Category Archives: Books

In 1904, a young Danish woman met a Sami wolf hunter on a train

Today we are pleased to announce the publication of Black Fox: A Life of Emilie Demant Hatt, Artist and Ethnographer by Barbara Sjoholm. It recounts the fascinating life of Demant Hatt, a young Danish artist and ethnographer who went to live among the Sami people of Lapland starting in 1907. Sjoholm also investigates the boundaries and influences between ethnographers and sources, the nature of authorship and visual representation, and the state of anthropology, racial biology, and politics in Scandinavia during the first half of the twentieth century.

It was more than idle curiosity to begin with, but not much more.

Up in the far north of Norway, on a lamp-lit day in December 2001, the Norwegian writer Laila Stien told me the story of Emilie Demant Hatt and Johan Turi. Or, at least, the little that was known then of their story: In the early twentieth century, a Danish woman artist had visited Lapland and encountered a Sami wolf-hunter, by chance, on a train. Later she inspired and helped this man write a book—Muitalus sámiid birra (An Account of the Sami)––now considered the first classic work of Sami literature.

Johan Turi

I immediately had questions, but for a long time, few answers. Who was this woman, Emilie Demant Hatt? How did she end up in Lapland, or Sápmi, as the region is now called? What kind of artist was she? And what was her relationship with Johan Turi?

I read her engaging travel narrative in Danish from 1913, and Turi’s equally marvelous book in its 1931 English translation, Turi’s Book of Lapland. And I included what I knew about the pair in my own travel narrative, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland. Each time I went to Scandinavia I made time to do more investigation.

I visited the museum in Skive, Denmark, that owned some of Demant Hatt’s artworks, and the Nordic Museum in Stockholm, which held a collection of fifty of her Expressionist canvases of Sápmi, all painted when she was in her sixties and seventies. The Nordic Museum archives possessed many of her papers, including intimate letters from Turi, and her field journals from the ethnographic trips she made to Scandinavia in 1907-1916. In Copenhagen, I visited the Ethnographic Collection at the National Museum and pored through eight boxes of letters, sketchbooks, and photo albums. But not until 2008, after the Danish State Archives had put records of their holdings online, did I realize how much more there was: several dozen boxes of material by and about Demant Hatt were available. I’d suspected the woman was something of a packrat, and now I knew that for certain.

By the time I realized the extent of Demant Hatt’s archives, it was too late for me to feel properly frightened or inadequate. I was enthralled. Each challenge—deciphering her handwriting in letters and journals, learning all I could about Sami history, and culture, meeting scholars in many fields, walking the same streets Demant Hatt had walked––led me further. I translated her book With the Lapps in the High Mountains and wrote an introduction. Then, because I was deeply fascinated with another of her relationships, an adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen, I wrote a novel, Fossil Island, and a sequel, The Former World. Eventually I felt I knew enough to begin a full-length biography, a project that would lead me deeper into the same questions I began with years ago but which grew increasingly complex.

Who was this woman, Emilie Demant Hatt? How did she end up in Sápmi? Who was Johan Turi, as a writer and artist? How did Demant Hatt represent him and promote him as an indigenous author? Was their work together ethnographic collaboration or something else? How was Demant Hatt affected by the racial biology movement, much of it directed against the Sami, in Scandinavia? How did her year in the United States with her husband Gudmund Hatt, in 1914-15, and their contacts with Franz Boas and other Americanists shape her ethnographic thinking? Why is her pioneering fieldwork among Sami women and children, and her folktale-collecting, so little acknowledged? What was the impact of Sápmi on her visual art and how were her Expressionist paintings and graphic work received in Scandinavia?

Every life has its mysteries, and one of the roles of the biographer is to dig them out through the careful reading of letters and the charting of personal connections with other historical figures. But even more important in writing a person’s life, especially a life that is both significant and neglected, is a biographical approach that looks at the context of the subject. Demant Hatt, born in 1873 in a rural village in Denmark, traveled widely in her lifetime, not only to Northern Scandinavia but to Greenland and the Caribbean. She was a self-identified New Woman, one of a generation of women artists allowed to study at the Royal Academy of Art. She took advantage of changing times to travel alone far off the beaten path and to marry a much younger man. She lived through two World Wars, including the occupation of Denmark by Germany. Her historical time period, particularly as it relates to changes in Sápmi, is a crucial aspect of her life. She came to know Sami nomadic herders during a time of transition, and she bears important witness to the injustices the Sami suffered from their neighbors and respective states and to their efforts to claim agency over their lives.

Demant Hatt didn’t live outside her era and some of her attitudes may strike us now as patronizing. She was both insider and outsider in Sápmi. Her friendship with Johan Turi was both loving and conflicted. Yet it’s also possible to understand how unwaveringly admiring and actively supportive she was of the Sami. In lively, insightful narratives, in fieldwork notes, in folktale collection, and in her paintings, she’s left an important record of a nomadic people and a northern world that continues to educate and enchant.

Barbara Sjoholm

Barbara Sjoholm is the editor and translator of Demant Hatt’s narrative With the Lapps in the High Mountains. Her many books include novels about Demant Hatt’s youthful romance with Danish composer Carl Nielsen: Fossil Island and The Former World.

