of course, this was a stretch. Five books by five women from the same city of eight million souls do not make for a uniform aesthetic. Anyone who reads one sentence written by 2004 nominee Christine Schutt, a former Gordon Lish acolyte known for her attention to the sonics of language, repetition, and rhythm as well as unusual and stunning verb choice will immediately see the folly of James’ claim. Joan Silber, another one of the five nominees has a strikingly different prose style, a much more straightforward and unadorned mode that could not be further from Schutt.
Lost in all the befuddlement about these relative unknowns and their supposed similarities were the actual merits of the books nominated. Among the crop of nominees was Joan Silber, nominated that year for her “ring of stories,” Ideas of Heaven, a work that explores the long-term impact that a single choice can have on a life. In every chapter/story, a Silber character is faced with a decision that takes decades to reveal its true repercussions, and often the actual impact of this decision will lie unrealized, producing subtle and destructive consequences for the rest of the character’s life. Whether Silber characters inhabit 16th century Italy or contemporary America, all of them are similarly preoccupied when it comes to life-choices and whether the passage of time allows for any sort of lesson at all when it comes to reflecting on the lives they have chosen (or been forced) to live.
In both Ideas of Heaven and her 2008 work, Size of the World, Silber utilizes nearly identical structures to portray the universality of this condition. Regardless of time period, Silber employs strikingly similar narrative voices for all of her characters, with few allowances for age or gender. In the same way that Silber’s characters from different countries and time periods have nearly identical emotional concerns, the consistency of voice in Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World is yet another Silber technique employed to demonstrate the shared humanity of these disparate characters in the most varied of circumstances.
What, you might wonder, is the “ring of stories” referred to in Ideas of Heaven? How is the ring related to the linked short story, the novel-in-stories, and the plain old-fashioned novel? Though there is no sport more boring and useless than literary classification, when Silber’s Ideas of Heaven is paired with Size of the World, one can see how little this question matters. (Even the author may not be the most authoritative in this case. In an interview with The Millions, Silber herself calls Ideas of Heaven “a hybrid between the novel and linked stories” and refers to the structure of Size of the World as simply, “this form.”) Billed on the front as “a novel,” Size of the World utilizes almost the exact same structure as Ideas of Heaven, the “ring of stories.” In both works, Silber has pioneered a distinct form, a crowd-told tale of multiple first person narrators, each chapter building on the next, but with each narrator’s story containing a dramatic structure traditionally associated with short fiction. In fact, chapters from both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World were published in journals and anthologies as standalone short stories. However, the Silber-applied “ring” in question likely refers to the fact that as the reader progresses through the work, the newer stories alter understanding of the earlier stories, until by the very end they have eventually circled back and all affected each other.
Silber utilizes passage of time like few of her contemporaries. Most interesting is Silber’s usage of what she herself calls, “long time.” In each story or chapter in Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven, decades pass, often in one sentence. “We went through all our savings, such as they were, in those five years in Ohio,” from Ideas of Heaven, or “In the third year we were together, the band had such a long dry spell that Randy got side work with a friend’s combo that did weddings and bar mitzvahs,” from Size of the World. But Silber’s “long time” is not merely about summary and exposition.
Silber herself has laid out the blueprint for how what exactly “long-time” is and how she accomplishes it in her craft book, The Art of Time in Fiction. Though ostensibly an exploration of how authors manage and explore time in their work, Silber glides over “classic time”, “slowed time” and others to get to the passage of time she clearly finds most engaging: long time.
The most consistent Silber technique in long time is to utilize habitual action as though it were a single event. Examples abound in every chapter or story in both Ideas of Heaven and Size of the World as well as many of Silber’s earlier short stories. In Size of the World, Corrina, who eventually spends six years in what is then Siam, narrates her gradual comfort with the land around her:
My walks got longer, along the roads going inland, with paddies and forest on either side. Often I wanted to bring back a flower or a leafy stalk, but the stem were too fleshy to break, and I had a rational fear of sticking my hand in the foliage. I knew about snakes.
Silber discusses the benefits of this method in The Art of Time in Fiction, naming Flaubert and Chekhov as masters of this technique and claiming that “even in a story that leaps over long spans of time,” such a move allows for “the intimacy of the close gaze.”
Though other contemporary authors often deal with extended periods of time, few do so in the manner of Silber. Alice Munro, for instance, also often chronicles decades in the lives of her characters. Munro, however, utilizes shifting perspectives and frequently jumps forwards or backwards in time. Though Silber often credits Munro as a major influence, Silber’s work is much more constrained. Once a Silber character begins narrating a chapter or story, you can be sure that she will remain the sole narrator. In Munro, this is far less likely. Additionally, Munro is much more likely to experiment with tense, with stories completely told in present tense, (“Walker Brothers Cowboy”) or alternating between past and present (“Accident”). Silber characters all narrate their past from a usually undetermined later period in life. Where for Munro, time may be elastic, for Silber, time is guaranteed to be a linear progression that is difficult to make sense of. Though sole incidents often deeply affect Silber and Munro characters for the rest of their lives, the two authors differ in their illustrations of these effects. Unlike in Munro stories, a Silber character may think about the past, but they will never do it in scene.
