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Guide to Life and Literature
of the Southwest


2
Interpreters of the Land

"HE'S FOR A JIG or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps." Thought employs ideas, but having an idea is not the same thing as thinking. A rooster in a pen of hens has an idea. Thought has never been so popular with mankind as horse opera, horse play, the main idea behind sheep's eyes. Far be it from me to feel contempt for people who cannot and do not want to think. The human species has not yet evolved to the stage at which thought is natural. I am far more at ease lying in grass and gazing without thought process at clouds than in sitting in a chair trying to be logical. Just the same, free play of mind upon life is the essence of good writing, and intellectual activity is synonymous with critical interpretations.

To the constant disregard of thought, Americans of the mid-twentieth century have added positive opposition. Critical ideas are apt to make any critic suspected of being subversive. The Southwest, Texas especially, is more articulately aware of its land spaces than of any other feature pertaining to itself. Yet in the realm of government, the Southwest has not produced a single spacious thinker. So far as the cultural ancestry of the region goes, the South has been arid of thought since the time of Thomas Jefferson, the much talked- of mind of John C. Calhoun being principally casuistic; on another side, derivatives from the Spanish Inquisition could contribute to thought little more than tribal medicine men have contributed.

Among historians of the Southwest the general rule has been to be careful with facts and equally careful in avoiding thought-provoking interpretations. In the multitudinous studies on Spanish-American history all padres are "good" and all conquistadores are "intrepid," and that is about as far as interpretation goes. The one state book of the Southwest that does not chloroform ideas is Erna Fergusson's New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples (Knopf, New York, 1952). Essayical in form, it treats only of the consequential. It evaluates from the point of view of good taste, good sense, and an urbane comprehension of democracy. The subject is provincial, but the historian transcends all provincialism. Her sympathy does not stifle conclusions unusable in church or chamber of commerce propaganda. In brief, a cultivated mind can take pleasure in this interpretation of New Mexico--and that marks it as a solitary among the histories of neighboring states.

The outstanding historical interpreter of the Southwest is Walter Prescott Webb, of the University of Texas. The Great Plains utilizes chronology to explain the presence of man on the plains; it is primarily a study in cause and effect, of water and drought, of adaptations and lack of adaptations, of the land's growth into human imagination as well as economic institutions. Webb uses facts to get at meanings. He fulfils Emerson's definition of Scholar: "Man Thinking." In Divided We Stand he goes into machinery, the feudalism of corporation-dominated economy, the economic supremacy of the North over the South and the West. In The Great Frontier (Houghton Mifilin, Boston, 1952) he considers the Western Hemisphere as a frontier for Europe--a frontier that brought about the rise of democracy and capitalism and that, now vanished as a frontier, foreshadows the vanishment of democracy and capitalism.

In Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and a Myth (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1950) Henry Nash Smith plows deep. But the tools of this humanistic historian are of delicate finish rather than of horsepower. To him, thinking is a joyful process and lucidity out of complexity is natural. He compasses Parrington's Main Currents in American Thought and Beadle's Dime Novels along with agriculture and manufacturing. Excepting the powerful books by Walter Prescott Webb, not since Frederick Jackson Turner, in 1893, presented his famous thesis on "The Significance of the Frontier in American History" has such a revealing evaluation of frontier movements appeared As a matter of fact, Henry Nash Smith leaves Turner's ideas on the dependence of democracy upon farmers without more than one leg to stand upon. Not being a King Canute, he does not take sides for or against social evolution. With the clearest eyes imaginable, he looks into it. Turner's The Frontier in American History (1920) has been a fertile begetter of interpretations of history.

Instead of being the usual kind of jokesmith book or concatenation of tall tales, Folk Laughter on the American Frontier by Mody C. Boatright (Macmillan, New York, 1949) goes into the human and social significances of humor. Of boastings, anecdotal exaggerations, hide-and-hair metaphors, stump and pulpit parables, tenderfoot baitings, and the like there is plenty, but thought plays upon them and arranges them into patterns of social history.