 

Vietnam, Laos, and the American War: A Reading List

 

Understanding and Teaching the Vietnam War 
Edited by John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin

The Harvey Goldberg Series for Understanding and Teaching History
John Day Tully, Matthew Masur, and Brad Austin, Series Editors

Honorable Mention, Franklin Buchanan Prize for Curricular Materials, Association for Asian Studies and the Committee for Teaching About Asia

“Delivers useful material for anyone teaching the Vietnam war, and for Vietnam veterans and others interest in how the war is being taught in high schools and colleges.”—Vietnam Veterans of America

 

Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air WarSecond Edition
Edited by Fred Branfman with essays and drawings by Laotian villagers
Foreword by Alfred W. McCoy

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

During the Vietnam War the United States government waged a massive, secret air war in neighboring Laos. Fred Branfman, an educational advisor living in Laos at the time, interviewed over 1,000 Laotian survivors. Shocked by what he heard and saw, he urged them to record their experiences in essays, poems, and pictures. Voices from the Plain of Jars was the result of that effort.

“A classic. . . . No American should be able to read [this book] without weeping at his country’s arrogance.”
—Anthony Lewis, New York Times

 

Vietnam Anthology: American War Literature
Edited by Nancy Anisfield

This anthology includes some of the most memorable personal narratives, short stories, novel excerpts, drama, and poetry to come out of the Vietnam War. Study questions at the end of each section, plus a time line, glossary, and bibliography make this an indispensable coursebook.

Novel excerpts include: Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers, David Halberstam’s One Very Hot Day, and Jeff Danziger’s Lieutenant Kitt. Short stories include Asa Baber’s “The Ambush,” Tobias Wolff’s “Wingfield,” and Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Drama excerpts include David Rabe’s Streamers and Lanford Wilson’s The 5th of July. Poets include: Denise Levertov, Jan Barry, E. D. Ehrhart, Basil T. Paquet, Stephen Sossaman, Bryan Alec Floyd, Bruce Weigl, and Trang Thi Nga.

Originally published by the Popular Press and distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 

Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850–1960
Mai Na M. Lee

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, and Thongchai Winichakul, Series Editors

“The messianism of the Hmong rebellions, the fractiousness of the Hmong clans, and the opportunism of Hmong relations with other forces mystified colonial powers and have puzzled historians. . . . But Lee, herself a member of the Hmong diaspora, makes sense of these behaviors as she deciphers the community’s myths, symbols, lineage ties, sexual politics, and rituals, with the combined skills of a historian and an anthropologist.”—Foreign Affairs

 

Viêt Nam: Borderless Histories
Edited by Nhung Tuyet Tran and Anthony Reid

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

“Vitally important not only for Vietnamese studies, but also for broader efforts in Southeast Asian studies to recover the pluralities and fluidities of the past. This volume makes a convincing case for the emergence of a real generational and analytical shift in the field.”–Mark Philip Bradley, Northwestern University

 

With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics
Dale Van Atta
Foreword by President Gerald R. Ford

In 1968, at the peak of the Vietnam War, centrist Congressman Melvin Laird (R-WI) agreed to serve as Richard Nixon’s secretary of defense. It was not, Laird knew, a move likely to endear him to the American public—but as he later said, “Nixon couldn’t find anybody else who wanted the damn job.” The first book ever to focus on Laird’s legacy, this biography reveals his central and often unrecognized role in managing the crisis of national identity sparked by the Vietnam War—and the challenges, ethical and political, that confronted him along the way. Drawing on exclusive interviews with Laird, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, and numerous others, author Dale Van Atta offers a sympathetic portrait of a man striving for open government in an atmosphere fraught with secrecy.

 

The Government of Mistrust: Illegibility and Bureaucratic Power in Socialist Vietnam
Ken MacLean

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, R. Anderson Sutton, Thongchai Winichakul, and Kenneth M. George, Series Editors

“An ambitious text, both for its creative use of mixed methodologies and its temporal thematic and range. . . . The richly descriptive text will be of value for graduate students and other scholars who are interested in the dynamic power relations that infuse the innovation and accumulation of state bureaucratic processes, as well as for Vietnam specialists interested in the history of Vietnamese governance, agricultural collectivization and economic policy since independence.”—Pacific Times

 

Hmong in America: Journey from a Secret War
Tim Pfaff

Hmong in America tells the dramatic story of one of America’s newest groups of immigrants, the Hmong, told through the voices of the people who lived this contemporary history. Their journey begins in the scenic, rugged highlands of Laos, travels through the Vietnam War, pauses in the over-crowded refugee camps of Thailand, and ends with the challenges of resettlement and a new life in America.   Distributed for the Chippewa Valley Museum

 

The Mekong Delta: Ecology, Economy, and Revolution, 1860–1960
Pierre Brocheux

By draining the swamps and encouraging a particular pattern of Vietnamese settlement, the French cultivated a volatile society, bound together by lines of credit and poised at the brink of social revolution. From the cutting of the first canals in the 1880s to the eruption of the Viet Cong’s insurgency in the 1950s, this book illuminates the subtle interactions between ecology and social change in a tropical delta.