Though the first person narrators who populate Size of the World and Ideas of Heaven are of distinct genders, nationalities, time periods, and generations, Silber uses the same technique of long time in each of the stories/chapters. Silber seems to utilize the long form in order to allow the weight of an action to fully inhabit its impact on the character. That is, time passes in Silber stories so the reader can fully understand the effect a seemingly unimportant decision or unforeseeable event (a car crash, a hurricane) can have on the rest of a character’s life. To truly demonstrate the impact of these events and how they change the character(s) in question, a good deal of time must pass.
Unlike Alice Munro and other contemporary authors, Silber rarely withholds information. Before a reader begins a story/chapter in Size of the World, a heading makes the reader aware of the narrator’s name, as well as an encompassing emotion that will be present in the story (envy, lust, paradise, loyalty, etc). In addition to her titles, Silber’s beginnings ground the reader immediately. For example, “Paradise” from Size of the World, begins as follows: “We moved to Florida in 1924, just as the land boom was taking off. We were not a young family—I was already twenty-one and my parents were in their forties and fifties.”
With assistance from the title, we already know from the first two sentences that our narrator’s name is Corrina, as well as her age, the time period, and geographic location.
A consistent Silber sub-theme within her explorations of time and its effects is uprootedness and migration. As time passes, Silber characters tend to repeat both the process of falling in love with a new place and being upended and wishing one was back in the place that was once unfriendly. This pattern is a constant in Size of the World as well as Ideas of Heaven. Even when Silber characters are unhappy with the geographic location in which they find themselves, they rarely find the place overwhelming for very long. If they do, they soon—via Silber’s habitual time rendered as scene—become acclimated in several paragraphs that may span years.
This is not to say that Silber characters are always happy where they are. Quite often, they would simply rather be elsewhere, or are visitors in the place that they call home. It is only the passage of time that dulls their sense of dislocation. Silber’s Annunziata, in Size of the World, uprooted from Sicily: “I didn’t really want to get better at knowing Hoboken, things—deep in my heart they didn’t interest me—but I learned them, inch by inch, in spite of myself.”
For Silber, the decades passing allow the reader to recognize the long-term impact of decisions on the characters. In her project of exploring the devastating or healing effects of time, Silber has created a rare formula, exploring very large questions through the tiniest and most specific of lives.
We have in the past noted the paucity of books about football among sports writing’s most cherished tomes (though there have been a few). Even in the list of “The Best Sports Journalism Ever” that I posted recently, there was only a single football piece represented (the Plimpton), and it is only obliquely about football. So, when I saw The Week (one of my favorite magazines) had highlighted not one but four football books in its most recent issue, I thought it worth noting. They are: Boys Will Be Boys by Jeff Pearlman about the hard partying Cowboys during the team’s dynasty of the 1990s; Giants Among Men by Jack Cavanaugh harks back to the New York Giants of the ’50s and ’60s and looks at football as it was in a much different era; War as They Knew It by Michael Rosenberg covers the Michigan versus Ohio State football rivalry during the tumultuous 2970s on college campuses; and Playing the Enemy by John Carlin is not quite about football but brings to light how a single rugby game in South Africa helped the country begin healing as apartheid ended.Meanwhile, in the comments of the original sports writing post, bdr mentions a pair of books that give the literary treatment to that other, other football: soccer.”(Excellent) novelist Tim Parks wrote a book about following Serie A squad Hellas Verona around Italy for a season (as they tried to avoid relegation – unsuccessfully) with its hardest-core fans called A Season with Verona, that’s terrific.”Philip Ball, who covers soccer for The Guardian, wrote a book about Spain, Spanish history, and how it all plays out in Spanish football called Morbo that’s even better.”
“Biographies are but clothes and buttons of the man — the biography of the man himself cannot be written” — Mark Twain
Born on the mountaintop in Tennessee Greenest state in the land of the free Raised in the woods so’s he knew every tree Kil’t him a b’ar when he was only three Day-Ve, Day-Ve Crockett! King of the Wild Frontier!…
I know this song, and you probably do to, and yet I can’t quite say why or how. I think for some reason it started at least a couple decades ago in my grandparents’ house, probably some Disney family movie night, or maybe I heard it by chance out in the ether somewhere and it just settled into my auditory cortex, like a disc in a jukebox waiting for the drop of memory’s coin.
