Friday, February 23, 2007

# 82 Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter,” the reading of which is even more worthwhile than a hike in the woods. Intended as support for governmental land preservation, this 1960 epistle was earnest, passionate and eloquent enough to be recycled as a profession of faith by The Wilderness Society and The Sierra Club—as well as by parks in Africa, Canada and Australia—to this day.

A novelist and historian,
Stegner (of whom the centathlete, as an Easterner who lives where citylight washes out the stars, was completely ignorant) addressed the profoundly revitalizing benefits of the Great Outdoors to an American’s spirit and character, and his closeness to nature growing up “on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah.” He also suggested that modern man needs escape, even if temporary, from the “technological termite-life” that breeds insanity and malignance, conditions that have festered, in his opinion, for decades:
“It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become.”
The “official” closing Stegner noted was popularized by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper,
The Frontier in American History. Turner cited a brief statement about the frontier in the U.S. Census of 1890; he expounded on the “perennial rebirth” and the “fluidity of American life” as a result of ongoing expansion into the West, and he argued that “with [the frontier’s] going has closed the first period of American history.” This thesis has been canonized and, more recently, disparaged by contemporary scholars—in any case the centathlete recalls that rudimentary recognition of Turner and his argument was required in multiple-choice questions on high school history exams.

Stegner’s concurrence with the thrust of Turner’s argument is evident in his 1971 novel, Angle of Repose, which presents a contemporary retired historian relating the life of his grandparents in various far-flung locations out west in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Significantly, the base story concludes in 1890, suggesting that the grandparents’ “frontier days” are over and going forward they must come to terms with a circumscribed, negotiated life together. Look out for “1890” in future retrospectives.

The novel’s heroine, Susan Burling Ward, is an artist and writer who leaves genteel society and cherished personal ties in New York’s Hudson Valley to live with her itinerant engineer husband. She is a Quaker, as reinforced by her usage of “
thee” (a Quaker form of address meant to express belief in the equality of all people), which evokes another community that scratched out a life on a harsh frontier of sorts.

Several years go the centathlete traveled to Costa Rica and visited
Monteverde, home to a cloud forest, essentially a rainforest (a jungle that receives more than 80” of annual rainfall) at altitude. This reserve was created largely out of land owned by 12 Quaker families from Alabama who had moved there in 1951 in protest of the U.S. military draft.

The resettled Quakers, many of whom still reside in Monteverde, were acting as custodians of the natural environment long before ecotourism was cool (there were at most
60 visitors per year during the 1950’s; there are now more than 50,000 annually).

During one hike through an incredibly lush jungle, the guide explained that ranchers had cleared the entire area, which was then purchased by conservationists who let it alone to grow back quickly in all its diversity. The key to such rebirth is that it must take place within 10 years; even the fertile Costa Rican soil demands a statute of limitations. During an unguided walk a late-morning downpour prompted the howling of unseen monkeys in the treetops. The moment testified to a human’s status as just one minor player in an ancient, uncontrolled drama.

Wallace Stegner was not a Quaker like the Costa Rican conservationists, his heroine Susan Ward, and his fellow historical novelist
James Michener (two years older than Stegner), who comes to mind while reading Angle of Repose in light of the family-typifying-an-era formula, geographical and occupational detail, and mixing of fictional characters with actual people. One panner called the novel “a dandified Michener,” a brusque put-down the centathlete considers a hearty recommendation.

Susan Ward and her Eastern friends mingle with impressively accomplished and named personages such as
John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Dean Howells. One specimen of the narrative’s name-dropping (we might think of it as a buffalo chip in honor of the prairies traversed by the Wards) is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish-American sculptor whose work included the monument to General Sherman by the southeastern entrance of New York’s Central Park.

The centathlete lives on the same city block as the Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Playground, advertised as displaying “bronze and porcelain decorations that harmonize with the new gates, garden area, and play equipment.” This landmark is an ostensible tribute to the Gilded Age artist, but the decorations are few and unremarkable, and any hint of harmonious commemoration is overwhelmed daily by screaming, scrambling toddlers and urchins—Bah, humbug!

Like the Costa Rican Quakers, Wallace Stegner voiced pacifist and egalitarian policies. He opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning and he wrote about unfair discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities. His public status was due not just to his books—he was the
head of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program, which he founded in 1946.

One student, Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while at Stanford,
said, “I always compared Stegner to Vince Lombardi—he put together not only a good team but a good team of supporting coaches.”

Another, Nancy Packer,
observed that Stegner was “courteous, attentive and forbearing” with students, and extremely disciplined in his own work, balancing writing and teaching equally for 25 years at Stanford.