“A major contribution to Vietnamese studies and to the socio-economic history of Southeast Asia.”—Hy V. Luong, Pacific Affairs

 

 

Into New Territory: American Historians and the Concept of US Imperialism
James G. Morgan

As the Vietnam War created a critical flashpoint, bringing the idea of American imperialism into the US mainstream, radical students of the New Left turned toward Marxist critiques, admiring revolutionaries like Che Guevara. Simultaneously, a small school of revisionist scholars, led by historian William Appleman Williams at the University of Wisconsin, put forward a progressive, nuanced critique of American empire grounded in psychology, economics, and broader historical context. It is this more sophisticated strand of thinking, Morgan argues, which demonstrated that empire can be an effective analytical framework for studying US foreign policy, thus convincing American scholars to engage with the subject seriously for the first time.

 

 

Search and Clear: Critical Responses to Selected Literature and Films of the Vietnam War
Edited by William J. Searle

Demonstrates that the seeds of war were implicit in American culture, distinguishes between literature spawned by Vietnam and that of other conflicts, reviews the literary merits of works both well and little known, and explores the assumptions behind and the persistence of stereotypes associated with the consequences of the Vietnam War. It examines the role of women in fiction, the importance of gender in Vietnam representation, and the mythic patterns in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. Essayists sharply scrutinize American values, conduct, and conscience as they are revealed in the craft of Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, Stephen Wright, David Rabe, Bruce Weigl, and others.

Originally published by the Popular Press, now distributed by the University of Wisconsin Press.

 

 

 

The Driftless Reader: a literature of place

Today, we publish THE DRIFTLESS READER, a remarkable anthology of writings about the ancient and unique unglaciated region that encompasses southwestern Wisconsin and adjacent Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois. More than eighty excerpts from Native people, explorers, scientists, historians, farmers, songwriters, journalists, novelists, and poets, augmented by paintings, photographs, maps, and pictographs, comprise the anthology. In this post Keefe Keeley, coeditor of the volume, writes about the challenges and rewards of creating the Reader.

It never ceases to amaze me that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea. When I see the exposed bluff faces and roadside cuts stratified in layers like haphazard stacks of books, I almost can’t believe that sandstone and limestone is formed of ancient beaches and shells of sea creatures. Lower layers, older oceans, hundreds of millions of years old . . .

Assembling The Driftless Reader didn’t take hundreds of millions of years, but it took a few.  And geology was just the first chapter. Co-editor Curt Meine and I had our stacks of books and papers about Driftless plants and animals, waterways, early humans who hunted mastodons here, the mounds built by their descendants some ten thousand years later, and the sweep of history from fur trading to organic farming, all the way to a fly fisherman musing about the future of the Driftless area.

The publisher told us we had to fit it all in a hundred thousand words.  So we axed Steinbeck.  We abridged Leopold.  We groaned over Twain.  We scoured our bluffs of books, and we gave thanks for poets as we struck gold in the rich thrift of Driftless verse.

Giving fair representation across the roughly 10,000 square miles of the region was another important, if quixotic, goal. In seeking material for the volume, Curt and I crisscrossed the region to meet with friends and colleagues from Winona to Dubuque, Decorah to Baraboo, and a host of points therein. This was one of the most enjoyable phases of the book: broadening our familiarity with the region and making connections with authors, poets, artists, scientists, musicians and others interested in vital expression of our shared landscape and interwoven communities.  I’m looking forward to revisiting some of these places, and new ones, on our tour of events, as we bookend the project by sharing it with others interested in giving voice to our emerging bioregional identity.

Black Hawk. Painting by George Catlin.

Although we searched far and wide, perhaps it is no surprise that Crawford County, Wisconsin, where I grew up, gave rise to some of the most personally meaningful voices of the volume. Chief Black Hawk recounts old men and little children perishing of hunger as his band was pursued through this “rugged country,” the rest of them marching on to what became known as the Bad Axe Massacre. Pearl Swiggum shared her love for living a whole life on Stump Ridge. Ben Logan grew up on a farm, went on to travel the world, returned via remembrances, and eventually came home. Laura Sherry wrote of her memories in Old Prairie du Chien, a book of poetry published in Paris in 1931. Clifford Simak left for a life elsewhere, but his award-winning stories depict alien travelers from other worlds navigating the place he first called home.  And John Muir (although technically the letter we include in the Reader is one he wrote to a friend in Crawford County) described exploring bluffs just across the Mississippi River in Clayton County, Iowa, where my mother grew up.

I wasn’t always so enamored with this place. In my teenage years I thought of the Driftless largely in terms of escape. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. I would say . . . I liked it. But I felt the hillsides hemmed in my ambitions, and sometimes I perceived a shadow of stigma for being a child of long-haired back-to-the-land transplants in Crawford County. As soon as I came of age, I took every opportunity to study and travel afar. In the Reader, others echo my meditations on escape from the confining coulees and isolated ridgetops of the Driftless: Hamlin Garland, Rick Harsch, Bob Wolf.

