Saturday, January 19, 2008

Beyond the last best place (Part 2)
   The Literary West

Lincoln in Dalivision

I admit I liked it better when I thought “the last best place” was an intentional play on Lincoln’s words to Congress. Just before he issued the Emancipation Proclamation in December, 1862, he observed, speaking of human freedom, that “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

They weren’t idle words. Lincoln could see that Western civilization was at a crisis. He knew that, as Michael Knox Beran describes in City Journal, “the fate of liberty hung in the balance in three great nations: Russia, where Alexander II sought to promote liberal reform; Germany, where Otto von Bismarck applied his dark genius to the destruction of the Rechtsstaat (rule-of-law state); and America itself.” His rhetoric sounded lofty, but it was neither hollow nor overly grandiose. Those were real words, forged in a fiery candor. Could any nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle that all men are created, long endure?

Knox suggests the way history might have gone if Lincoln’s vision had not won:

Had Lincoln not forced his revolution in 1861, American slavery might have survived into the twentieth century, deriving fresh strength from new weapons in the coercive arsenal—scientific racism, social Darwinism, jingoistic imperialism, the ostensibly benevolent doctrines of paternalism. The coercive party in America, unbroken in spirit, might have realized its dream of a Caribbean slave empire. Cuba and the Philippines, after their conquest by the United States, might have become permanent slave colonies. Such a nation would have had little reason to resist Bismarck;s Second Reich, Hitler’s third one, or Russia’s Bolshevik empire.

At times I get the sense that something huge is happening and I suspect that issues of similar import are being decided in the hearts and minds of people here today, so when I first heard “the last best place” I turned the phrase around in my mind, thinking of what might be at stake here. Alas, according to William Kittredge, the man who coined the slogan, thoughts of Lincoln didn’t enter his mind at the time:

Back in 1988, the writers Kittredge and Smith had nearly completed a massive anthology of Montana prose and poetry and were desperate for a title, Kittredge said.

That year, the anthology’s editorial committee went to Chico Hot Springs in the Paradise Valley for some heavy duty literary brainstorming, he said.

At Chico, Kittredge was pouring a drink and musing about a line from a Richard Hugo poem called “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” The line includes the phrase, “the last good kiss.” He was also thinking about the name of a western Montana mine called the Last Best Hope.

It all came together as the “Last Best Place.”

“I’m the one who thought it up. I know exactly when I did it,” Kittredge said.

Robert Struckman, the Missoulian

I was in the University of Montana’s MFA program at the time, and sometimes wondered whether every story written in Montana had to involve an epiphany in a bar. Thoreau had said that the government of the world he lived in was not framed in after-dinner conversations over the wine, but I don’t think he was angling for a grant or an award.

In any case, learning the true provenance of “the last best place” felt like a diminishment, a let down similar to hearing a rock anthem associated with my youth’s pure longing for freedom “re-purposed” as a jingle to peddle some pharmaceutical potion or a new pickup truck.

Sometimes—walking a high plateau east of the Crazy Mountains one afternoon in a chill autumn wind or putting a raft into the Missouri downstream from Fort Benton one brilliant July morning—I’ve felt I belonged to the same tribe the New Westers belong to. It’s a wonder, living in a place poised at that pastoral stage of development, where we have access to the abundance of modernity but aren’t yet assailed by a hundred miles of strip mall, noisy with solicitations to lay waste our powers.

But other times, it seems we live so far this side of paradise that I think it’s been a long time since I’ve heard words sufficient to the evil of our day.

By invoking Lincoln, even unintentionally, the slogan invokes the timeless question of freedom or slavery. The present age, after all, is far from exempt from that question. “The world of today is torn asunder by a great dispute; and not only a dispute, but a ruthless battle for world domination,” said Czeslaw Milosz (winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize in Literature) in his masterpiece, The Captive Mind. The great dispute was between the totalitarian regimes of modernity and the political theology that, from Christianity, had developed such concepts as the essential equality and dignity of every person ("in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them"), the separation of church and state ("Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s"), and the consent of the governed as basis for the legitimacy of political authority ("On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram").

Since Milosz wrote that, the Soviet Union has collapsed and, under Putin, begun to take form again, but the USSR was only a local manifestation of a principle that’s never been absent from history. The details vary but always someone is trying to build an evil empire, and its foundation is always a lie: the divine right of kings; the supremacy of the white race; the triumph of the master race; the great leap forward. Lies are tricky and even the well-intentioned are deceived by them. The early guru of modernity, Ezra Pound, saw that it was through corruption of words that the bad guys got and held power and he said he was committed to purifying the language of the tribe. But he ended up shilling for Mussolini’s fascist regime.

Nonetheless, one would think that purifying the language of the tribe should be part of the calling of the literary crowd. Sometimes it is, of course, but more often literary types fit the description offered by Mark Lilla in his latest book, The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (which he offers as “a modest companion” to Milosz’s work). He said they “consider themselves to be independent minds, when the truth is that they are a herd driven by their inner demons and thirsty for the approval of a fickle public.”

