Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Masters of Place

Over the holidays I finally got around to reading an author whose work a friend has been urging on me for years—Ivan Doig. His memoir This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978) evokes his native northern Montana and its people as powerfully does as Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa, and that started me thinking about the importance of place in the kind of writing that leaves its imprint on the mind long after the reading experience is over. Place can be a character in memoir, and certainly in fiction, as surely as any person.

Think of Hemingway’s Spain in Death in the Afternoon and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Or Cormac McCarthy’s Texas/New Mexico/Mexico border country in Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men. Place doesn’t even have to be real to take on a forcible, memorable identity—witness Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. The fabulous Latin American republics of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch pulse with life as surely as does Joyce’s actual Dublin in Ulysses. Peter Taylor’s Tennessee, as it existed only a few years ago but in a wholly different age from ours, is as exquisitely preserved as in insect in amber in works like A Summons to Memphis and The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court. So is the quality of the New England light in everything John Cheever wrote.

Even genre writers—maybe particularly genre writers, of times past—were masters of place. One recalls Ernest Haycox’s rain-soaked, mist-shrouded Oregon; Alan LeMay’s parched Texas plains; Walter Van Tillburg Clark’s springtime Sierra Nevadas in The Ox-Bow Incident. We here in Western North Carolina have our own conjurers of our majestic highlands: John Ehle, Isabel Zuber, Ron Rash, Charles Frazier.

I used to do some teaching, and the thing that struck me most in the writing of so many of my students was an almost total absence of a sense of place. Instead, their writing was glib, clever, with-it and, well, superficial. Stories occurred in a vacuum, as if their characters lived and moved in some eerie, hermetically-sealed realm where there was no weather, no scenery, so smell, no texture or flavor. It was as if the out-of-doors—the natural world—had been banished and nothing remained but self-examination.

I fret that in this age of iPods, portable DVD players, MP3’s, and cell phones that can do everything but have sex, we are all getting locked into our own private cocoons and are losing touch, perhaps for all time, with the very environment whose degradation we bemoan.

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