Eventually, I traveled just about as far away as possible. In rural India, a farmer lent me his copy of Kentuckian Wendell Berry’s book, The Unsettling of America. The situation in his country, this farmer told me, was the same as in the United States: many young people leaving rural areas, family farms becoming scarce, and small-town economies crumbling. Soon after, I moved back near my family, resolved to buck the trend, put down roots, and become a hometown hero.  I lasted about four months, then I was back to traveling.

Before the Heat of the Day. Painting by Kathie Wheeler of Hmong farmers in the Driftless region.

Over the next few years, I bounced between working on farms near home and shoestring trips abroad.  I’d like to say my fresh eyes returning each time helped me realize how remarkable the Driftless is, but who knows?  Maybe I would more truly appreciate the place if I had continued to put down roots throughout the seasons.

I’ve lived in Madison for a spell now, just outside the Driftless. It can be disorienting, to be in an urban environment, pursuing advanced degrees and other accolades of our era, while society seems to teeter, ever more polarized, along the lines of Berry’s Unsettling warning-cum-prophecy. Sometimes I feel like a moth entranced by the charm of the city lights. I am more at home without streetlamps, navigating my way among the fireflies and stars, open roads, and impromptu conversations with gas station acquaintances. Part of me fears that those open roads and rural conviviality will disappear as too many people from “the city” find the Driftless charming and proceed to blanket the land, as the glaciers never could, with floodlit backyard patios.

Farmed Frame. Machinery parts sculpture by David Wells, photography by Katrin Talbot.

My hope is that The Driftless Reader will serve as a sort of antidote to the poisonous polarity fed by fears like these, prompting us instead to fall in love with whatever place we’re in, and to make those shared affections a basis for conviviality and community with others there. In the closing selection of the book, Kevin Koch likens such an antidote to a vow of stability taken by the monks of New Melleray Abbey outside Dubuque. Rather than, as the monks vow, staying forever in the same locale, Kevin suggests for the rest of us, “a call to be in the fields, in the rain, the mud, and the clay no matter where we’re at, no matter for how long. Our dirty hands, wet faces and backs, and sore feet are testimony to our contact and connectedness to the earth that birthed us and will receive us back again.”

Creating this book has allowed me to cultivate connectedness with and within the Driftless, to establish some stability amid the whiplash of modern mobility. Seeing the place through others’ eyes, things quotidian and odd have become more remarkable, personal, and even beloved. Thoreau celebrated redwing blackbirds prevailing on the Mississippi. Robin Kimmerer puzzled out the patterns of mosses on Kickapoo River cliffs. Amish neighbors, normally aloof from politics, rallied via public letter the outcry against proposed low-level military training flights. Truman Lowe, sculpting aluminum lattice into a thunderbird form, linked his Ho-Chunk clan with the mounds that grace the region.  Kathe Davis, who I’m sad to say passed away recently, wrote in the closing line of her poem Things I Love about Where I Am, “All the long-haired men.”  When I was a teenager, my dad’s long hair was a source of untold embarrassment; now, I see things differently.

I hope the rich array of voices in this book can likewise give others a chance to see the Driftless, and any all-too-familiar or otherwise disregarded place, in a new light. For starters, consider that the tops of these hills were once the bottom of the sea.

Keefe Keeley

Keefe Keeley, a native of the Kickapoo Valley, is co-executive director of the Savanna Institute, working with farmers to diversify and perennialize agriculture in the Upper Midwest. He is pursuing a doctoral degree at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Can we make space for reasoned deliberation?

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to release REASON AFTER ITS ECLIPSE in paperback. In this post, historian Martin Jay suggests that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Recently reading the stimulating collection of Raymond Geuss’s essays titled A World Without Why, I was stopped short by a casual reference to the distinguished British philosopher Bernard Williams. Williams had been a much- valued colleague of mine at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1990s.

“Williams,” Geuss wrote, “took an extremely dim view of the powers of reason to persuade. He once told me that he had only one time in his life seen a case of a person convinced to give up a deeply held belief by the force of rational argumentation.”

Williams was universally acclaimed as himself a reasoner of uncommon brilliance, whose career had been built on his ability to demolish the arguments of his opponents, so his skepticism about rational justification as a means of persuasion was particularly sobering. It was made even more so against the backdrop of the episode that gave Geuss’s collection its name: the chilling passage in Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in Auschwitz in which an SS officer capriciously ripped a thirst-quenching icicle from his lips, with the cruel anti-explanation explanation “Hier gibt es kein ‘Warum’” (here there is no “why.”)

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential space of reasons, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a… Click To Tweet

If the philosophy seminar is the quintessential “space of reasons,” to cite Wilfred Sellars’ famous phrase, the concentration camp is its exact opposite: a space where no justification needs to be given, pure coercion trumps any attempt to persuade, and the better argument is never allowed to be voiced, let alone win.

In a way, the background of the story I tell in Reason After Its Eclipse is the still potent tension between these two models of human interaction. That is, the first generation of the Frankfurt School had fled from a world in which the concentration camp threatened to banish any vestige of reason, save its debased instrumental variant, from the world. The second generation, exemplified by Habermas, sought to rescue reason by identifying it with its intersubjective role in communication. No longer able to believe in an emphatic notion of objective reason, which had motivated many thinkers in the Enlightenment Age of Reason, they fell back on a more modest faith in the power of giving reasons to justify decisions, which had its political correlate in deliberative democracy. It was this hope for an expanded “space of reasons” that Williams’ remark explicitly deflated.

