Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Idaho Writer's Heritage: Poets & Potatoes

Idaho writers;perhaps it is the isolation, but it is apparent that the literature of Idaho is as diverse as its topography. Ranging from cowboy poetry written by gray-haired ladies to scholarly papers written by professors, the writers of Idaho cover a wide territory. While the state may never be as famous for its writers as it is for its potatoes and its mountains, it has an engaging literary heritage and a vigorous literary present. - Joanne Davis

While researching Idaho information for a screenplay, I discovered a wealth of Internet information concerning writers from Idaho. I’m positive you’ll be as amazed as I was by the diverse and talented group of people who have ties to our little western state, so often portrayed as a cultural wasteland.

Most Idahoans are aware that Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), author of classics such as The Old Man and the Sea, A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises; moved to Idaho later in life, seeking the peace and inspiration of nature. While in Idaho he worked on For Whom the Bell Tolls and was awarded the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature.

But few realize that one of Idaho’s most respected writers, Vardis Fisher (1894-1968), authored many novels, including Children of God, Tale of Valor, and Mountain Man, later made into the Hollywood film "Jeremiah Johnson". (Who doesn’t remember Robert Redford’s portrayal
of Jeremiah Johnson?)

Fewer still know that Ezra Pound (1885-1972), a famed writer often referred to as modern poetry’s most important writer, was born in Hailey, Idaho. Frequently controversial, Pound spent most of his life in Europe where he completed many works including The Cantos, an 800-page novel series that took him 50 years to complete.

Or that Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) wrote the first draft of Tarzan of the Apes while working at a stationery store in Pocatello. His first Tarzan book was published in 1912.

And they would be shocked to learn that Idaho’s first famous filmmaker was a woman -- Nell Shipman -- a silent-era actor, writer and director; who produced several films in the 1920s at her Priest Lake studio, Lionhead Lodge.

Yet, each of these facts is true. It seems the serenity and inspiration of living in Idaho has produced a bumper crop of writers since the day it became a state in 1890...and even earlier.

Literature from Idaho, the real version of the Western setting, sometimes involves cowboys, miners, saloons, and horses, but the spectrum of characters, themes, and settings presented by Idaho's writers is as variegated as the land. - Joanne Davis

While researching I discovered a reflective, well-documented, and comprehensive article about Idaho writers written by Joanne Davis, a former English teacher at Emmett High School. After reading her eloquent article, I hope you’ll appreciate the exceptional group you join when you call yourself an Idaho writer.

Beyond Potato Fields: Writers of a Tough Paradise

by Joanne Davis

More famous for potatoes than poets, the Rocky Mountain state of Idaho is an enigma to most people in the U.S. It is a land of surprising geological extremes. Its landscape ranges from sagebrush desert in the south to snow-capped peaks in the 80 mountain ranges and rolling wheat fields of the Palouse. Idaho contains the largest wilderness area in the contiguous 48 states and more than 2000 lakes and 93,000 miles of streams and rivers, including 3250 miles of whitewater. It is, also, ironically, one of the most arid states. It contains such extreme features as the Craters of the Moon lava beds, the Bruneau sand dunes, and Hell's Canyon, the deepest gorge in the U.S., as well as farm and ranch land. More than 300 miles wide at the southern base, Idaho tapers to a panhandle barely 50 miles wide at its Canadian border 479 miles away. Within these 84,437 square miles, fewer than 1.3 million people reside.

The literature of Idaho, obviously, has been shaped by its landscape. The Nez Perce, Shoshone, Kutenai, Coeur d'Alene, Kalispell, Lapwai, and Bannock peoples had oral literatures that were not written until years after Lewis and Clark recorded their observations of the area in 1805-1806, if at all. In 1839 missionary Henry Harmon Spalding set up the first printing press in the Northwest territory to publish a Bible in the Lapwai language for which he devised the written alphabet. In the next 50 years, most of the writing was by women in the covered-wagon trains keeping journals of their daily lives on the Oregon Trail, or by would-be Longfellows publishing their homespun verse and sentimental narratives in the mining towns' newspapers.

Idaho's literary history, then, is largely a 20th century history with several exceptions. Two writers were born here in the 1880's whose work later became significant: poet Ezra Pound was born in Hailey in 1885, but his parents left the state when he was just 18 months, and Mourning Dove was born near Bonners Ferry in approximately 1888, but her mother took her to Washington state almost immediately. Between 1884 and 1895 popular writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote (immortalized in Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner) resided near Boise while her husband planned a dam. She was the first author of national significance to live and write in Idaho.

The writings of Idahoans of the past hundred years are varied. If they have anything in common, it is a strong sense of place, a place aptly labeled "Tough Paradise" by the Idaho Humanities Council. In such a place, conflict is more likely to be with nature than with civilization. A strong sense of independence comes naturally. Heroism derives from meeting the challenges of survival as an individual. Protagonists are, above all, modest, honest in recognizing their vulnerability. Outside of pulp fiction and formulaic films, such people are not bound by stereotypes. Literature from Idaho, the real version of the Western setting, sometimes involves cowboys, miners, saloons, and horses, but the spectrum of characters, themes, and settings presented by Idaho's writers is as variegated as the land.

Without a doubt the two most prominent writers' names associated with Idaho are Ernest Hemmingway and Vardis Fisher. Hemingway came to Idaho to live in his final years, returning to the Ketchum area where he had spent productive time writing and where he loved to hunt and fish. Even the beauty of the land and the support of friends were not enough to alleviate his depression, though, and here he died. Vardis Fisher, a native, turned from his academic career in the East to return to Idaho where he became one of the country's most-respected chroniclers of the West and its people. After a long and productive career, he retired in Hagerman to a home overlooking the Snake River.

