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Entries in impressions of the West (4)


Impressions of the West: Wallace Stegner (Repost - March 1, 2011)

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From The Sense of Place, by Wallace Stegner (1992):

"Back to Wendell Berry, and his belief that if you don’t know where you are you don’t know who you are. He is not talking about the kind of location that can be determined by looking at a map or a street sign. He is talking about the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memory, the history of a family or a tribe. He is talking about the knowledge of place that comes from working in it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents and grandparents, your all-but-unknown ancestors have put into it. He is talking about the knowing that poets specialize in.

It is only a step from his pronouncement to another: that no place is a place until it has had a poet. 

No place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we will call poetry. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place-loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own…"        


Impressions of the West: Thomas Hart Benton (Repost - Feb. 15, 2011)

The first in our series on Impressions of the West from great authors:

Thomas Hart Benton, ca. 1937.

"Where does the West begin?

Strung in a zigzag pattern up and down the ninety-eight-degree line, there is a marked change of country which is observable wherever you journey westward, whether in the North, the middle country, or the South. About this line, though the exact distance from it is highly variable, the air becomes clearer, the sky bluer, and the world immensely bigger. There are great flat stretches of land in Louisiana, there are prairies in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, but the experienced traveler in the United States does not confuse these with the West. Even though these more eastern prairies may present the same great vistas which are connected in our thoughts with the West, they lack the character of infinitude which one gets past the ninety-eight-degree line.

In the prairie lands, coming between the old forest country of the Middle West and the plains, one is able at times to see for great distances, but it is as if one were set down in the center of a big plate with elevated edges. There are definite ends to the horizon, which acts as an enclosure and sets a limit to things. In the West proper there are no limits. The world goes on indefinitely. The horizon is not seen as the end of a scene. It carries you on beyond itself into farther and farther spaces. Even the tremendous obstructions of the Rocky Mountains do not affect the sense of infinite extension which comes over the traveler as he crosses the plains. Unless you are actually in a pocket or a canyon, the Rocky Mountains rise in such a way, tier behind tier, that they carry your vision on and on, so that the forward strain of the eyes is communicated to all the muscles of the body and you feel actually within yourself the boundlessness of the world. You feel that you can keep moving forever without coming to any end. this is the physical effect of the West.

There are many people for whom this effect is unbearable, especially as it is manifested on the great plains. Cozy-minded people for whom life's values reside in little knicknacks which must be kept within easy reach, people for whom the sense of intimacy is necessary for emotional security, hate the brute magnitude of the plains country. All their familiar urges are inhibited by the great empty stretches of land and sky, by the immensity which reduces even a city to an anthill. Time and again on motorbusses and trains I've heard people complain of the monotony, the weariness, the oppressiveness of the plains. I've heard them groan over the misery of their journey.

For me the great plains have a releasing effect. They make me want to run and shout at the top of my voice. I like their endlessness. I like the way they make human beings appear as the little bugs they really are. I like the way they make thought seem futile and ideas but the silly vapors of the physically disordered. To think out on the great plains, under the immense rolling skies and before the equally immense roll of the earth, becomes a presumptuous absurdity. Human effort is seen there in all its pitiful futility. The universe is unveiled there, stripped to dirt and air, to wind, dust, cloud and the white sun. The indifference of the physical world to all human effort stands revealed as hard inescapable fact."

An Artist In America, by Thomas Hart Benton       

 Thomas Hart Benton, ca. 1937.

Thomas Hart Benton, ca. 1937.


Impressions of the West: Thomas McGuane


Thomas McGuane’s Keep the Change is the story of Joe Starling, who grew up in Montana and moved to New York to become a successful painter. When he decides to move back to a ranch in Montana (“What made you want to go back to Montana?” “Nothing else seems to be home.” “Is that important?” “It is to me.”), he rediscovers what he loved about the western sky and grass and smell in the air.

“Joe made it a habit to ride through the yearlings every day. They were pretty well scattered out and it always took an entire morning. But he enjoyed saddling his horse in the dark and then to be rolling along as the day broke to count and check the cattle. … The great pleasure came from the grass, traveling through it horseback: the movement of the wind on its surface, the blaze of sunrise across its ocean curves. As the full warmth of the day came on, the land took on a humming vitality of cows and grass and hawks, and antelope receded dimly like something caught in your eye. Joe always rode straight into at least one covey of partridges which roared up around his horse. After the first burst, the little brick and gray chickens cast down onto a hillside and resumed feeding. Joe’s horse watched hard, then went on traveling. Instead of being someplace where he waited for the breeze through a window, Joe had gone to where the breeze came from.”

Thomas McGuane, Keep the Change, pp. 169-170.          

Credit: Christopher Owen

Credit: Christopher Owen

Credit: Christopher Owen

Thomas McGuane was awarded the Center Of the American West’s Wallace Stegner Award in 2009. Here is what the CAW had to say about McGuane:

“With precision, outrageous humor, and clear-eyed candor, you have given us today’s true West, with your disdain of greed and pomposity, your everlasting love of a good stream, a fine horse, and a plain sweep of land, and your passion for simple, productive work, all of which causes you to call cowboys “drunken, wife-beating, snoose-chewing geeks” while winning them over and a great many westerners with your honest high regard for ranch hands and others who do things carefully and right, thereby showing respect for a big-sky place that may yet save itself through honoring its best traditions.”



Impressions of the West: Robert Penn Warren

Another in our series on Impressions of the West by great authors:

“…I drew some money and got my car out of the garage and packed a bag and was headed out.  I was headed out down a long bone-white road, straight as a string and smooth as glass and glittering and wavering in the heat and humming under the tires like a plucked nerve.  I was doing seventy-five but I never seemed to catch up with the pool which seemed to be over the road just this side of the horizon.  Then, after a while, the sun was in my eyes, for I was driving west.  So I pulled the sun-screen down and squinted and put the throttle to the floor.  And kept on moving west.  For West is where we all plan to go some day.  It is where you go when the land gives out and the old-field pines encroach.  It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered.  It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see the blood on it.  It is where you go when you are told that you are a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills.  It is where you go to grow up with the country.  It is where you go to spend your old age.  Or it is just where you go.

It was just where I went.

…Then I was traveling through New Mexico, which is a land of total and magnificent emptiness with a little white filling-station flung down on the sand like a sun-bleached cow-skull by the trail….”

All the King’s Men (p. 376-377), by Robert Penn Warren