There can, of course, be no questioning of the resilience of deeply held beliefs, such as religious convictions or political allegiances. But in many other cases, beliefs are held more tentatively, a learning process is not impossible, and minds can be changed. Communicative rationality does not assume that all beliefs can be justified rationally to the satisfaction of adversaries in an argument. Nor does it believe that an ideal speech situation can ever be achieved in which asymmetries of power, expertise, eloquence, and so forth are completely effaced. But it does hold out hope that, if reason is to thrive in a pluralistic, even fractured world, it can only do so when some space is cleared—that is, institutions and practices are nurtured—in which deliberation can thrive.

Reason Today

That such a hope is not entirely utopian became clear to me a few years ago when I served on a jury deliberating a case of alleged drunk driving. Initially, we deadlocked six to six. I joined the vote for guilty. But, after several days of deliberation, we concluded that there was not really enough evidence to convict “beyond a reasonable doubt.” What struck me most about how we reached this consensus was that the most powerful arguments made for acquittal were advanced by a juror who was a postal carrier, someone whose station in life might have led one to believe he would be no match for a professor with experience in the often disputatious world of academic discourse. But as the model of the public sphere advanced by Habermas suggested, station meant nothing and the power of the better argument was able to win out. Our ultimate verdict was reinforced when we had a chance to conduct exit interviews with the two competing lawyers. The prosecuting attorney admitted that he had been dealt a weak hand and doubted he could get a guilty verdict. I ended up feeling far more encouraged by the process than disappointed by losing the argument.

Now, of course, it should be conceded that I really had no long-held belief in the guilt of the accused party, nor any interest in the outcome besides a desire to see justice done. But the point is simply that, to a still significant extent, we live in a world in which “why?” needs to be answered and justificatory reasoning can provide at least some guidance for how we should act. The eclipse of reason, in short, is not total, and some light manages to shine through.

Martin Jay is the Sidney Hellman Ehrman Professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of fourteen previous books, including The Dialectical Imagination: A History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute of Social Research, 1923–50, which has been translated into thirteen languages; Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukács to HabermasAdornoPermanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration from Germany to AmericaDowncast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth- Century French ThoughtSongs of Experience: Modern European and American Variations on a Universal Theme; and The Virtues of Mendacity: On Lying in Politics.

Tanizaki’s Yaichi: A Japanese disabled character as hero, outcast, and metaphor

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish Kenny Fries’s account of a journey of profound self-discovery as a disabled foreigner in Japan, IN THE PROVINCE OF THE GODS. Here he comments on some of the “outtakes” from early drafts of the book.

Fifteen years ago, I first traveled to Japan to look at its historical and cultural relationship to otherness, to difference. More specifically, I wanted to learn about how the Japanese viewed and represented disability. During my first stay in Japan, much of this eluded me for reasons I write about in In the Province of Gods,

Three years later on my second trip, I found what I was looking for. But, as my book’s focus shifted, this research became more background than foreground. Though some of what I found in Japan about representation of disability remains in the book, much of it is now only in what I call the “outtakes.”

I did include in my book observations about the disability representation in Japanese writer Tanizaki Junichiro’s novel Portrait of Shunkin.  Most notably, I write about the way that Tanizaki’s story of Shunkin, a blind samisen singer, illuminates my meeting two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, the twenty-five hibakusha (atomic bomb survivors) who traveled from Japan to the United States for medical treatment in 1955.

But another of Tanizaki’s blind characters is not represented in my own book. In A Blind Man’s Tale, Tanizaki tells the familiar story of the siege of Osaka Castle and historical figures Nobunaga and his successor Hideyoshi. He recounts this history through the voice of Yaichi, who like Shunkin is a blind samisen singer. Yaichi is also a masseur. (Samisen singer and masseur are traditional occupations for the blind in Japan.) Yaichi is in the service of Lady Oichi, sister of Nobunaga. She is married to Lord Nagamasa, an ally of Nobunaga until they have a falling out.

Many familiar tropes of blindness attend the tale of Yaichi, especially that of a blind man’s unrequited love. Because of his blindness, he goes unnoticed by the men but is taken into the confidence of a beautiful woman above his station. There is also the unfortunate metaphor of “blind devotion.” But what is singular about this tale comes at the story’s climactic moment.

During a siege of the castle, Yaichi entertains Lady Oichi along with a visitor, the warrior priest Choroken. As a master samisen player himself, Yaichi notices that Choroken’s playing includes embellishments of a tune with “queer phrases, twice-repeated.”   Yaichi informs us,

Now, there is a secret code that all of us blind samisen players know very well. Since each string of the samisen has sixteen stops, the three strings together have forty-eight: when you teach a beginner how to play the instrument you help him memorize these stops by marking them with the forty-eight characters of the alphabet.  Everyone who studies the samisen learns this system; but we blind musicians, since we can’t see the characters, have to learn it by heart, we associate each note with its proper letter quite automatically, as soon as we hear it.  So when blind musicians want to communicate secretly they can do it by playing on the samisen, using this system as a code.