Stegner was uncomfortable with aspects of the counterculture that arose in the Bay Area during the late 1960’s; he dramatized his disdain for history-renouncing radicalism in Angle of Repose through the repartee between the curmudgeonly narrator, Lyman Ward, and the bra-less hippie, Shelly Rasmussen. In 1971 he retired to devote himself to writing, as his wife, Mary Page Stegner,
“Wally didn’t like the way students were trashing the campus, and he didn’t like the fact that they didn’t come to class. He decided he didn’t have to teach, and he said there was no point in teaching when people weren’t coming to class.”
Discipline and endurance, characteristics that Stegner valued and practiced, are evident throughout Angle of Repose. The novel is experienced as a series of arduous slogs enriched by meticulous appreciation of the rugged environments and respect for the enormity of the mining and irrigation projects. Dynamic plot developments, epiphanies and coincidental encounters are scarce and downplayed, in keeping with the upholding of the continuous dedication and resourcefulness that actual pioneers demonstrated.

Then there is the dream sequence in the final chapter, a
coda that diverges from the sustained, measured tempo and guarded perspectives of the prior narrative by presenting concentrated, charged intimacies. This coda wraps up the interaction between the past and the present, offering hope for a livable future to be earned.

Stegner was
described as “honest and straightforward” and engaged in “debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback.” The man himself said, “The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long.”

Had he been present at certain TV-studio meetings in the mid-1960’s, Stegner would likely have scoffed at one producer’s sales pitch for a new
show, promoted as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A popular network melodrama from 1957-1965, Wagon Train was precisely the type of hokey, inaccurate fiction that Stegner sought to dispel.

After Star Trek was greenlighted, its producer-writer Gene Roddenberry drew on a
government document (recalling Turner’s reliance on the U.S. Census Report) to craft his famous introduction for each installment. We can imagine the degrees of skepticism, caution and acceptance with which Wallace Stegner would have greeted the first line of Captain James T. Kirk’s monologue, “Space, the final frontier.”

Monday, February 05, 2007

# 55 On the Road – Jack Kerouac

In 1972 a 17-year-old named Jean-Louis Aubert and his childhood friend Olivier “Olive” Caudron left Paris to travel across the U.S. Energized by American and British rock groups (there were no such bands in France), the two hitchhiked with their guitars, dreaming of mingling with hippies and anarchists, and soaking up the magic that would make them great musicians. Perhaps they would even be discovered.

In the streets, to earn money, they strummed and sang songs by The Rolling Stones and Crosby, Stills & Nash, joined often by the locals. For five months they crossed the country without staying in a motel, winding up in San Francisco, where they saw
Jefferson Airplane in concert before returning to Paris.

Aubert later
said that the journey was an initiation. He had taken the risk and he had had a vision—to write rock songs in French, which no one had done. The poetry of the voyage was his inspiration. And he had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.

Four years later, after playing in Paris garages and at university parties, Aubert, as singer and guitarist, co-founded
Téléphone, France’s equivalent of The Beatles. (His buddy Olive later founded the rock group Lili Drop.) Their first album, wildly successful as were their subsequent four before their break-up in 1985, included the song “Sur La Route” or “On the Road.” Here is a crude translation:

On the Road

Rolling all night
And the whole day
Without knowing where I’m going
And why I’m going there

I race after a dream
My heart hung onto
Puncturing my skin
Without ever proving its reality

I’m on the road
I’m in retreat
I’m on the road
And I don’t give a damn
I’m on the road
I’m in retreat
I’m on the road

I don’t know what I’ve left
I don’t know what I’m going to find
But I had to leave, leave to forget
I’m not scared of a flat
I’m not scared of a blowout
I don’t have time to think about it
You know I’m almost there

I’m on the road
I’m in retreat
I’m on the road
And I don’t give a damn
I’m on the road
I’m in retreat
I’m on the road

Roll, roll, roll…

Stylistically, Kerouac was
emulating bebop, improvising exuberantly. He listened to Charlie Parker while writing, as Jackson Pollock did in the early 1950’s while executing his drip paintings. (The only bebop musician the centathlete saw live was Dizzy Gillespie. He and his homeys went to the Blue Note for the trumpeter’s first of several sets, as each one was priced separately and exorbitantly. Big mistake: the old-timer let his young cub bandmates do most of the riffing, presumably because he would warm up later in the evening. When Gillespie did occasionally blow, those cheeks were astonishingly distended as though grapefruit-filled.)

In contrast, Aubert was breathing French identity into an existing, relatively stricter template: the four-minute rock song, which requires an economic poetry of short, instantly catchy lines and lots of rhymes. The rock composer doesn’t have the novelist’s or bebop hepcat’s twin luxuries of time and space.