Kittredge himself occasionally sounds that way to me. He can write achingly evocative lines, and then suddenly lurch into politically correct incantations that pop up like applause lines in a political stump speech. In Owning it All, he does some memorable storytelling about his grandfather, who, he said, set large cage-traps for magpies each summer, so he could drive down to the traps with his 12-gauge in his Cadillac. Then, in a slow and inevitable ritual the old man would step out of the sedan, the pockets of his gray gabardine suit-coat bulging with shells. The old man would kill the magpies one by one, taking his time. When asked for a reason, he simply said, “Because they’re mine.”

Kittredge introduces that strange story with these observations:

The West is a pastoral story of agricultural ownership. The story begins with a vast innocent continent, natural and almost magically alive, capable of inspiring us to reverence and awe, and yet savage, a wilderness. A good rural people come from the East, and they take the land from its native inhabitants, and tame it for agricultural purposes, bringing civilization: a notion of how to live embodied in law. The story is as old as invading armies, and at heart it is a racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest; a rationale for violence—against other people and against nature.

Racist, sexist, and imperialist. Of course. People like to hear their opinions confirmed, and that little passage gets quoted often. After his story, Kittredge drives home the big point:

And our mythology tells us we own the West, absolutely and morally—we own it because of our history. Our people brought law to this difficult place, they suffered and they shed blood and they survived, and they earned this land for us. Our efforts have surely earned us the right to absolute control over the thing we created. The myth tells us this place is ours, and will always be ours, to do with as we see fit.

That’s a most troubling and enduring message, because we want to believe it, and we do believe it, so many of us, despite its implicit ironies and wrongheadedness, despite the fact that we took the land from someone else. We try to ignore the genocidal history of violence against the Native Americans.

In the American West we are struggling to revise our dominant mythology, and to find a new story to inhabit. Laws control our lives, and they are designed to preserve a model of society based on values learned from mythology. Only after re-imagining our myths can we coherently remodel our laws, and hope to keep our society in a realistic relationship to what is actual.

Whoa! That’s a pretty big statement to hitch up to one little story about an unhappy old man.

I think of my own grandfather, who also farmed in the West but who I’m pretty sure wouldn’t have blamed private property for the way Kittredge’s grandfather acted. Maybe he was blessed by failure and hardship. He didn’t conquer the entire valley where he lived and he never killed anything for sport. He lost his farm in the Great Depression and moved to what he called the “dry farm.” He struggled with hauling enough water for stock, and he trusted rain for the crops. He didn’t think of ownership as some sort of absolute right, but as a precarious blessing (he imagined “blessings” rather than “privileges” since he didn’t think the state and its entitlements constituted the main force in life) and as an achievement that brought some measure of independence and prosperity.

After he retired from farming he bought a house in town but kept a couple hundred chickens in a well-made coop in his back yard, so he would have some chores caring for living creatures. He showed me how to candle eggs.

I’m pretty sure that if he had witnessed Kittredge’s grandfather blasting birds to bloody bits, he would have blamed it on bad character rather than on mythologies. I’m not sure exactly what he would have said, but “son of a bitch” comes to mind. He also knew other words: “arrogant,” “greedy,” “heartless” and “bastard.” His “mythology” didn’t lack resources for disapproving of such conduct.

His son—my father—once caught me, when I was about ten years old, throwing rocks at a stray cat. Though my father often disapproved of things I did, I rarely felt he was disapproving of me—my essential identity—but at that moment that is what I did feel, which is why I’ve remembered it. “It’s bad enough that he doesn’t have a home,” he said, shaking his head. “You don’t need to throw rocks at him.” His voice was quiet but the disgust was plain.

I wonder how deeply Kittredge really believes the moral he fastened onto his story. My hunch is that at least part of the reason he said what he said is because such ideas are fashionable among the tribe where he made his career.  I’ve heard that tale often enough: Americans are racist, sexist and imperialist thieves who also have genocidal tendencies, along with a superstitious belief in private property. Talk about a mythology.

Kittredge is explicit about saying over and over that he wants us to inhabit a different literature, a different mythology than the one of our fathers and grandfathers. Those hankering to shape the future have always told us tales, which is why people who want to be free have always had to be literary critics, in a sense. In Kittredge’s telling, his family’s ranch was a destructive mistake. “It all went dead, over the years,” he said. “We had reinvented our valley according to the most persuasive ideal given us by our culture, and we ended with . . . a dreamland gone wrong.”

My first question is simply, is this true? Not is it true that his family made mistakes, but is it true that they had lived by “the most persuasive ideal given to us by our culture”? Our culture has been around for centuries, and we’ve had some mighty storytellers. If Kittredge’s family truly did live by the most persuasive ideals that were available, and things went so wrong, I would imagine that things are quite hopeless. I don’t see today’s crop of storytellers as having wisdom or craft superior to the standard set by storytellers of the past.

Fortunately, hardly anyone I know is likely to believe that Kittredge’s grandfather was living by the most persuasive ideal available in western culture. For me, Kittredge’s story is the cultural trope of a tribe I’ve visited from time to time but among whom I’ve never really felt at home. So when he talks about “we” and “our” I don’t often feel that he means me and mine.

Part 1

Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 01/19 at 05:34 AM
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© 2008 Michael L. Umphrey
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