Tanizaki Junichiro

Yaichi realizes Choroken’s “queer phrases” are communicating that the servant needs to save his mistress, and he perceives the plan Choroken is secretly transmitting. Yaichi’s blindness is a crucial asset in this covert exchange.

Tellingly, in the popular Kabuki theater version of the story, this original element is left out, leaving the story to emphasize the comparison between the “blind” love of Yaichi with that of those who court the widowed Lady Oichi and her beautiful daughter “whose voice sounded just the same” as her mother.  Lady Oichi affections are won over by Hideyoshi, even though he killed her family.  In the end of the Kabuki version, Yaichi is left on stage, remembering his Lady, who appears in the distance playing her koto.  She disappears, leaving Yaichi decidedly alone and crying.

In Tanizaki’s story we are shown how disability can, in certain contexts, be advantageous, as well as how the nondisabled use disability for their own purposes. But, as in much of Japanese culture, the story simultaneously conveys opposing ideas.  In A Blind Man’s Tale, we are given the blind man as hero, outcast, and metaphor.

Kenny Fries is the author of Body, Remember: A Memoir and The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory,  and editor of Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College and is the recipient of a prestigious Creative Capital grant. He lives in Berlin.

Author’s website: https://www.kennyfries.com/

Finalist, National Book Awards! (Philippines)

The National Book Development Council of the Philippines and the Manila Critics Circle have just announced finalists for the National Book Awards of the Philippines.

Among the finalists in the History category is Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945 by Daniel F. Doeppers, emeritus professor of Geography and Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Daniel Doeppers

The University of Wisconsin Press published the book in 2016 in the series New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies, which UWP publishes in collaboration with the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at UW-Madison. The book focuses on how Manila has historically dealt with the formidable challenge of getting food, water, and services to millions of residents, a problem that is increasingly pressing for policy makers, agencies, and businesses who manage food, water, and services for the world’s megacities.

Benedict J. Tria Kerkvliet of the Australian National University has called Doepper’s work “outstanding, wide-ranging scholarship that shines in every chapter. He crafts a thoughtful, well-reasoned analysis of provisioning Manila and comparable cities. This is a sterling example of how to investigate and analyze such questions, not only for other parts of the Philippines but elsewhere in Southeast Asia and beyond.”

UWP licensed a Philippine edition for the book to Ateneo de Manila University Press, which submitted Doepper’s book for the award competition. Winners will be announced in the coming months.

Hunter’s Best Friend

The University of Wisconsin Press is pleased to publish today a paperback edition of A GROUSE HUNTER’S ALMANAC. In this post, author Mark Parman reminisces about his faithful hunting dogs and their importance beyond mere scenting.

I wrote most of the essays in A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac eight to ten years ago.  That’s a long time in dog years, nearly a lifetime. Gunnar and Ox, the dogs at the center of the book, have been gone almost as long. We live with two different English setters now—Fergus and Jenkins—and on occasion I call one or the other Ox or Gunnar.  Recently a friend called, an English setter fanatic, asking about Ox’s lines and his breeder, and after our conversation, I dreamed of Ox several nights running. Although no longer here in the flesh, these dogs are still very much with me, something I realized even more keenly as I paged through A Grouse Hunter’s Almanac, making a few corrections for this new paperback edition.

Ox pointing a woodcock

In the essay “Dogless,” however, Ox and Gunnar are literally absent from the pages. When rereading it, I was surprised that I didn’t mention them by name, referring to them obliquely as “my dogs.” The essay describes what it was like for me to hunt without a dog one early October day in northern Wisconsin. I hadn’t hunted grouse or woodcock without a dog for several years. Walking by myself through the bright woods and falling leaves, it took just a few minutes for me to realize I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two.
I would rather hunt with a dog than with a shotgun if forced to choose between the two. Click To Tweet
I could get into a rational explanation to justify why a dog improves your hunting chances and ability to bag birds, but for me it all comes down to the fact I have no desire to upland hunt without a dog.

Gunnar with a Sawyer County grouse

I drove home after this fruitless hunt and jumped out of my truck as Gunnar and Ox, released from the house, charged out to greet me. They had seen me leave in the morning with a gun case, and they hadn’t forgotten this slight. They sniffed me all over, trying to fathom where I’d been and why they’d been left behind. It was a new experience for them as well, and they appeared to be at least as unhappy with it as I was. After this, I never hunted without one or the other until they both finally passed on.

Matt Parman (the author’s brother) with Ox

Since then, I’ve kept this wordless pact with Fergus and Jenkins.  On occasion, I hunt them together, but mostly they take turns—one goes out, one stays at home.  As I back out of the driveway, I have a hard time not glancing over at the picture window where the dog left behind stands pressing his nose against the glass, looking as sad as a dog can. Some days, it’s enough to make me roll back down the drive, unlock the door and release whoever was marked to stay home that day. The perfect joy, the happy dance in the driveway, their lust for life cuts me to the heart.

