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Friday, October 26, 2012

Today In Wyoming's History: October 26 Sidebar: Wyoming Authors

I became extremely diverted with the Today In Wyoming's History: October 26 entry.  By the time I was done with the last item, I was pretty far off a "today in history" type post, and off onto something else.  What diverted me was this long entry:

2010  It was reported that Wyoming mystery writer C. J. Box donated his papers to the University of Wyoming.
Charles James Box is fairly unusual for a widely popular "Wyoming" writer, in that he is actually from Wyoming, which most nationally read "Wyoming" authors have not been in recent years.  Box was born in 1967 and lives outside of Cheyenne.  He's the author over a dozen novels, most of which are in a series featuring a fictional Wyoming Game Warden, Joe Pickett, as the protagonist.  While I haven't read any of the novels, the choice of a Game Warden as the protagonist is an insight that would perhaps be unique to a Wyoming author.  Box worked a variety of jobs, including that of cowboy, correspondent, and columnist, before his novels allowed him to be a full time writer.
In contrast, the very widely popular "Wyoming" author Craig Johnson, who is also typically mentioned in that fashion, "Wyoming author", was actually born in Huntington, West Virginia and lived in a wide variety of places.  He's lived, however, in Ucross for the past 25 years, so he's been located in Wyoming for at least half of his life, however, and worked some iconic Western jobs in his youth, I believe.  Ironically, Johnson's series of novels based on the experiences of a fictional sheriff in a county loosely based on Johnson and Sheridan Counties, are more widely popular than Box's novels, which are written by an actual native Wyomingite.  Johnson's novels have recently been made into a television series which is popular with Wyomingites and one can even now observe election bumper stickers for the fictional sheriff of the fictional town.  According to some who have read them (which I have not) at least a few place names in the books are real.  One such place is the Busy  Bee cafe in Buffalo.
For a period of time Annie Proulx was cited as being a "Wyoming author", which is far from correct for the Norwich Connecticut born author of "The Shipping News", amongst other novels.  She has had a residence in Wyoming since 1994, however.  At one time she was indicating that she was going to relocate to New Mexico, although I do not know if she did, and she lives part of the year in Newfoundland.  Proulx made some comments noting that residents of Wyoming near her residence in Wyoming lacked in some degree of friendliness, and her novel "Brokeback Mountain" was not well received in Wyoming.  Proulx is perhaps unique in that early in her career she was frequently cited as being a "New England author" and then later as a "Wyoming author".
Another "Wyoming author", Alexandra Fuller, is actually a Zimbabwean ex-patriot, which her most significant work, "Don't Lets Go To The Dogs Tonight", would make plain, if her thick English like accent did not.  Fuller is the author of a book attempting to reflect the true story of a young man who died in the oilfield due to a tragic accident, but at least in my view, interviews of her tend to very much reflect an outisders view of her adopted state.  Fuller doesn't claim to be a Wyoming native by any means, but at least in the one book attempts to present insights on her adopted state. Here too, I haven't read the book.
Independent writer and author of a book generally critical of Wyoming's politics and economy ("Pushed Off The Mountain, Sold Down The River), Sam Western, likewise lives in Wyoming, but is not, I believe, from here.  Western is frequently quoted within Wyoming, but the author built his career as a magazine writer for a variety of magazines, including Sports Illustrated and The London Economist.  His book on Wyoming's economy brought him to the attention of Wyomingites, where he's remained, and is still frequently debated.  At least one insightful criticism of the book noted that the main point of the book seemed to be that Wyoming wasn't like every other US state in terms of its economy, which would be true, but which would raise more questions than it would answer.  I also haven't read this book.
This even extends to newspaper columnists, to a degree, although its easier to find Wyoming authors in the newspapers.  An example of the ex-patriot columnist, however, would be provided by the Casper Star Tribune's Mary Billiter, who is a relocated Californian.  Her columns (which I find to be repetitious and maudlin) have brought her enough attention that she was put on a board of some type by Governor Mead recently, although I don't recall the details.  She is also the author of a novel, although I know none of the details about it.  In spite of my criticism of her I'd note that she does not claim to be a Wyoming author.
Coming closer to home, author Linda Hasselstrom is sometimes noted as being a resident of the state, which she is, but she doesn't claim to be a Wyoming author. She's a South Dakotan who writes on ranch topics from a woman's prospective, which reflects her background.  I probably ought not to note her in this list, but her status is kind of interesting in that her youth and early adult years associated with ranching would be quite familiar to Wyomingites, and she has had long residence here, but she's mostly noted as being in another genre, which is "women ranching authors".

Even such legendary (at least at one time) figures such as Peggy Simpson Curry, who occupied the position of Wyoming's Poet Laureate, are not actually Wyomingites by birth.   Curry was born in Scotland, but she grew up in North Park Colorado, where her father worked for a ranch.  She did live, however, in Casper for many years, and on Casper Mountain as well.  As a slight aside, I recall Curry reciting poetry at Garfield Elementary School in Casper when I was a child, where she was introduced as the state Poet Laureate. She scared me to death, as she had a sort of odd high pitched matronly voice and recited her poetry very loudly.  From a child's prospective, that didn't work well.  Curry was also celebrated in Walden Colorado, where she grew up, and is noted as a Western author, which reflects her overall life.

