America loves Hemingway. I love Hemingway. But I cannot write like Hemingway. When I try to write like Hemingway, my words ring with all the hollowness of a tin gong.
The voices that pulse through my literary being are the voices of the American West. They are the voices that celebrate tall tales and oral traditions. They are voices rural, voices plural, voices discursive, meandering, exploratory. They are voices at play, voices that sing. Think of the boisterous sounds at a Thanksgiving dinner table where tales are told, interjections are bold, and laughter abounds. Place names echo Español. Libations flow and, best of all, the night might run til the first cock crows. No one’s in a hurry. Why should they be? Efficiency is not the name of the game. The raconteur reigns.
I was once in a serious relationship where everything seemed to be going right yet ultimately fell apart. There was no centripetal hold. The feeble best I could offer about the breakup to friends who cared for us both was to say that she loved forests, I loved deserts. That worked. It was art, or at least artful. While the words function at a literal level, the force and weight of their meaning loom beneath the surface. The image appeals to our experiences more so than to our logic.
Please read these words aloud: “What is it the wind seeks, sweeping among the leaves, prowling round and round this house, knocking at the doors and wailing in the shutters? O Charity! Every frozen morning for awhile in winter you had a thin little winter moon slung like a slice of a silver Rocky Ford cantaloupe over the sawmill; and then I would go out to the well in the yard and snap off the silver thorns of ice from the pump muzzle and jack up the morning water and stand and look over across the fairy fields at you where you lay like a storybook town, and know that on all the little wooden roofs of houses there was a delicate trail of lacelike rime on the shingles. Then all the chickens and guineas of Charity would be crowing and calling and all the cattle lowing, and the Charity dogs barking (all with a sound that china animals might make if they could crow or call or low), and in that crystal and moonhaunted moment I would stand, dazzling in the first sunray of morning, and wonder what would ever happen to us all.”
The passage opens the second chapter of Texas writer William Goyen’s lyrical novel The House of Breath. The novel, with prose that sings, stands as an exemplar of American belles lettres. Hemingway this ain’t. Often praised by his contemporaries yet overlooked by the broad public, Goyen is mostly forgotten now. He shouldn’t be. His writing, redolent of uniquely American voices, stands outside the mainstream of American prose, the tonal center of which still remains in what Perry Miller once labeled “the Puritan plain style.” In other words say it straight, say it true, and find beauty in simplicity. At its most eloquent best, we get Abraham Lincoln.
Yet it is, as Goyen’s passage illustrates, a limited aesthetic. The admonishments of decades of eighth grade schoolmarms aside, we don’t all need to write like Ernie and Abe. There is a certain irony in the general exclusion of the discursive voices of the oral traditions. Voices quintessentially American find themselves outside of the plain style tonal center of American literature. To shift metaphors, there have been occasional cracks in the concrete, places where orality and discursiveness poke through, a nimble weed here and there sets root, takes hold, and pushes apart a jagged break in the sidewalk. Twain and Whitman come first to mind as writers who have written discursively (Roughing It, anyone?) and celebrated the vernacular. Yet even Twain gets nudged to the margin as a “regional” writer, i.e., as one writing in a voice that comes from those places (“out West”) never quite reached by the Puritans.
So where today are those whose taproots push apart the sidewalks? Some writers that accomplish this today are actually discoveries from the neglected past, e.g., Zora Neale Hurston. Others are recognized as great writers of voice. Sandra Cisneros, for example, is that skinny tree who displaced concrete to grow tall and sturdy. Her wonderfully plotless (wonderful because it is plotless) House on Mango Street carries itself as a tour-de-force of voice. Listen: “But my mother’s hair, my mother’s hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama’s hair that smells like bread.”
Cisneros’ lilting rhythms find kinship in Goyen. Her aesthetic is the aesthetic of Mexican flower pots lining the porch, pots adorned with stylized birds in shiny bold primary colors. No plain style here!
I like to count myself as writing against the predominant tradition as well. My successes as a writer have been modestly steady, if limited. I attribute that more to teaching 5 and 6 classes per semester for 30 years than to the fact that I write against a 400-year-deep current of tradition. But writing against tradition does make demands of readers accustomed to the literary comfort food of reading within a predominant tradition and that fact alone will limit publication. The feeble best I can offer in explanation of that condition is to say that in a culture of readers that love dense forests, I write from a love of sere deserts. It’s a much smaller audience.
