This essay was first presented in different form under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, at the Norwegian-American Literary Society in Bo, Norway, in September 2000. The memoir Mr. Woiwode refers to in the first paragraph is What I Think I Did.
The place of memory
Essay by Larry Woiwode
In Norway, where I was invited to talk about the city and the country as seen in my first memoir - in the homeland of my mother's and my wife's ancestors - I realized that an important purpose of place is to restore memory. I had to be displaced to discover this function of place. At the start of that memoir, I mention how I've forgotten my gloves on a trip to town and now, on foreign soil, I noticed that my memory was restored by a glimpse out the windshield: "There is no pollution and the sky is so purged of clouds on winter days that a silver-blue line grips the white horizon, welding the light in place: North Dakota."
Earlier, a phrase from a Russian-American novelist, Vladimir Nabokov, clung to me: "Memory is imagination." The idea is that memory is our line to a lived life. Memory not only triggers a warning of what's on the stove before it starts burning (on the simplest level) but without memory there is no coherence to the course of daily existence, no past or present, no method to sort or retrieve any fragment of knowledge, and no way to gauge our acts against the history or wisdom present in tradition.
So memory is indeed imagination, as Nabokov says. A creative or factual thought cannot rise from blankness; it comes from the storehouse of memory. Memory is as necessary to us as language. Actually, memory is the source of language, whether we think of it in those terms or not - and usually functions best if we don't. Memory is the place where personal language and all linguistic structures reside.
In a further step, it's through the aid of place that memory asserts its central role. I don't merely mean the kind of moment, common to a person my age, that occurs when I go downstairs and can't remember why I'm in the basement, so I go back upstairs and there, in that place, in the stilled geography of its external arrangement, Aha! I remember why it was I ended up in the basement.
That's true at the simplest level, with this addition: remove place and memory will fade, story spiral away, communication lapse, and everybody slip for good into the incoherent blankness of a basement moment.
If we test our earliest memories, for instance, we notice they're never abstract and seldom related to language. Instead they're pictures, stilled or cinematic, fixed in the context of an exact place. If language is associated with a picture - the voice of a parent saying, Don't, as parents do - it's because language rises from the pictorial setting of place.
Memory also pinpoints the senseless continuum of time, placing an event last week or this morning at breakfast or our date for tonight. In a longer, interlinked chain of time, memory is the source of history, and we realize sequence is necessary in order to arrange external events in what is called a narrative. Narrative relates events to our collective memory, and its ordering assures the permanence of memory. And permanence - whether it's experienced as place of rest or the still point of the turning world or the point of balance to a wobbling pivot - is a spiritual state.
Since the 1970s I've been asked to give talks or contribute essays on the "importance of place in writing," and I feel, if not a specialist on the topic, a kind of inside informer - albeit a minor one, to adopt McMurtry's Law. In the 1970s, Larry McMurtry, the novelist from Texas, began wearing in his Washington, D.C., bookstore a T-shirt that read "Minor Regional Writer." (I assume he discarded it when he won the Pulitzer Prize.) The T-shirt summed up for him the metropolitan and often academic view of those who write about a region of the countryside that isn't as popular or well known as Chicago or New York, even Minneapolis.
If we look at local poets - Joyce Kilmer of Indiana, Robert Foley of North Dakota - we see how affection for a place can degenerate into a kind of mindless worship. This is called regionalism, and can tip writing that is otherwise agreeable on a downhill slide into sentimentality. The definition of sentimentality is misplaced (out of place) emotion.
You can picture the limitations of such writing by imagining a book titled "The Famous Hunt for our Local Last Buffalo." There are several townships in most states west of the Missouri where this ghost buffalo was brought down. Or the title "Nordic Gnomes I Have Known in Northern North Dakota." The trend is apparent in a work's title or first line, as in "It takes a heap o' livin' in a house to make a home." Here another trait appears: local "colorful" (in the bad sense of the word) phrasings and dialect, as in Ole and Lena jokes, often employing blizzards of punctuation to personify the dialect.
Perhaps it is the sentimentality of local writing that has caused an academic reaction. For instance, a professor from the East asked to interview me and in preparation sent a sheaf of questions, and I'll mention only two; these topped his list, and I quote them exactly: 1) What sorts of things sustain a writer, or any artist, in what many people see as the isolated geography of N.D.; and 2) Do you think that the undervaluation of your work may be a function of geography, or place?
The answer to the first, what sustains an artist, is easy: food. And whether it's true or not, I appreciate the term undervaluation. Wouldn't everybody like to hear, "Hey, you're undervalued!"