A more recent Poet Laureate, Charles Levendosky was born in the Bronx and moved to the state to work for the Casper Star Tribune when he was in his 30s.  Governor Sullivan, also from Casper, made the appointment and Levendosky was well known in Wyoming academic circles at the time.  He was a pretty powerful columnist for the Star Tribune at a time in which they had some very respected columnists, a status which, in my view, they no longer occupy as strongly.  In the same era the Tribune had a well respected local physician, Dr. Joseph Murphy, who doubled as a columnist. Dr. Murphy was indeed not only from Wyoming, but from Casper.
The point of all of this, if there is one, is not to suggest that only Wyomingites can write about Wyoming.  But, rather, to point out an odd phenomenon regarding written works and the American West in general, and more particularly Wyoming.  It's been long the case that many widely read authors on Western topics are either arrivals to the region, or emigrants from it who no longer reside there.  Mari Sandoz, for example, was a Nebraska native, but left the state and then wrote about it.  Wila Cather is likewise associated with Nebraska, but spent her adult years outside of the state.   Aldo Leopold grew famous with "A Sand Country Almanac", which remains a classic, but Leopold was from the Midwest, not New Mexico. Wyoming has produced one notable fiction writer in recent years, C. J. Box, but oddly he's the least widely read of authors sometimes cites as being "Wyoming authors", with most of the other individuals who are referred to in that fashion having ties to other regions.

What does this mean, if anything?  Well, it might not mean anything at all.  American society is highly mobile, far higher than most others.  We'd expect a German author, for example, to have been born and raised in Germany, or an Irish author to have been born and raised in Ireland.  But Americans are nomadic.  For that reason, perhaps, we shouldn't really be surprised by this phenomenon.  

It might also mean something a bit deeper.  Perhaps those who come from the outside are particularly attuned to the nuances of anyone culture.  That is, perhaps, things that are really unique to many people are not to people living an experience.  It's often been noted, for example, that one of the best (supposedly) anti-war books is The Red Badge of Courage, even though the author had not experienced war at the time he wrote.  Maybe a really experienced person can no longer note what's unique about his experience, although plenty of books in that same arena, such as Leckie's "A Helmet For My Pillow" or even Maldin's "Up Front" would suggest otherwise.  Having said that, I think I've come to that conclusion with historical novels, one of which I've been trying to write.  After really studying it, I'm fairly certain that many of the routine things a person would experience in any one era of history are novel to people in later eras.  It's hard for the writers to note those, however, because unless they've experienced them in a non routine fashion, they won't even know about them.  That's what caused me to create my Lex Anteinternet blog, in an effort to learn and explore those details.

However, if there's an element of truth in that, it certainly isn't universal.  Texas has produced a large number of writers over the decades that had a deep understanding of that state, or the West in general.  J. Frank Dobie, for example, was a Texan and his work "The Voice of the Coyote" remains an absolute classic.  Larry McMurtry, perhaps best known for his novel "Lonseome Dove", wrote what may bet he most insightful and accurate novel of modern ranch life ever written, "Horseman, Pass By" (the basis for the movie "Hud").  University of Nebraska professor and Nebraskan author Roger Welsch has written a series of brillian entertaining books on Nebraska themes.  So clearly a local observant writer can indeed write insightful works of great merit.

I guess, in the end, that's the point of this long entry.  Not to criticize outside authors, resident or note, who have written on the state, but rather to point out there are not doubt some great authors from here, many probably slaving away, who, hopefully, will have their works see the light of day, or at least the black of print.
 In thinking on this, this is really much more of a sidebar, rather than a "today" type item, even though, appropriately, a "today" item is tied in.

I have to admit that I have some trepidation  in posting an item like this.  I've learned over time that commentary in print can very easily have the accidental effect of insulting, which is not the aim here. That is, I don't mean to suggest that only Wyomingites can write about Wyoming, or that you must be born here to write about Wyoming.  Hardly.  Rather, it's just an interesting, to me, observation.  It's been long the history of the American West that many of the best authors on Western topics, if they were born here, left.  And if they live here, they moved in.

This is not to suggest, however, that this must be the case, or that it is universally the case.  That wouldn't be true either, and the post sort of hopes that more local authors will do well in the future.


  1. It occurs to me that this is, in some ways, the second time in recent weeks when I've been a bit critical of the Casper Star Tribune.

    I like the Tribune, which is Wyoming's only statewide paper, but I was reminded again today of their decline. But I was also reminded that there are some fine Wyoming based newspaper columnists still around.

    The Casper Journal, owned by the Tribune, has a collection of them. Susan Anderson, an author and long time Casper based journalist writes columns for the Journal. Bill Sniffen, a businessman in Lander, writes columns for the Journal as well. George Kay, a very long time Wyoming sportscaster, writes Journal columns. And Doug Crowe, a former head of the Wyoming Game and Fish, writes great acid wit columns.

    I'm sure not everyone loves everyone of these writers, and the Journal has at least one I don't read. But it's hard to understand why this talent is over at the Tribune owned, but independently run, Journal while the Tribune fares so poorly in comparison.

    Today provides a good example. Readers of the Tribune are treated to another article by Mary Billitier which focuses on her life as a twice divorced single mother. Granted, her life is no doubt of sad interest to many, and resembles the situations of no doubt quite a few, but this is the central theme of her writing. That such heavyweights would be at the Journal, while such comparatively sad fare at the Tribune, can't be blamed on the Internet, but it's sure an exhibit of the sad state of the Tribune's decline. I'm not saying that they should fire Billitier, although I think perhaps she should be moved off the editorial page to some sort of human interest section (which the Tribune lacks), but rather, can't the Tribune borrow the Journals' columnists, or perhaps run their columns the next week?

  2. Following up on this just a bit, and in reading today's Trib, I was reminded that the Tribune does indeed have some decent writers. Joan Barron, for example, who writes from the State Capitol is one such writer. So perhaps I've been too hasty to judge.

    I still feel the paper isn't what it once was, but in retrospect, in noting what I didn't like, I probably painted with a brush that was a bit too broad.