Aubert’s “On the Road” asserts the tenuous but enriched condition of a beatnik vagabond whose voyage, even if it means fleeing something, is the spiritual destination. The overriding metaphor is of the traveler as an automobile’s tire. The
melody begins with a steady rock groove flavored with Western-sounding slide guitar, and then, after the verses are concluded, segues into a harder, frenetic jam of joint riffs and repeated exhortations to “Roll!”

Another Frenchman, Raphaёl Haroche, who grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s outside Paris, was a great
admirer of Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. In 2000, known as simply Raphaёl, he launched a career as a singer-songwriter combining a Dylanesque sensibility with carefully considered arrangements.

While preparing for his second album, he wrote the songs impulsively, the majority of them in one day, recalling Kerouac’s
spontaneous prose. On New Year’s Eve of 2001, while in Brussels at a train station, he encountered two needy men selling roses, and the next day he wrote his own “On the Road,” interpreted roughly as follows:

On the Road

On the map of the world with a bird’s flight
You think you can hit the big time
That you have the sky in a drop of water
You seek a better future
Life runs out through our hands
Joy, pain—our path…
Ride across life without a train ticket
Ride across life without a train ticket

On the road…

Loneliness, angst
That created the dream of freedom
To swear that you won’t be bored
When you’re in a good space, you see
And this happiness that rides through us
For a crumb of bread
If you’re hungry, take mine

If it isn’t America
It’s very close to it

There were times I wanted to be a bird
So I could spit from high above
See the houses and the countrysides
And turn my back to them
I’ll sell my bags of roses
I’ll take the morning train
On all the walls there was written
Justice not revenge
Justice not revenge

On the road…

The single was a smash in France, due in part to the participation of Jean-Louis Aubert, who was invited to join Raphaёl for a duet on the album and in a few subsequent
concerts. The younger man’s song offers metronomic percussion, textured and varied instrumentation, and a restrained, incantatory delivery.

Aubert and Téléphone approached Kerouac’s energy much more closely. His “On the Road” presents a character’s self-appraisal, and embraces listeners through the infectious communal force of rock ‘n’ roll.

Raphaёl, in his lyrics, echoes Kerouac’s empathetic interaction with the marginal and downtrodden (“digging” them, as Kerouac might say), while his meditative melody evokes a more intimate, plaintive listening experience.

The brief evocation of America is compelling and mysterious: is he suggesting that the rose-sellers wished they were living in the Land of Opportunity, where they might earn and buy more? or that the beatnik spirit of co-existence is nearly attained by the narrator’s earnest identification with the vendors?

The final lines of “justice not vengeance” suggest that Raphaёl hopes for elevation for everyone, an elevation that includes the material. Life on the road entails for him a compassionate, egalitarian sentiment that was articulated by Kerouac but overshadowed in the American’s novel by the quest for a spiritual and cultural revolution.

Both Frenchmen partake in Kerouac’s quest to transcend unimaginative self-absorption and conventionally demarcated (ex. by race or nationality) identity. For further indication of the power that quest can hold over a reader, we note a concert that took place in Denver less than two years ago.

Emmanuel Bidan, a longtime Téléphone fan, had bumped into Jean-Louis Aubert, who has enjoyed a productive solo career for 20 years, at a Paris train station. Bidan invited the icon to the Denver International School, where he teaches French and at times uses Aubert’s lyrics as subjects for study. Aubert accepted and in March 2005 he flew to Denver, performed a concert, and discussed his methods and ideas with the students.

It was a return trip: Aubert had passed through Denver three decades before during his initiation while reading On the Road. The city figures prominently in the novel, and was briefly
home to Kerouac. As Aubert spoke after the concert of the impact of his early adventure, the personal resonance of the lyrics he wrote as a teenager, and the need to compose in the language in which you dream, he mentioned that he brought with him his old copy of On the Road—it was in his pocket…

Like Aubert, Kerouac was
born “Jean-Louis” and, although he didn’t speak French, he spoke a dialect called joual. His parents were from Quebec and members of the French-Canadian Diaspora, which also included “Cajuns” or "Acadians" from Nova Scotia.

The centathlete has road-tripped through the southern coast of Nova Scotia's French-influenced region. In the precisely named village of Middle West Pubnico, at the
Red Cap Restaurant, he ate rappie pie—a dish of comfort food that reminded him of defiantly bland Celtic pub cuisine—amid elder male workers on their lunch hour. The pie had no taste to this traveler, and the French dialect was impenetrable.

If you can’t drive to Maritime Canada, Maritime Canada will come to you—via
Great Big Sea, an uplifting band that mixes traditional Celtic music and contemporary folk-rock. Arising out of the vibrant Irish-Canadian community in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Great Big Sea has earned fame and adoration through perpetual far-ranging tours of North America. The centathlete has taken in their passionate show in New York City, where the Newfoundland flag was waved in the balcony.