So in one sector of the literary network that extends from New York City outward, it appears that if you are not from there, or a similar literary capital, your work will suffer, due to the "function of geography."
This view ignores the habitations and settings, indeed, the tradition found in Steinbeck and Hemingway and Faulkner, Willa Cather and Eudora Welty and Flannery O'Connor, to name a few, and carried forward in writers as diverse as Jane Smiley and Marilynne Robinson and Tom McGuane. But another side exists, as illustrated by a selection of quotes among many from the work of John Updike, as in Self-Consciousness: "My mother lived and, indeed, still lives, in a rural area called - embarrassingly, at least to me - Plowville." Or from The Music School: "Never far from a farm or the memory of a farm, the family has hovered in honorable obscurity, between poverty and wealth, between jail and high office."
Or this dialogue from Pigeon Feathers:
"Elsie, I KNOW, I know from my education, the earth is nothing but chemicals. It's the only damn thing I got out of four years of college, so don't tell me it's not true."
"George, if you'd just walk out on the farm you'd know it's not true. The land has a SOUL."
"Soil, has, no, soul," he said, enunciating stiffly, as if to a very stupid class.
I got a sense of the cumulative effect of this attitude when I was teaching at an Eastern University and the subject of farming came up and was met with joking derision by the class, so I asked them where they thought they got their food. "The deli," somebody said, not intending to be funny. "So where does the deli get it?" I asked.
"Warehouses," another said, and that was as far as their knowledge of this essential to their lives extended.
D. H. Lawrence wrote, "When you are actually in America, America hurts, because it has a powerful disintegrative influence upon the white psyche." Lawrence was a novelist and outcast from Britain who settled in New Mexico, a region where one of the most advanced indigenous cultures once reigned:
[America] is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men ... until the white men give up their absolute whiteness ...
Yet one day the demons of America must be placated, the ghosts must be appeased, the Spirit of Place atoned for. Then the true passionate love for American soil will appear.
This resonates through the American experience across most of the last century up until now. And I suspect it isn't until one gives up his or her absolute whiteness (if one is white) that one begins to feel at home in the place called America, just as every immigrant who comes to America gives up a cultural and national identity. This giving up or giving over is known as "deracination" - a bleeding away of originality until hardly more than a husk remains. The more immigrants gave up or presently give up, the more "American" they tend to feel, and this deracination gives a clue about America as a place. Without an original identity our minds can be flooded by the lowest common denominator - the gabby chatter about violence and toxic negative events called the evening news.
Underneath all of this, like the soil itself, another tradition exists, starting with the Greek poet Homer. Once the Trojan War is settled in a better way than in the recent movie Troy, all the travels of Homer's hero Odysseus tend toward his wife, Penelope. In the tradition of early history their marriage "was part of a complex practical circumstance involving, in addition to husband and wife, their family, both descendants and forebears, their household, their community, and the sources of all these lives in memory and tradition, in the countryside, and in the earth." The comment is from Wendell Berry, and the proof of the view is that when Odysseus finally returns to his home in Ithaca, his father is tending an orchard, his wife weaving, his son back from the sea.
Homer saw fulfillment in the domestic life at home, and the later author of Beowulf wove into his hero's travels and exploits meditations on place and on heroic and not-very-nice women, not Saran-wrapped Angelina Jolie. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson composed local sagas and myths and instructed others how to keep them local in his Prose Edda.
Down the line we have pastoral poets, beginning with Chaucer, and pastoral playwrights, as seen in Shakespeare, and pastoral writing from Virgil and Ovid on down, that is, writing set in a rural area, since pastor means shepherd - the Biblical identity of a pastor as overseer of a "flock." In America a group of Southerners, the Agrarians, came up with this view in the 1930s: "The lesson of each of the European cultures now extant is this - that European opinion does not make too much of the intense practical enterprises, but is at pains to define rather narrowly the practical effort which is prerequisite to the reflective and aesthetic life ... For it is the character of a seasoned provincial [or rural] life that it is realistic, or successfully adapted to its natural environment, and that as a consequence it is stable, or hereditable."
It can be passed on, inherited; a sequential, generational bond.
Add to that D. H. Lawrence's comment and our local history - the thousands of immigrants who left the geophysical beauty of Norway, where a seasoned provincial life was established, and settled in the Midwest or Great Plains - how could they! - beginning in Michigan, and then moving across Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North and South Dakota, with groupings in areas as diverse as Brooklyn and Oregon - these pioneers have left more Scandinavian descendants than now reside in Sweden and Norway. What a scattering and gathering of place!
