Monday, January 26, 2015

Up on the Rim

My wife Sue taught a celebrated course in Montana literature. She knew most of those whose works she taught, and was able to bring the authors' own insights to students. She was contacted many years ago by Joan Evans, whose father, Dale Eunson, had written a Montana classic, Up on the Rim, about growing up on a hardscrabble ranch in central Montana. The book was out of print. Sue was the person who might be able to get the book reprinted.

Dale Eunson and his wife Katherine Albert were MGM screenwriters, and Joan was their daughter. Katherine had not only become a screenwriter, but was also an assistant to Louis B. Mayer, and a force at the studio. Joan was named after her parents' friend Joan Crawford, who was also her godmother.

Joan Eunson became Joan Evans, and was a Goldwyn contract player doing numerous films as a leading lady opposite such people as Audie Murphy, Farley Granger, and Dana Andrews. Thus it came to pass that we had Joan Evans as our guest for a day or two. Sue was able to arrange a reprint and the new edition was offered by Riverbend Publishing Company.

Our lovely guest entertained us with numerous stories about MGM people, including her godmother, whom Joan loved and admired. As a result of those conversations I came to see Joan Crawford far more positively than I had. We took Joan and her grandson to Yellowstone Park during calving season, and the boy was enchanted to be surrounded by buffalo whose shaggy heads pushed against our car windows. The park was alive with little red buffalo calves.

If I recollect correctly, Sue was able to get a new edition of Dale Eunson's memoir of boyhood life in Montana published before Eunson died in California. The book is still available and of great interest to students of Montana literature.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Stanley Gordon West

My friend Stan West is dead. He lived here in Livingston many years, but his last years were spent in the Twin Cities, close to his children. He began life as a Lutheran pastor, but that life paled, and he ended up a fine novelist.

He wrote a memorable novel called Amos, a story about an old man wrestling with the corrupt administrator of a nursing home. It was loosely based on circumstances here. The book became an Emmy-nominated TV drama staring Kirk Douglas and Elisabeth Montgomery, and triggered a major wave of reforms and legal protections for old people.

Oddly, Stan could not sell any more novels in New York, so he formed his own publishing company, Lexington-Marshall, and began writing and selling fine young adult stories that did well and got glowing reviews. He was always the idealist, and built his stories around courageous young people who tried to do what was right, often in painful circumstances. Anyone who looks at his Amazon reader reviews will discover he was a much loved and honored storyteller, a hero to many readers.

Stan returned to Livingston now and then, and sometimes stayed with me, and we had an ongoing friendship that renewed itself with each visit over many years. I was always glad to see him.

Now he is gone, and I will miss him.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


In my youth my parents shopped at a Kohl's market on North Avenue in suburban Milwaukee where we found an excellent variety of foods always available. Eventually Kohl's sold its grocery line and went into general merchandising, and is now a major internet retailer.

Those pleasant memories of a good store and company were awakened in me when I was looking recently for a shirt, and found one on sale at Kohl's online. I require a large-tall, or extra-large tall, depending on circumstances, and ordered the shirt. These are standard American sizes, and I have often purchased shirts of that size from Bean, or Penney, or Woolrich, and gotten just what I needed.

When the Kohl's shirt arrived in about three weeks I discovered it was much too large in all directions, and made in Asia. Rather than going through the hassle of returning an inexpensive shirt I set it aside to give to charity. Then the Internet blitzkrieg started. Each day I was assailed by several Kohl's emails and intrusions on my computer screen, some animated, all intending to distract me from my quiet business. This continued through Christmas and beyond.

It became apparent that Kohl's did not consider me a valued customer, but someone to cajole and bully into more purchases. The spam far exceeded anything else I've experienced in all my years on the Internet. At one point the company asked whether I wished to have the email ads discontinued. I answered hesitantly, because usually such queries are simply intended to confirm that I am seeing the promotions. But I answered, hoping some shred of the old, more honorable Kohl's persisted in the current version of the company. Of course the emails never stopped and continue to this day.

I am powerless to stop the promotions, and simply delete them unread. It costs them virtually nothing to shovel out the spam. But in my own small way I can alert my readers, and warn them away from an abusive company, and maybe deprive them of a sale or two. It won't stop the blitzkrieg, but there is some satisfaction in it.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Readers and Paywalls

Like many Internet browsers, I like to visit various papers each day. I especially like to see what is being said in the New York Times and Washington Post, but I visit other papers too, especially Montana ones. I subscribe to my hometown paper.

It is too costly to maintain Internet subscriptions to the several papers I wish to read, all of which have paywalls, so I end up getting the news elsewhere, on TV or at free Internet sites like Bloomberg or The Daily Beast or Huffington.

I wish some entrepreneur would start a company that makes it possible for browsers to browse among participating newspapers. Let's call it Passport, just to give it a name. For a monthly fee, Passport will let you browse up to a certain level among participating papers. For example, if I pay Passport twenty dollars a month for a hundred visits to participating papers, or thirty a month for a hundred-fifty visits, the participating papers would earn money, and browsers like me would be satisfied.

