Friday, July 13, 2012

From the bookshelf: Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture, by Larry Woiwode

Something I neglected to mention when I reviewed a Larry Woiwode memoir last week is that the most recent of his many literary awards was presented to him in Billings last year, when he received the Emeritus Award at the High Plains Book Awards ceremonies. This week I want to mention his most recent book, Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture. This slim but dense volume is a first for Woiwode -- a collection of formal essays on literature and writing. An alternative subtitle might have been borrowed from Hank Williams, Jr., however: “A Country Boy Can Survive,” as will be clear from what follows.

This book is a welcome addition to the library of anyone who enjoys Woiwode’s works and reflects an aspect of Woiwode’s life that hasn’t been accessible to most readers -- namely, Woiwode the teacher and critic. Like many serious novelists, Woiwode has, whether through choice or necessity or both, done repeated stints as a teacher: at the university level, as a lecturer at conferences, and as an essayist.

As mentioned in the review of A Step From Death, Woiwode has written thoughtfully in his memoirs about his approach to writing, but he has always touched on the subject indirectly in the course of talking about his life. In Words Made Fresh, Woiwode the essayist expounds directly and without a veil -- on writing, writers, literary criticism, and education.

The first essay is the oldest -- a piece on guns written for Esquire in the mid 1970s. It is a period piece in that it reflects a certain depressing, even pungent, 1970s ambience. It is also a personal period piece, since it comes from a particular time in Woiwode’s life that seems a bit foreign to those who got to know him later on. In quality, it is certainly worthy of the writer of What I’m Going to Do, I Think (a book in which a gun features prominently) and it has been previously collected in a number of anthologies. Still, as one cautiously steps through its sometimes heavy existential fogs, one can’t help but think that Woiwode may have chosen to lead off his book with this particular essay partly as a way of showing the reader, “So, here is where I started. Perhaps you can now better appreciate the much better place I am about to take you next.” As a side note, it is hard today, when the 2nd Amendment battles have largely been settled (for now) in both political parties, to realize what a shocking piece this would have been in the era of Jimmy Carter: a respectable cutting-edge writer living in New York City and confessing to a lifetime fascination with firearms.

The country boy theme continues with Woiwode’s essay on the farmer/poet/essayist Wendell Berry, who has long been a favorite at Montana Headlines. It is is a sheer delight. While each has been making his way in quite different topography (Wendell Berry farming in the hills of Kentucky, Woiwode on the high plains of western North Dakota), both inhabit the same world. They are, in a sense, moral and cultural neighbors. Berry’s prose is the very picture of clarity and economy, and yet Woiwode is able to boil down his insights even further into sentences that convey the essence of Berry's work while also suggesting the vistas that await the reader. Woiwode wisely concentrates on Berry’s essays, since these are the place to start if one wants to grasp the richness of this writer who is, first and foremost, busy with living on his land with a woman who loves him, working to turn a financial profit from his family acreage using organic, even preindustrial techniques.

Berry's writing, rather than a source of profit to support a farming hobby, feels like the abundant fruit of that life. Reading a Berry essay (or even more acutely, a Berry poem), feels like being at a community gathering where songs are sung, stories are told, and photos are passed around. The day’s work has been done, and it is time to light the fires, tune the instruments, gather around the person telling the history of the place, and let the magic begin on a winter’s night.

Woiwode captures the essence of Berry a number of times in this essay but never better than this:

Certain passages and paragraphs have the power to lift you into stretches of contemplation and personal reassessment – those periods when you seem to be staring out a window but are really assessing the realignment your consciousness is taking on. Berry’s books are that well built and keep revealing new dimensions.

Indeed. Continuing on with another country boy, Woiwode devotes two essays to the criticism and fiction of John Gardner. I first encountered Gardner many years ago when I bought a well-worn copy of his magesterial On Moral Fiction, after which I was never able to read a novel the same way again (and happily so.) Woiwode’s respect for Gardner’s powerful and provocative criticism is clear, and it is well-deserved, since there is really no-one quite like him. Of course, Gardner’s rural background doesn’t hurt:

Gardner was a farm boy, unabashedly so, and usually lived in a rural setting with his family and a menagerie of animals. [ ] As a critic, Gardner kept his square, strong farmer’s hand firmly on the pulse of American fiction, and you either waited for or feared his reviews and assessments of writers and writing – his manifestos, as they were seen by some, diatribes and hallucinations by others.

In Woiwode’s lengthy multi-part essay on John Updike (also greatly admired by Woiwode), things might get a bit involved for someone not familiar with the full sweep of Updike’s oeuvre (I am not), especially when he discusses religious matters and the relationship between Updike’s devout Christianity and his writing. Nevertheless, one finishes the essay motivated to buy and read a pile of Updike’s novels.

Elsewhere, essays touch on subjects as diverse as Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, and education. Again the country boy theme continues in various forms: Dylan in obvious ways, education in talking about his experiences with home-schooled children (including his own), and Shakespeare in the freshest ways possible:

Lore and court records have him returning home at least once a year, and it’s likely he went back to check on the lamb crop each spring (along with perhaps cattle, maybe swine) and to oversee the seeding of his barley and wheat, and he would want to be present in late summer or early fall for harvest.

He seems to have known from the start that Stratford (farming populace and handcraft merchants) was the source of its accomplishments, and he paid it homage, dying in New House only blocks from where he was born, leaving a healthy largesse to Stratford’s poor. Only a person who was nurtured by and nurtured the earth over its diurnal and seasonal changes could have written his plays -- rural boy that he was, farmer or farming-inclined son of a rural tradesman and farmer.

Woiwode is an unapologetic Christian, although he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve. He isn’t a “Christian writer,” but rather a writer who decades ago turned to a life of Christian faith. There is a difference -- a difference that Woiwode saw in Updike as well. To Woiwode, there is no place for a pulpit in a novel, whether that pulpit is Christian or atheistic. What matters is being faithful and honest in one’s work -- the rest will take care of itself. As he notes in the opening essay:

It’s life here we’re responsible for, in its minutest detail. We should expect to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths. That’s a weighty responsibility for a writer.

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