- Guest Post, Michael Berberich: Arts and Letters - February 25, 2017
- Guest Post, Michael Berberich: Ernie and Abe - March 9, 2014
11 thoughts on “Guest Post, Michael Berberich: Ernie and Abe”
I am a huge fan of Goyen, too, and in fact, this post.
Thanks for the nice comment. I’ve been known to quip that people sometimes become English teachers because they have a favorite writer hardly anyone else seems to have heard of and teaching English gives one an opportunity expose readers to that writer. While I’ve never assigned more than a short story by Goyen, teaching literature does place a person in circles where people often appreciate hearing about writers worth reading. Goyen, obviously, fits the bill for me. Are there any such writers you might recommend to us?
“America loves Hemingway.” I can’t resist this comment. Fifteen years ago, I taught Basic Composition at Northern Arizona University. I’d heard rumors of what might be called illiteraturacy in younger people. The first day of class I asked the students four questions and had them write their answers anonymously. One of the questions was: Who was Ernest Heminway? Later reading the answers, I was stunned to discover that out of 31 students, only two knew who Hemingway was; and that one student had written: “He was a Jewish bullfighter.”
I rest my case.
If I might likewise share a story. I also taught Basic Comp for many years. (I love teaching all levels of writing, for the record.) One year my college had Larry McMurtry as a visiting speaker. I encouraged my morning class to attend the evening reading, and a fair number of students showed up. There were hundreds of people in attendance. Upon our return to class we discussed the reading. I should not have been surprised that my students did not get from the reading the things I got from the reading. What many of them did get was this: While my students did not have the finest appreciation of McMurtry’s reading selections, from their witnessing of the audience’s responses and questions my students realized they were missing out on something. They weren’t quite sure what it was, but they knew that they wanted it, whatever that experience was. It seemed to be worth having. There was more to be said about stories than they had ever gathered.
It seems to me that this might also speak to one of the reasons we teach–to present to others experiences that are worth having, Hemingway and Goyen included. And since I view teaching as an exchange, I cannot count the number of experiences students have brought to my attention that I found worth having and worth writing about as well even if only in my personal journal. (I’m notoriously out of touch with pop music, so I might start off with listing Too Short, Semi-Sonic, and Eminem as having brought to my attention experiences I was glad to have been exposed to, though I’d add that L’il Kim is probably one I could have done without.)
Thank you for the considerate and sensitive comment. One thing I have learned of such difficult instances in life is that even though they are tough to go through, they still deepen and enrich the fullness of one’s life. My life has gone well; in fact, I’d say my life is pretty good these days. All good wishes to you in life, also.
I have never read Goyen, but I think after reading this I shall look into him. I am forever adding to the list of authors that I must read. It is a shame that wonderful books can be swept aside simply because they don’t fit into the cookie cutter genres that can be easily mass marketed.
Goyen is probably even more loved for his short stories and his readings than for his novels, though I find value in all of his work. Sometimes you can find a copy of his American Audio Prose Library readings online. Not expensive at all. That might be a fun place to start. His first published story, “The White Rooster” is like Moby Dick in the barnyard, and one of his last stories, “The Precious Door” is a real gem. A really fun, yet always overlooked author would be the avant-garde writer Steve Katz. Out of curiosity, who are some of the readers you have on your must read list? Happy reading.
I liked how eloquently you approached the differences between these writing voices, an how even though they might be different in nature, you did not set them up in opposition. I have never read Goyen, but I have read some of Sandra Cisneros’ work. I know that both of these voices have great things to offer, and so I appreciated that you could keep them from seeming opposed.
Thank you for putting it this way. I hadn’t been thinking of it that way as I was writing it, but I appreciate the point, which I’d say is right on the money.
I appreciate the fact that you write for the smaller audience. I say keep writing against tradition! It sounds like it’s more fun. Not that tradition isn’t great, but it isn’t always the best.
The writing is fun, yes (and of course), and I value healthy exchanges that can take place during the editing process. But it is a delight to have readers and to be able to have these nice exchanges with them. It is too easy for those who write and get published to forget that it is the readers who are giving us the favor of their time and attention. If you’ve not seen it, take a look at my piece in S[r] #3. Enjoy. And, again, thank you.
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