Mary Austin (1868-1934) is an interpreter of nature, which for her includes naturally placed human beings as much as naturally placed antelopes and cacti. She wrote The American Rhythm on the theory that authentic poetry expresses the rhythms of that patch of earth to which the poet is rooted. Rhythm is experience passed into the subconscious and is "distinct from our intellectual perception of it." Before they can make true poetry, English-speaking Americans will be in accord with "the run of wind in tall grass" as were the Pueblo Indians when Europeans discovered them. But Mary Austin's primary importance is not as a theorist. Her spiritual depth is greater than her intellectual. She is a translator of nature through concrete observations. She interprets through character sketches, folk tales, novels. "Anybody can write facts about a country," she said. She infuses fact with understanding and imagination. In Lost Borders, The Land of Little Rain, The Land of Journey's Ending, and The Flock the land itself often seems to speak, but often she gets in its way. She sees "with an eye made quiet by the power of harmony." Earth Horizons, a stubborn book, is Mary Austin's inner autobiography. The Beloved House, by T. M. Pearce (Caxton, Caldwell, Idaho, 1940), is an understanding biography.

Joseph Wood Krutch of Columbia University spent a year in Arizona, near Tucson. Instead of talking about his The Desert Year (Sloane, New York, 1952), I quote a representative paragraph:

In New England the struggle for existence is visibly the struggle of plant with plant, each battling his neighbor for sunlight and for the spot of ground which, so far as moisture and nourishment are concerned, would support them all. Here, the contest is not so much of plant against plant as of plant against inanimate nature. The limiting factor is not the neighbor but water; and I wonder if this is, perhaps, one of the things which makes this country seem to enjoy a kind of peace one does not find elsewhere. The struggle of living thing against living thing can be distressing in a way that a mere battle with the elements is not. If some great clump of cactus dies this summer it will be because the cactus has grown beyond the capacity of its roots to get water, not because one green fellow creature has bested it in some limb-to-limb struggle. In my more familiar East the crowding of the countryside seems almost to parallel the crowding of the cities. Out here there is, even in nature, no congestion.

Southwest, by Laura Adams Armer (New York, 1935, OP) came from long living and brooding in desert land. It says something beautiful.

Talking to the Moon, by John Joseph Mathews (University of Chicago Press, 1945) is set in the blackjack country of eastern Oklahoma. This Oxford scholar of Osage blood built his ranch house around a fireplace, flanked by shelves of books. His observations are of the outside, but they are informed by reflections made beside a fire. They are not bookish at all, but the spirits of great writers mingle with echoes of coyote wailing and wood-thrush singing.

Sky Determines: An Interpretation of the Southwest, by Ross Calvin (New York, 1934; republished by the University of New Mexico Press) lives up to its striking title. The introductory words suggest the essence of the book:

In New Mexico whatever is both old and peculiar appears upon examination to have a connection with the arid climate. Peculiarities range from the striking adaptations of the flora onward to those of fauna, and on up to those of the human animal. Sky determines. And the writer once having picked up the trail followed it with certainty, and indeed almost inevitably, as it led from ecology to anthropology and economics.

Cultivated intellect is the highest form of civilization. It is inseparable from the arts, literature, architecture. In any civilized land, birds, trees, flowers, animals, places, human contributors to life out of the past, all are richer and more significant because of representations through literature and art. No literate person can listen to a skylark over an English meadow without hearing in its notes the melodies of Chaucer and Shelley. As the Southwest advances in maturity of mind and civilization, the features of the land take on accretions from varied interpreters.

It is not necessary for an interpreter to write a whole book about a feature to bring out its significance. We need more gossipy books--something in the manner of Pinon Country by Haniel Long (Duell, Sloan and Pearce, New York, 1941), in which one can get a swift slant on Billy the Kid, smell the pinon trees, feel the deeply religious attitude toward his corn patch of a Zuni Indian. Roy Bedichek's chapters on the mockingbird, in Adventures with a Texas Naturalist, are like rich talk under a tree on a pleasant patch of ground staked out for his claim by an April-voiced mockingbird. In The Voice of the Coyote I tried to compass the whole animal, and I should think that the "Father of Song-Making" chapter might make coyote music and the night more interesting and beautiful for any listener. Intelligent writers often interpret without set purpose, and many books under various categories in this Guide are interpretative.



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