All four band members sing. They play guitars, fiddles, accordions, bouzoukis, Irish flutes, and a bodhràn (the centathlete bought one of these handheld drums in Ireland’s western town of
Roundstone—it makes a decorative keepsake for a rhythmically inept tourist).

In 2000 Great Big Sea issued
Road Rage, an album of live recordings that everyone should own, and a log of the band’s tour of all ten Canadian provinces. One of their original songs articulates familiar sentiments:

Consequence Free

Wouldn’t it be great, if no one ever got offended

Wouldn’t it be great to say what’s really on your mind
I have always said ‘all the rules are made for bending’
And if I let my hair down, would that be such a crime?


I wanna be consequence free
I wanna be where nothing needs to matter
I wanna be consequence free
just sing Na Na Na Na Na Ne Na Na Na

I could really use, to lose my Catholic conscience

Cuz I’m getting sick of feeling guilty all the time
I won’t abuse it, Yeah I’ve got the best intentions
For a little bit of anarchy but not the hurting kind


I couldn’t sleep at all last night

cause I had so much on my mind
I’d like to leave it all behind,
but you know it’s not that easy


Wouldn’t it be great, if the band just never ended

We could stay out late and we would never hear last call
We wouldn’t need to worry about approval or permission,
we could—slip off the edge and never worry about the fall


No ambiguity, irony or literary pretension here, as affirmed during an interview with Sean McCann:

Q: Where did the song 'Consequence Free' come from?

SM: That was Jim Cuddy from Blue Rodeo making fun of me for getting up so early to work when we're at home. He said, "Why'd you become musicians if you still have to get up early?" Alan and I joked about the kind of dream of just being able to do whatever you want, living totally consequence free.

The song expresses the desire of On the Road, albeit in a far tamer manner, notably lacking a beatnik’s appetite for self-destruction. There’s no shame in admitting that most folks would find Great Big Sea’s vision more identifiable and accessible—what teenager hasn’t wanted to rebel, to live consequence free even for a little while?

The good-natured Canadians’ lyrics dream of “a little bit of anarchy, but not the hurting kind.” On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, Sal Paradise and their gang (stand-ins for
Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and their comrades) actually lived with a great degree of hurtful anarchy. They took real risks, achieved real epiphanies, and paid real costs.

In contrast to the Rated-G utopia that Great Big Sea imagines, Moriarty et al. commit offenses and crimes. They steal cars and ingest drugs with abandon. Rules are not just bent, they’re shattered with the aim of a new life-affirming aesthetic. And consequences are ignored: Paradise marvels near the end of his story that Moriarty, the quintessential itinerant madman, the modern saint and con artist, is still questing despite the fact that he has been married three times and has two children.

The centathlete was surprised by the age of the characters and the extent of their familial entanglements. These are not single teenagers on Spring Break—they’re guys in their 20’s and 30’s with wives, houses, and jobs. (The women seem to matter only to the extent that they accommodate the protagonists; should we think of the Great Beat Writers as just a strange sect of patriarchal apostles?) Their collective will to live fully and dangerously, which demands a prolonged narcotic derangement of the senses, trumps the responsibility they might bear toward their cohabitants and dependents.

Paradise’s famous line about his heroes, “The only people for me are the mad ones…” is often quoted; Bob Dylan recited it from memory during an interview seen in Martin Scorsese’s documentary,
No Direction Home. The centathlete can’t help thinking of Paradise’s aunt, the stand-in for Kerouac’s mother, who wasn’t mad yet supported her charge with money and lodging whenever it was required. The ever-tolerant, understanding, forgiving aunt/mother who always welcomes back the mad, prodigal son…

Biblical references in mind, we note the singer of “Consequence Free” wishes to “lose my Catholic conscience.” This subject troubled Kerouac, who
delved into Buddhism and strayed from the lifestyle his Catholic priests would have prescribed. In the final stage of his life he wrote, “I’m actually not a Beat but a strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic” and “I’m not a Buddhist, I’m a Catholic.” The prodigal son had come back to the Church and to his mother, with whom he lived until his death.

The liner notes to "Road Rage" (the name refers not to anger but a Newfoundler
term for a party in the street) state: “Canada is a big country. St. John’s is closer to Paris than Victoria.” That relative proximity of Europe didn’t attract Sal Paradise, who at the close of On the Road sits on a New Jersey pier and retrospectively looks west, across the “huge bulge” of North America. Like a saxophonist exhaling the last strains of a coda, he intones, “…I think of Dean Moriarty…I think of Dean Moriarty.”

In a New York apartment the centathlete, when thinking of Jack Kerouac, faces both east toward Paris and west toward Denver, and he thinks of Jean-Louis Aubert…he thinks of Raphaёl Haroche…and he thinks of Great Big Sea…

Coming soon…
Angle of Repose