I remember a long time ago, maybe 40 years ago, when I had the bookstore in Enterprise and waited each summer for the Josephys to arrive from the East. Betty would drop Alvin off at the bookstore and go visiting. Alvin would begin browsing the “local” section, and ask me about all the new titles. He loved the small family stories, the diaries, and the amateurs who wrote about the railroads, the post offices, a piece of land or a family tree.
He often derided the academic historians and the writers of textbook and popular histories of the West, who, when they wrote about Indians at all, passed on old tropes and omitted most things that made the Indians intelligent beings intent on making the most out of desperate situations.
He thought you’d have to go to those amateurs to get a real story of what happened—or go to fiction…
We never talked about Scott Momaday, although I knew they were friends, and heard Alvin retell a Momaday story several times. Scott was speaking to a group of very young children, and began his story with “Long, long ago, a very long time ago, when humans were new and the animals could talk…” Now Alvin would break into a huge grin and then explain that in Momaday’s telling, one of the youngsters sighed loudly before saying “those were the days.”
Our Josephy Center book group just read Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain, a short book weaving Kiowa stories, Kiowa history and culture, and Momaday’s personal journey of discovery—discovery of story, roots, and words. Dogs speak and spiders teach, and the words flow like water. And in this short, 80-page book we learn much about the Kiowa and Scott Momaday and the power of the spoken and written word.
Momaday is a dean of Indian writers—dean of American writers! winning the Pulitzer for House Made of Dawn, receiving a Stegner Fellowship and a Phd from Stanford, writing poetry and literary and historical essays. One was an introductory essay for Josephy’s America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus. “The Becoming of the Native: Man in America Before Columbus,” he called his essay. In it he calls the Europeans “ethnocentric,” and thinks that with centuries of written history of their own, they could not fathom a history of the misnamed Indian people before their arrival. “They could not conceive of the spoken word as sacred, could not understand the American Indian’s profound belief in the efficacy of language.”
Good fiction writers have an ear for the spoken language, which they scrupulously pick up from neighbors and families, or intentional visits to places where the language is spoken in that certain way. And they often go to diaries and spoken stories, old accounts in newspapers and out of the way places—exactly the kind of material Alvin Josephy sought when he came to Wallowa County from a winter of work and life among high rises, commuter trains, editorial meetings and meetings of Indian and fledgling environmental organizations in the East. In those days he continued writing and reporting as well, digging into the BIA and Army Corps of Engineers for a story on the Garrison project—“Dr. Strangelove Builds a Canal,” he called it. Or “The Murder of the Southwest,” a story about strip-mining coal on Indian lands.
Alvin was spot-on with titles, with a fiction writer’s flare. Maybe it was intimacy and heartbreak that made him not become a fiction writer. He’d written a few radio plays in New York in his young journalism days, and he’d set out to write a novel of the aftermath of war when he came home from the Pacific. Blanche Knopf, Alfred Knopf’s wife, read the first half of his novel and predicted a bright career in fiction, but he says in his memoir that the broken marriage, like many marriages disrupted by war, was too much—and he dropped the novel.
He doesn’t say it, but one can guess that writing fiction based on his own troubled homecoming was too close to the heart and gut. But the reason he was friends with Momaday and Bill Kittredge and why he delighted in meeting Craig Lesley, Molly Gloss, and other fiction writers at Fishtrap is exactly that—the gut-level exploration of living in another time, place, or person.
I just finished Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, a novel of almost 400 pages of Swedes squeezed by shrinking lands and strict societal and religious orthodoxy traveling by small sailing ship to America in 1850. The book, published in 1949, makes it plain that Sweden was a strict patriarchal and state-church run society—and that women were sometimes partners but not advocates for emigration.
Which reminded me of A Sudden Country, a novel of the Oregon Trail by Karen Fisher. The novel’s woman protagonist does not want to make the journey, but it’s not her choice; she comes to make personal choices with a new man on the Trail! I don’t remember reading about the reluctance of women emigrants from Europe or from Ohio on the Oregon Trail in my history books.
And my favorite “Western” novel, Molly Gloss’s The Jump-off Creek. Molly had read every Western in the library as a child, and didn’t find women who were “actors” rather than the acted upon, hauled along, obedient servant, honest schoolmarm or sleezy madam. On the death of her boring Midwestern husband, Molly’s hero becomes a western homesteader. Who knew, except for those diaries and obscure homesteading records, that as many as 25 percent of homesteaders at some times in some places were single women.
But the fiction writer has to imagine these characters from the inside, make their compliance and defiance believable, make you care about them. Fiction writers give you the guts and the glory, emotional intimacy and crushing defeat. They make distant times and places real.
In his age, I think that Alvin Josephy was satisfied with the work he’d done. He writes about dropping the novel in his memoir, A Walk Toward Oregon, but I never heard him say that he wished he would have kept with fiction. Consciously or unconsciously, with the vividness of War always near the surface of his mind, Alvin would write non-fiction. He’d be a journalist and a historian, but he’d put as much heart and guts into it as he could. He’d bring the diaries and the stories he got in sweats with Nez Perce elders to his writing. And he’d delight in calling out the “fictions” of famous historians who wrote that America was an untamed wilderness, devoid of human civilization, before Europe arrived.
For him, as for Scott Momaday, the four-leggeds—and the long-ago time when they could speak—had things to teach us still.
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Love the personal approach getting to the reality rather than fiction.