What’s strange (to me, at least) is that even though I know this ditty decently enough, I couldn’t really tell you much about the eponymous character it unabashedly celebrates. If pressed, I could probably make something up on the spot based on the hyperbolic verses, but what good is that? And why can’t I get it out of my head now that it’s on my mind? It might be that Disney’s myth machine was more effective than I’d previously suspected. Apparently the song was dashed off in about 20 minutes, because Boss Disney needed something to get the kids’ heads bobbing along as the opening credits rolled. Or, even more disturbing, it could be that Tennessee Ernie Ford is as much a crackerjack Americana propagandist as Woody Guthrie, Stephen Foster, or Francis Scott Key.
I’m grateful to Michael Wallis, author of the new biography David Crockett: Lion of the West, for giving me a bit of my childhood back. He was inspired to write his book by a similar experience, albeit from a perspective a little more specific and closer to the source:
“My first exposure to this inimitable American icon came, and I can vividly recall the date, on the frosty night of December 15, 1954 … The ABC television network had just aired “Davy Crockett, Indian Fighter”, the first of three episodes produced by Walt Disney for his studio’s then new series, which had premiered two months earlier … I was a goner … I headed straight to my room, where I pored over the World Book Encyclopedia entry for David Crockett, dreaming of the swashbuckler with a proclivity for dangerous behavior, a most commendable quality for any red-blooded American kid.”
I’d like to say that Wallis’s biography dispels the mythology which surrounds David Crockett once and for all, separating fact from fiction, the legend from the man, but that wouldn’t be quite right. Wallis is a diligent, scrupulous historian; he’s got his facts straight, he knows true from false, he’s done his homework. He demonstrates a real love and understanding of the backwoods through which David Crockett roamed and rambled. This is all to the good, of course.
It is also significant, however, that Wallis doesn’t seem to restrain his lyrical impulses when setting up his subject as early as the opening chapter: “David Crockett believed in the wind and in the stars. This son of Tennessee could read the sun, the shadows, and the wild clouds full of thunder.” He continues in this vein, describing how Crockett knew the names of plants, trees, constellations, and treated the forests of Tennessee as both a cathedral and refuge. I don’t mean to be crude or dismissive, but the voice I hear is more akin to the wizened, dreamy-eyed cowboy in The Big Lebowski than what I’d expect from a historian. Wallis isn’t telling tall tales, but his history comes across as a sort of amiable yarn with footnotes and period illustrations. Romanticizing the subject at hand is a consistently close call. I’m still not sure, given the subject, how much it matters.
Wallis points out early on that Crockett was most definitely not “born on a mountain top” and only started wearing his iconic coonskin cap when he needed to boost his public visibility and stay politically relevant. Literally turn the page, and next thing we know our hero is describing mortal combat with a giant angry black bear, alone, at 39 years of age, soaked to the bone and nearly freezing to death on a January night near Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee:
“’Imade a lounge (sic) with my long knife, and fortunately stuck him right through the heart’, he later explained … Exhausted from the struggle, he calmed his pack of panting hounds and managed to pull the bear from the crevice in the frozen ground where they had fought. After butchering the animal, he tried to kindle a fire but could find nothing dry enough to burn. His moccasins, buckskin breeches, and hunting shirt were frozen to his numb body and he knew that unless he kept moving he would die. ‘So I got up, and hollered awhile, and then I would jump up and down with all my might and throw myself into all sorts of motions … But all this wouldn’t do; for my blood was now getting cold, and the chills coming all over me. I was so tired, too, that I could hardly walk; but I thought I would do the best I could to save my life, and then, if I died, nobody would be to blame.’”
Wallis adds a qualifying footnote suggesting that this story might be one of Crockett’s much-beloved, enduringly exaggerated tales of derring-do, which were at least half of the reason the good-natured, generous Crockett seemed so well-liked. It needn’t trouble us very much if this particular tale is exaggerated. Crockett was unquestionably a master hunter of all manner of wildlife for sport and survival. If the above story is untrue, it could fairly stand in for any number of actual pretty dangerous encounters which might have gone unmentioned, if for no other reason than sheer repetition. Such battles to the death were rather common and necessary for a woodsman like himself. There’s not much reason to start interrogating him on the bear killing issue, either. Crockett soberly mused that he’d killed at least a hundred bears in one year’s professional hunting, including 47 in one month. This would be annoying coming from someone who hadn’t actually kept his fledgling family alive for much longer than he preferred by hunting and killing wild bears for food, clothing, insulation, and so on. His raw courage warrants a bit of blarney, if blarney there must be. I shudder to think what I would have eaten, if anything, had I been born in 1786.