My instinct is that Passport would become wildly popular among browsers, and the participating papers would make a great deal of money, far more than they do now with paywalls. What do browsers get out of it? They won't need to pay several papers fifteen a month for access. What do the publishing companies get out of it? A lot more money than they are getting now, simply because browsers can't afford subscriptions to several papers at once, so they don't subscribe at all.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Historian

I received a call from a young lady who said she was working on a paper about Iwo Jima. Would I talk to her about it?

I told her I wished I could, but I'm not the right author. Richard Wheeler, the Marine Corps historian and chronicler of the Civil War, is someone else. You can look him up. He has won glowing reviews of his accounts of Civil War battles, and legendary struggles of the Marines in World War Two.

I've kept an eye on him, and believe he died about a decade ago, leaving behind him a fine legacy of war histories. On one occasion I received a carton of trade paperbacks of one of his Civil War books, that wended its way to me. I called Harper Collins, but they could think of no way to forward the histories, and advised me to keep them. I gave them away. He was a fine author, and readers prized his histories.

I advised the young lady, probably a college student, that she would need to track down another Richard Wheeler; that I wrote fiction, not history, and used my middle initial to separate myself from the Richard Wheeler who had gone before me, and who no doubt was older. I wished I could help her. There is no Wiki entry on the historian, although Goodreads carefully draws a distinction between us.

I wondered whether we might be related. But if he was dead, I would not be able to ask him about it. But it did remind me that American publishing is large and complex, and the thousands of books it generates each year are rooted in the lives of different persons.

I would like to salute the other Richard Wheeler, and express my admiration for him.

Mixed Feelings

The season of literary awards is upon us, and over the next few weeks we will be seeing what books and authors have won honors.

I have received several awards, and am genuinely grateful for them, and pleased to be honored. And yet I confess to mixed feelings about them. The bestowal of an award doesn't mean that the book is worthwhile or the best in the field.

The judging process is hectic; most books are barely examined, often just a few opening pages and then discarded. Few judges read the entire selection or complete all entries. There is some validity in it: a good judge can usually get a sense of a book's merits within a few pages. Often an author's weaknesses are evident from the opening paragraphs.

But that is not the reason for my mixed feelings. Literature needs to be absorbed over time, and sorted out over time. If a book has merit, it will endure, find its readership, continue to win praise and sell well. A book that has been around a long time is likely to have something to offer readers through generations. If we read Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at Christmas, it is because the story still commands our respect and wins our devotion.

I am in no hurry to honor authors and titles. A time of seasoning is needed to validate the awards. If a book still commands respect five or ten years after publication, then it surely has merit. I would not go so far as to abolish awards such as the Pulitzers, the Nobel, and the National Book Awards, but I do believe that these often serve vanity more than excellence.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Canon

Montana prides itself on its literary inheritance, and has a sort of informal canon that includes authors and titles that have made their mark here and upon the nation. I have been pursuing the canon for years. It varies broadly, and in the decades I've been here it has shed most of its early members and added a few new ones.

One can Google these various attempts to put together a list of outstanding Montana authors. They rise from differing sources, and vary accordingly. Most have academic roots; some are gender-oriented. For years, the literary canon was the project of English professors and their allies at the university in Missoula, a school with a proud record of literary achievement, and a distinguished faculty.

In recent times there seems to have been unusual change. Some of the old standby authors, such as A. B. Guthrie, Jr, Dorothy Johnson, and Mildred Walker, have vanished. But the heart of the lists, namely Ivan Doig and Larry Watson, is much the same.  Doig's This House of Sky is the finest nonfiction work of growing up in the rural West I have ever read.

In the seventies, new arrivals began to challenge the old regime and the comfortable assumptions of academia. Livingston, in particular, a town with no college, attracted a variety of novelists and nonfiction writers, including Tom McGuane, who has written numerous comedies of manners; Jim Harrison, likewise; Tim Cahill, the finest adventure writer of our times; Jamie Harrison, who wrote with a keen eye on the foibles of Livingston people; Doug Peacock, one of the great naturalists of our times, and his well-published wife Andrea; Walter Kirn, novelist, essayist and critic, who has seen his work turn into good films. And of course William Hjortsberg, novelist and biographer. They and others are still here, but are excluded from the canon. Livingston's writers have vanished from the canon, perhaps because most of the writers here actually make a living at their craft, and don't receive academic paychecks. 

There are, indeed, outliers, pulp writers going back as far as B. M. Bower, and as recent as Terry Johnston who made a fortune writing about the fur trade and Indian wars. There were pulp writers like Norman Fox and Walt Coburn, who earned great sums writing at two cents a word. I don't see Missoula people on the list either. Jim Crumley has disappeared. They seem to come and go.

So, the lists change year by year, and the current ones lack names and titles I recognize. There probably is no such thing as an enduring Montana literary canon. It is simply an ever-shifting collection, without defining criteria, of literature about life in the state. An empty English Department preoccupation, with minimal value.