Another Idaho native well-known among students of literary fiction, Marilynne Robinson, grew up in Sandpoint, a town on Lake Pend Oreille, which resembles the fictitious Fingerbone in Housekeeping. Her lyrical writing could be seen as the forbear of the poetry in the writing of Kim Barnes in her Pulitzer-nominated autobiography, In the Wilderness. Barnes and her colleague, Mary Clearman Blew, are now significant figures among women writing creative nonfiction. Their success has surpassed their literary predecessors, Annie Greenwood Pike and Grace Jordan.

Two poets who chose to make Idaho their home could also be considered significant figures in the world of literature. Charles David Wright continued to develop as a poet while teaching in Boise. His works were beginning to be included in literary anthologies before his untimely death. A younger poet, Robert Wrigley, who chose Idaho because of the rugged beauty of the Clearwater River region, has won significant prizes for In the Bank of Beautiful Sins and Reign of Snakes, collections which combine philosophical quests with a sensual appreciation of nature.

For many writers, the encounter with nature is the focus. Ted Trueblood, for example, earned a national reputation among conservationists and sportsmen for his articles in outdoors periodicals. Patrick McManus, an Idaho native, has a loyal following among readers who appreciate a humorous approach to a man's encounters with nature. The dynamic William Studebaker, a poet, finds enlightenment in the high mountain desert and cascading waters near his home on the Salmon River.

While not famous for its racial diversity, Idaho has authors who write from the perspectives of ethnic minorities. Two of the best are Alex Kuo, a poet who lives near Moscow while he teaches at Washington State University and Janet Campbell Hale who has returned to her home on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation.

Idaho has had its share of writers to enthrall generations of children and adolescents. Carol Ryrie Brink wrote a number of children's books, among them Newberry winner Caddie Woodlawn. Glenn Balch wrote stories based on his own experiences in the outdoors. His books have great appeal, especially for horse-loving young people. Several generations of kids have wept over Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. Ruth Gipson Plowhead's Lucretia Ann books, recently reissued by Caxton, inspired girls to be courageous and are fondly remembered today by middle-aged women. Contemporary author, Chris Crutcher , uses some of his experiences growing up in a small Idaho lumber town in his young-adult novels, and, lastly, Mink Creek native, Lael Littke, is now writing books for middle school children.

Idaho has also been home to various types of series and genre writers. Ridley Pearson, suspense writer, lived in Idaho for several years, as did Dean Wesley Smith, widely known in sci-fi circles. An earlier science fiction writer, Edgar Rice Burroughs, lived in Idaho at several different times in his youth. In fact, he wrote the first Tarzan book in this state. James Stevens of Paul Bunyan notoriety lived here, as did Helen Markley Miller and Carl Henry Rathjen, authors of Western series.

Many Idahoans have been surprised by the success of women writing in the romance genre. Charlotte Louise Dolan, Robin Lee Hatcher, Marylyle Rogers, and Donna Fletcher Crow could all be placed in this general category of successful romance writers, though each further classifies her work as gothic, historical, or Christian.

Idaho has had several authors with success in writing for movies. Nell Shipman in the pioneering days of film wrote scripts, directed, and acted in movies set in northern Idaho. Talbot Jennings of Nampa ended up in Hollywood where he was the screenwriter for such classics as Mutiny on the Bounty, Northwest Passage, and The Sons of Katie Elder. Of course, there were unintended connections to the movies, too. Vardis Fisher could not have predicted that his novel, Mountain Man, would become the movie, Jeremiah Johnson. Neither would Richard McKenna have predicted that his best-selling novel, The Sand Pebbles, would become a blockbuster movie.

In contrast with its predominantly conservative social climate, Idaho has produced a number of writers who could loosely be called postmodernists, but whose works project such individuality that they defy classification. Among these is Clay Morgan, of Boise, McCall, and now, Houston, whose work ranges from the novel Santiago and The Drinking Party to NASA documents. Others have been experimental enough to gather cult-like followings. John Rember (Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archepelago), Tom Spanbauer (The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon ), and Gino Sky (Appaloosa Rising: The Legend of the Cowboy Buddha) all treat the Idaho places they have lived as mythological lands in which to set their surreal stories. Lance Olsen, in contrast, deliberately avoids using real places, believing fictitious settings should be created in the imagination. For these four, writing on the edge is as natural and as necessary as breathing.

One more category of writers must be mentioned: those connected with music. Idaho has had songwriter-musicians succeed in the entertainment world–one thinks of the contrasting figures of Paul Revere of pop in the 60's and Doug Martsch, current genius of Built to Spill. When it comes to universal respect, though, two stand out. Norm Weinstein, poet and music critic, has certainly captured the world of jazz, and Rosalie Sorrels has become an icon of folk music.

Perhaps it is the drama of the terrain that shapes Idaho writers; perhaps it is the isolation, but it is apparent that the literature of Idaho is as diverse as its topography. Ranging from cowboy poetry written by gray-haired ladies to scholarly papers written by professors, the writers of Idaho cover a wide territory. While the state may never be as famous for its writers as it is for its potatoes and its mountains, it has an engaging literary heritage and a vigorous literary present.

The Davis article and bibliography can be found at:


Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Love, love, love this post! What an impressive crop of talent. Very inspiring. Paul Revere and the Raiders were Idahoans? Wonders will never cease.

Kathy Cooney Dobbs said...

What a great post - one of the best! Idaho is obviously fertile ground for potatoes and poetry, and all genre of writing.

elizabethbrinton said...

The post just blew my mind. I always imagined this of Idaho, but did not really know why. What a rich history we have and thank you so much for including the whole article. Say, do you think it could be the potatoes?