And that’s why it seems that David Crockett has become a mythological figure in American history. He was a survivor. I hate to pile mythology on mythology here, but there’s some Huckleberry Finn at play in his story. Crockett, like Huck, gets his start at the economic and emotional mercy of a drunken, hapless pap who can’t get his act together long enough to offer his resourceful, loyal son any leg up in the world besides learning independence and self-sufficiency pretty darn quick. It could also be that this theme contributes to quite a bit of other American mythology. As a culture, we do tend to venerate the innocence that overcomes initial squalor. This theme has its place in early colonial literature and persists in the work and legend of Whitman, Thoreau, Frost, and the Beat Generation on into the political sphere. Anybody who remembers the seemingly guileless genialities of Reagan, Clinton, and George W. Bush can see how electable a myth it is. It might just be that we as Americans take our own optimism as anesthetic for the wound of what Richard Slotkin, in a long study of the American West that Wallis refers to, called — and used as the title of his book — Regeneration Through Violence.
And violence there is in the story of David Crockett — not just of the grizzly kind, either. The world Crockett inhabited was, in many ways, fiercely up for grabs. As a young man, he set out to fight in The Creek Indian War, which broke out in 1813 after news of the killing and scalping of more than five hundred people at Fort Mims, a stockade then in southern Mississippi. He went off to battle with the words “remember Fort Mims!” ringing in his ears, leaving his wife and children behind to join in the fight for what may well have looked like survival itself: “When I heard of the mischief which was done at the fort, I instantly felt like going, and I had none of the dread of dying that I expected to feel” (italics mine). Once he’d seen and experienced enough of the fighting, which had begun over land, Creek civil wars and the prophetic outrage of Tecumseh (“Burn their dwellings! War now! War always! War to the living! War to the dead!”), he’d remember the gory ruin and devastation it caused years later when he served several terms in Congress as a representative of Tennessee.
Andrew Jackson, once a political mentor to Crockett and eventually an enemy, infamously demanded Indian removal essentially by any means — and trails — necessary. Crockett didn’t back down from the ire of Old Hickory. He stubbornly voted against the punitive relocation measures of the vindictive and paternalistic Jackson, defying his party and alienating much of his voting base in the process. He was convinced that Indian Removal was not only a tyrannical move for Jackson but also fundamentally immoral: “They said this was a favorite measure of the president, and I ought to go for it. I told them I believed it was a wicked, unjust measure, and that I should go against it … I would sooner be honestly and politically d—nd, than hypocritically immortalized.” There is, to extend the comparison little bit, a touch of Huck’s stirring “alright then, I’ll GO to hell” on a different, though equally historically relevant, issue of race. Wallis notes that some historians consider his stance more in the light of his anti-Jackson position, but it’s as much of a matter of principle either way. It’s encouraging to see that a figure so steeped in rosy Americana really could be as morally adventurous as he was by practice and disposition.
Crockett’s death at the battle of the Alamo is alternately charming and surreal. He’d lost his seat in Congress by then, frustrated with all the snobbery and hypocrisy of Washington, and he’d always been “itchy-footed” anyway. Wallis cites the accounts of star-struck fellow soldiers who’d probably grown up reading the comics and stories already wildly fictionalized from his life: “It was said that Crockett and a Scotsman named John McGregor, who brought his bagpipes to the fight, amused the garrison, and perhaps even the surrounding Mexican troops, with their musical interludes in between skirmishes and repulsed assaults.” No one knows precisely how Davy Crockett died, but the image of him, a merry old man by then, playing a fiddle to perk up his comrades as Santa Ana’s troops routed the place is too strange and vibrant to ignore.
Wallis knows full well that the icon is not the man in full, nor should it be. The issue with a biography like this is that the legend is so much of the story that debunking myths means the subject loses some of what makes him unique. David Crockett was romanticized in the same way that classic film stars, athletes, and politicians are, and for a similar reason — the legend is inextricably entwined with the actual human being. Not only is there no urgency to demystify, there’s almost no reason to. Sometimes the legend and the person are inextricable for perfectly good reasons. Late in his life, Crockett attended a loosely-based dramatization of his own exploits, where his stand-in character went by the swashbuckling name of Nimrod Wildfire. The actor playing him, decked out in fringe and a Wild West headpiece, ran to the front of the stage and made an elaborate bow to the guest of honor. The audience, initially shocked, stood up to applaud when Crockett himself rose from his seat and responded in kind. Life is sometimes larger than itself because people can be more than they appear.
Wallis’s biography gracefully walks the line between acknowledging this dynamic contrast and letting the yarn of Crockett’s life unwind in dynamic and fascinating ways on its own merit. This applies to the name on the cover, as well. It’s “David” Crockett, thanks, not the chummily informal “Davy” that pop culture taught us to say generations ago. In fact, the man himself never used the diminutive. His people — friends, family, voting constituents — were the ones more apt to do so. It was more about the warmth of familiarity than the preference of the man in question. In the cozy distance of posterity, however, our friendly condescension might resemble affection enough for us to ignore the difference. Fair or not, the image seems to preside over the reality even for those, like Crockett, who happened to be the genuine article.