For a generation or two, none of them wished to speak their native language (and often forbade their children to) so they could undergo the deracination that seems the essence of American identity. A symptom of the deracination is the denial of the urban dwellers to see country people, tillers of the soil, as necessary to their existence; and the reluctance of anybody under twenty-one to read and enter the dimensional entity of another individual - "Because you can find it on the Internet."
Few forms of flat-earth life are as one-dimensional and deracinating as the Internet.
Yet another aspect of place is the idea of the country mouse (the church mouse its poor relative) and the city rat. Those divisions tell us how the two species organize their homes; mice in local family units, usually in nests, rats in loosely related metropolitan gaggles. A Herald Tribune article noted that residents of Chicago's ritzy North Shore registered 17,000 complaints about rats between May and August - which is nothing compared to New York, the newspaper reported, where an estimated 70 million rats reside. Approximately 17 million human beings live in New York, so that puts the status at four to one.
This isn't to set the country above the city, and reminds me of a story about a gentle elderly man living alone in New York City, with none of his family near, no friends to keep him company, who adopts a mystical relationship with a mouse that visits his apartment. The sense of reconciliation conveyed by that image, a man in the anonymous city communing with a mouse expresses the kind of unity between city and country that it would be healthy for America to achieve.
In the history of American writing certain narrators leave the country for the city, but we see also the opposite. In his retreat to Walden, Thoreau may seem the first writer to head for the woods. But Washington Irving left New York City for the Catskills; Fenimore Cooper was the first European American to explore the forest as it existed for a vanishing Native population; and the concern for a lost relationship to the land has passed to Wendell Berry and North Dakota’s Louise Erdrich, among others.
Place resides in the writer. Whatever captures his or her attention is the direction the writing takes. The "where" of a story and the incidents in it (set in the prism of time) become the story's place. To see it another way, a character must have an exterior ambience, earth or concrete to walk on, or a room or a house that a particular person inhabits as no other would. That is "place" in fiction.
The real place of the writer is metaphor, inside the network of words that isn't life itself or quite like life but that can instill in another the illusion, as it was for the writer, that here is life indeed. Metaphor is the location of any writer when the writer is at work - his or her resting place. In a book of criticism, the North Dakota novelist William Gass explores this concept so minutely he speaks of the "geography of the sentence." The title of the book itself is The World Within the Word.
There is no place in the world a writer can't inhabit with words, once the imaginative grip of memory, as it establishes its residence in metaphor, sets a flag on a particular inner geography. As American writing becomes increasingly personal, even solipsistic, as indeed it has, Gass says that "No one quite believes in any inner spirit but his own." This is an effect of the deracination in America; only "I" exist.
Each person seeks his or her individual identity, with no reference to any structure or tradition or immigrant heritage or any index but oneself. Cell phones and video games, led by television, displace the presence of people. This is a harrowing experience for many in America, and it is why young people strike out in such inexplicable, unprecedented, often violent ways. They are living the epitome of their inheritance, the blank page, with no local story to hold them to a place with a fruitful end.
Besides a distancing mistrust in young people, I sense a yearning unrest - a desire for their spirits to be appeased, perhaps. One of the more articulate, Daphne Merkin, wrote in the New Yorker, "I've been trying to lose my religion for years now, but it refuses to go away ... You'd think it would be easy, particularly in a city like New York, where no one cares whether or not you believe in God; even my friends who would be hard put to explain why, other than by alluding knowingly to Pascal's wager, in which the odds favor the believer. But as the world becomes a more bewildering place almost by the week, I find myself longing for what I thought I'd never long for again: a sense of community in the midst of the impersonal vastness, a tribe to call my own."
Merkin is on the track, I believe, of a promising trend. I see places of the spirit no person has explored, entire landscapes that miss the scrutiny of the most rigorous analysts - although writing has taught psychiatry that the psyche and dislocations in it, such as the Oedipal conflict, exist - and I believe that American writing stands at the threshold of being able to speak about its semi-appeased ghosts and the habitations of spirituality as at no other time. North Dakotans are best poised for this. They hold pristine memories of place. And if they cherish the earth and the diverse populations on it with the reverence of mutual regard, then a new kind of communication could be forged for generations after us who wish to hear about the places we have inhabited and that inhabit us. This will happen when we're led from the impersonal vastness of the present to consider our neighbor (whoever that might be) in this place where we're situated in the ideal setting for telling stories of our love for the land and its people in terms previous generations could scarcely have imagined.