Sunday, December 30, 2007

City Pages and the West

I have almost always lived in cities, either in the Rocky Mountain West or on the eastern seaboard. Tucson and Missoula to the left of the map. Hartford and, now, Baltimore to the right. I find much great nonfiction literature in which the eastern seaboard cities are a primary focus, even, to some extent, characters. But when it comes to literary narrative nonfiction about the urban American West, there is next to nothing. Why is that?

The answers are myriad, as you’ll find if you read Jenny Shank’s recent entry in the books section of, one of my favorite sites for news and chat about the Rocky Mountain west. A question I asked Jenny started a discussion between us on this search for nonfiction narrative literature of the American West. In the comments section on Jenny’s page, you’ll find more than a few thoughts on the subject. One thought – mine – muses on whether this lack of urban Western literature means that years after Zane Grey the American West is still romanticized in literature.

“Wait a minute,” you say. “Romanticism in Western literature died out with Buffalo Bill, Louis L’Amour, and the singing cowboys of film. Wallace Stegner helped kill it, and so did Richard Hugo, and Terry Tempest Williams and James Welch and Annie Proulx. Now we have hard core realist Western portrayals. People get mauled by grizzlies. Mine waste poisons rivers. Cowboys gets dirty. Sometimes, they even have sex on Brokeback Mountain and then get beaten to death for their troubles. That’s realism, baby. Hard core realism.”

Yes, it is. What I wonder, though, is if the return to the same settings over and over results in a general romanticism in spite of all that realism. Maybe an accumulation of so much literature about fly fishing and ranching and horses and mountains creates a new Western Romanticism. Such a romanticism is not that of Albert Bierstadt (see the attached Western portrait), nor is it the romanticism of Manifest Destiny. But it is romanticism because it suggests that experience in the West is not valuable unless it is pastoral, or rural, that experience matters in the West only if it happens in conjunction with or in proximity to landscapes or a rural place. If you imagine this statement to be false, consider this: would “Brokeback Mountain” have been as successful if it hasn’t been set in a pretty landscape with guys in cowboy hats? Would it have been so successful if it were about two macho truck drivers who met annually at a Flying J outside Casper, Wyoming? By subverting the romantic ideal of the West (the macho cowboy), the story and the film actually stoked the romantic ideal.

I suspect that until the urban West matters as much as the rural West to writers and publishers, western literature will remain romantic, no matter how far it has come since the “Riders of the Purple Sage.”

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Journalist's Burden

Kevin Abourezk, a journalist I respect and a man I admire (and pictured to the right), recently covered the shooting deaths at an Omaha Mall. He wrote about his experiences that day for reznet, an online newssite by and about Native Americans. I’m grateful for his blog entry. In it, he meditated on the difficulties of covering such a story. It’s important that journalists remind each other how difficult the job can be, how emotionally taxing. Sometimes the job can make us feel less than human. But in particular, I’m struck by this portion of his entry:

“Every time a group emerged, the media would swarm. I had mixed feelings about being part of that. / I've always believed journalism serves a vital democratic function in our society, documenting each day's events in order to provide citizens the information they need to improve their lives and that of their fellow men and women. / But standing there with video cameras rolling in witnesses' faces, I couldn't help but wonder if there was a better way. That day, I couldn't think of one.”

What Kevin and the other reporters did is necessary, and I think there doesn’t need to be a better way. When journalists record such moments of raw grief, they serve a valuable purpose, likely as valuable (if not more so) than helping inform readers in advance of an election. They help people make sense of the world. By listening as people speak of their suffering, journalists provide them an opportunity to give shape to their grief. By carrying that grief and passing it on, journalists help others begin to understand a world that shocks and confuses. As a conduit of grief, the journalist connects the sufferers to the sympathetic, helps create a solidarity that we need in the horrible moments, such as in Omaha, more than at any other time. James Baldwin wrote in his classic short story “Sonny’s Blues” that though “the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it must always be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.” Carrying such news is a burden, one no one should relish; I see no way any reporter can feel comfortable carrying the weight, but I’m grateful that Kevin, and so many others, do.