Sunday, October 28, 2007

Wendell Berry's Wisdom

I'm working on a long magazine piece about reconciliation. As I've done so often over the past 20 years or so, I went to my bookshelf to consult Wendell Berry. Over the past two days I re-read The Hidden Wound, his book on racial healing and reconciliation, written when he was only 34. As always, he offers much wisdom, concisely and beautifully. Here are two samples:

"There is, I am sure, such a thing as a sense of guilt about historical wrongs, but I have the strongest doubts about the usefulness of a guilty conscience as a motivation; a man, I think can be much more dependably motivated by a sense of what would be desirable than by a sense of what has been deplorable. The historical pressures upon race relations in this country tend always to push us toward two complimentary dangers: that, to whites, ancestral guilt will seem an adequate motive; that, to blacks, ancestral bondage will seem an adequate distinction."


"It may be the most significant irony in our history that racism, by dividing the two races, has made them not separate but in a fundamental way inseparable, not independent but dependent on each other, each needing desperately to understand and make use of the experience of the other. After so much time together we are one body, and the division between us is the disease of one body, not of two. Even the white man and the black man who hate each other are, by that very token, each other's emotional dependents."

I've never understood why Wendell Berry is not better known and more widely read and discussed. Then again, simple wisdom and decency, without irony, cynicism or sentimentality, seems of little interest to the intelligentsia or the media these days.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Not Quite Dead

Chris Vognar's movie column on the revival of the Western, in yesterday's Dallas Morning News, got me thinking about western novels.

It seems that cultural taste makers have been trying to drive those last few nails in the Western's coffin for at least the past three decades. I've long assumed that the themes and settings of the Nineteenth and early Twentienth Century American West simply don't resonate with modern Manhattan and West Coast sensibilities. They pronounce the Western dead because they have no interest in it. Therefore it nearly dies. Bookstores stock only a few Louie L'Amour and Matt Braun titles, if they stock westerns at all. One editor told me that westerns are books written "by old men for old men." Never mind that elderly men actually read and are more likley to have disposable income (not having spent it on cars and electronics) than the coveted 18-35 crowd. Sometimes, I get the feeling that the literary world is a bit like the high-fashion business.

No doubt changing tastes and a glut of horrible novels and movies in the 1950s and 1960s helped bring about the Western's decline. Nowadays, few people fully embrace the old frontier triumphalism - at least in its most simplistic forms. I suspect that urbanization plays a role too. Mountain men, buffalo hunting, and Comanche horsemanship are just too far removed from modern reality. (Unlike, say, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

Then along come Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Sure enough, the American public can work up an interest in Western movies, thanks to modern marketing, our celebrity culture, and - let's not forget -great stories.

So why not good, well-marketed novels?

I'll admit that I have a stake. I've written two novels that can be called Westerns in that they're both set in Nineteenth Century Texas. I certainly wouldn't call them traditional Westerns. (One academic reviewer accused me of "postmodern grotesquery." I wasn't sure whether to be offended or flattered.) New acquaintances of my generation often ask me about my novels, and I do my best to describe them. Often as not, they'll say something like, "Oh, I don't read Westerns, but I'll buy one for my Dad. He loves them."

Thank heaven for Dads. Long may they live!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Water Dogs

Another scorcher today. Somebody said it's supposed to be fall.

I took the dogs out for a run this morning. They headed straight for the pond. Just as well. I didn't feel like fighting through poison ivy in the woods and head-high giant ragweed along the field edges. Right now, I can't imagine temperatures in the 50s, let a alone frost. But the dogs were glad to be out.

Who said treeing dogs won't fetch?

Maggs is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever wannabe

Two knotheads

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Too Hot to Hunt

Damn this Texas heat. Low 90s today, with more of the same predicted for the rest of the week. We should get a nice cool front in here next week.

Took Maggs and Cate out for a run this past Thursday at a wildlife management area near Lake Texoma. It was just too hot in the fields, and the woods are still full of poison ivy. Mostly, the dogs swam in the lake. Cate just turned 13 weeks old, and she's paddling around like a duck. Just followed Maggs right in. Curs aren't known for retrieving, but she'll fetch a small training dummy or tennis ball all day long.

On the way home, we drove through Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. Lots of wading birds and resident ducks, and, in the road near the headquarters, the biggest timber rattler I've ever seen. Yes, timber rattlers are docile compared to diamondbacks and cottenmouths, but it got me thinking about floundering around in the hot woods with a small pup. I never let fear of poisonous snakes keep me from doing what I want to do, but seeing a big one makes me especially mindful.

Maggs caught a 'possum a few nights ago, but, bird dog that she is, couldn't bring herself to chomp. I looked out the back door and found little Cate dragging it around by its tail. I put both dogs in the house, and a few minutes later the 'possum woke up and went on about its possumish business.

As you can see, we've had a slow news week at the Chappell house.