How can anyone live without this?

Fergus and Jenkins with an early season grouse

Mark Parman is a member of the Ruffed Grouse Society and the Loyal Order of Dedicated Grouse Hunters. He has written for Sports AfieldPointing Dog Journal, and other outdoor magazines. In the late spring of 2018, the University of Wisconsin Press will publish a new collection of his hunting essays, Among the Aspen. He has retired from teaching English and journalism at the University of Wisconsin–Marathon County and now lives near Hayward, Wisconsin.

For more of Mark’s writing, visit setterboys.com.

The Path of Totality: Illuminating THE DISINTEGRATIONS

On August 21, the United States experienced its first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in almost one hundred years. The next day, August 22, we officially published Alistair McCartney’s new novel The Disintegrations. Here, McCartney reflects on the eclipse and other books that inspired his.

During the recent eclipse, the moon or its shadow blocked the sun; in some places that lay in the so-called path of totality, it did so completely, for up to two and half minutes.

When I found out the official publication date for The Disintegrations was the day after the solar eclipse, it struck me as a good omen. On further reflection, it also struck me as appropriate: this is a book about a guy who’s trying to unravel the secret of death, a book that aims to cloak the reader in at least partial, temporary darkness.

The process of writing The Disintegrations was long and arduous. It took me about nine years to realize the book. The challenges this novel presented were related to content—writing about death and the dead is an impossible task—but form was also a challenge, as I tried to figure out the right structure to hold together the pieces I was assembling.

Like most writers, I turned to other books while attempting to solve this aesthetic problem. These eleven books helped me figure it out, placed me in their path of totality, their shadows providing a source of illumination.

Peter Handke, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, 1972; Translator Ralph Mannheim, 1975.
I first read this novella from Handke as a student in the late 1990s, and it floored me, in particular this Austrian author’s ability to write about the suicide of his mother with such objectivity: “My mother has been dead for almost seven weeks: I had better get to work before the need to write about her, which I felt so strongly at her funeral, dies away, and I fall back into the dull speechlessness with which I reacted to the news of her suicide.” (199).

One of the main struggles I encountered in writing The Disintegrations was finding the right voice and tone to articulate death, one that didn’t make my skin crawl. I re-read A Sorrow and it acted as a signpost for me, to help me locate that register. Although my book springs from nonfiction—all my writing does—through my point of view, it becomes fiction. Handke’s definition of fiction in an interview from 1980 resonates deeply with me: “[My novels] are only daily occurrences brought into a new order. What is ‘story’ or ‘fiction’ is really always only the point of intersection between individual daily events. This is what produces the impression of fiction.”

Maurice Blanchot, Death Sentence, 1948; Translator Lydia Davis, 1976.
I was already well into writing The Disintegrations (which for years I was calling The Death Book) when I read the French writer and philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s miraculous little novel (or récit) Death Sentence.  Like Handke’s novella it’s less than one hundred pages. Blanchot’s strange, crystalline perspective on death, thanks to Lydia Davis’ incredible translation, was essential:  “These things happened to me in 1938. I feel the greatest uneasiness in speaking of them. I have already tried to put them into writing many times. If I have written books, it has been in the hope that they would put an end to it all. If I have written novels, they have come into being just as the words began to shrink back from the truth” (1).

I reread this book about a year later, to keep learning how to write my own book. Like all astonishing books, it continued both to teach me and to elude me. Its style, both simple and ambiguous, was crucial as I forged my own style. The compression of Blanchot’s work guided me in radically compressing my own book from a much longer draft. (Earlier versions were three times as long as the “final” product.)  Blanchot wrote not novels but récits, which is what The Disintegrations is: a book where the author and narrator are one and the same, a self-reflexive book that is as much about what cannot be told as what can, a book that is neither fiction nor non-fiction. As Lars Iyer writes in “Blanchot, Narration, and The Event,” a “récit would interrupt both the assurance of the novelist who creates and preserves a world and also the assurance of the reader, for whom the world the novel imitates is the same world he or she inhabits.” More than any other writer, Blanchot showed me how to write from a place of impossibility: the impossibility of representing or writing (about) death, the impossibility of representing anything.

Arthur Rimbaud, Illuminations, 1886; translator John Ashbery, 2011.
I’ve loved the Illuminations since I was a teenager, rereading the Louise Varese translation almost every year. Rimbaud is in my bloodstream. For my fortieth birthday, my friend David Schweizer gave me a copy of the new Ashbery translation of Rimbaud, and it reignited my relationship to this beloved book. Although thematically The Disintegrations is perhaps more my version of A Season in Hell, if you look at any of the less narrative-driven chapters such as “A Hole in the World” or “Disintegration” or “Data” or “Odors” or “Immortality,” you see the trace of Rimbaud’s prose poems throughout this book. I am , if truth be told, a poet who disguises himself as a prose writer. You also see this majestic book’s influence in the title, The Disintegrations, a phrase which, when I hit upon it, struck me as the dark mirror image of the Illuminations. Throughout this book, my narrator finds himself in an inverted mode of astonishment, a negative state of wonder.

Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 1975; Translator Jonathan Griffin, 1977.
My initial “finished” draft of the book was written in a much more straightforward, linear manner (or, at least, my version of linear). Of course, I didn’t realize until I got to the end of the draft that this is not the kind of novel I should be writing. I did a radical revision last year, gutting the book, re-tuning the voice, rewiring the apparatus. Blanchot’s notion of the récit helped me realize this. So did the great filmmaker Robert Bresson’s summary of the non-linear nature of the aesthetic process:  “My movie [book] is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film [in the book] but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen [the page], come to life again, like flowers in water.” (p. 23)

Although I would not have minded getting to the final version sooner, Bresson’s characterization of the process as a dialectic of creation and destruction gave a logic to my own drawn-out process in which I built the book, destroyed it, then reordered it into what it was meant to be.

Susan Sontag, “Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson” in Against Interpretation, 1966.
Following the major revision, which was profoundly liberating (the only “easy” stage of writing this book), I did a line edit that was far more excruciating. I’d get up at 4 a.m. in the February dark, so I had time before I went to work. I was especially struggling with one of the stories “Eun Kang and the Ocean.” Robert Bresson’s films Four Nights of a Dreamer and The Devil, Probably had been essential for me at various stages of writing, in ways that I can’t put into words, something to do with their purity, their directness and indirectness, their formal coolness, and I found myself reading Sontag’s essay on his films in Against Interpretation (one of my favorite books ever) to help me articulate the power of Bresson’s work: “The emotional distance typical of Bresson’s films seems to exist for a different reason altogether: because all identification with characters, deeply conceived, is an impertinence—an affront to the mystery that is human action and the human heart.” (181). Reading this allowed me to continue narrating Eun Kang’s story, to sustain a detachment to my subject, and to strive towards my perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

My perverse goal: writing a book that was as cold as possible, a book not for the living and their needs or feelings, but for the dead.

JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951.
Although European writers are my primary source of inspiration, in some ways I think of The Disintegrations as my American book. I first read The Catcher in the Rye as an adolescent when one of my older sisters passed it on to me. In Australia, at least in the 1980s, Catcher wasn’t nearly so ubiquitous or canonical as it is here in the States. Anyway, I found myself rereading it fairly early on in writing The Disintegrations, and I was astonished by the book, how complex and perverse it is beneath a seemingly simple narrative. And of course, there’s the purity of the voice of the adorable Holden Caulfield, whom I continue to have a big crush on. Needless to say Catcher was a major influence on The Disintegrations, an influence I had to tone down, pull back on, distort, even reject, as I was striving for a less intimate effect and a less forthcoming voice. But the ghost of Salinger and Holden Caulfield is still in The Disintegrations, especially in the sections “The Weight”, “Chris, a Recipe”, and “How to Dispose of Me.”

Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or,The Whale, 1851.
While we’re on the subject of American classics, Moby Dick also cast its spell on me during the writing process, just as it has cast its spell on so many writers. In that earlier, much lengthier draft—which incidentally was titled The Death Book; or, The Disintegrations in homage to Melville’s title—I had a bunch of epigraphs on death, just like the “Extracts” section of quotes about whales in Melville’s novel, and I included this line from Melville himself: “Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of life and death” (p 42). Luckily I saw reason. To try to write one’s own Moby Dick is a quest as futile and full of hubris as Captain Ahab’s. I realized the goal of my death book was far more modest. But Melville continued to inspire me. The Disintegrations remains a book about a guy as single-minded as Ahab and as solitary as Ishmael, on a dangerous quest to find the unknowable. Melville’s (or Ishmael’s) assertion that we’ve gotten the life-death equation wrong is a major theme in the narrative. And Melville’s glorious chapter headings and the book’s protean form can absolutely be seen in the structure I ended up employing to articulate the ineffable.

Joan Didion, A Book of Common Prayer, 1977.
Joan Didion is one of my favorite living American writers. The Disintegrations owes so much to her astringent, acute perspective on the interplay between sunshine and death in California. I love her nonfiction but also her fiction. Apart from the voice and tone, the major difficulty with writing my own book was coming up with a structure to contain the fragments. When I undertook that radical revision, restructuring the linear narrative I’d created, Didion’s novel A Book of Common Prayer was so instructive as a model of how to do this. Didion’s organic, fugue-like composition, her use of repetition and recurring motifs, and the cool, precise use of first person, really showed me how to tap into my own narrative fugue.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights, 1848; Translator Alan Myers, 1995.
I was pretty aware of the influences on this work as I wrote, but one that took me by surprise was “White Nights,” an early short story of Dostoevsky’s. I’d read it a long time ago and picked it up to reread. I was struck not only by how beautiful it is but also by how much the story inspired The Disintegrations. “White Nights” tells the story of a lonely guy in Saint Petersburg who wanders around at night, who thinks too much, and who meets a young woman he falls in love with, but who can’t love him back. (Incidentally, Bresson’s Four Nights is a retelling of this book.)

The more straightforward version of The Disintegrations saw my narrator wandering around the cemetery with an unnamed companion, telling him all his ideas about death. As I mentioned, I had to do away with that artifice, but Dostoevsky’s discursive, philosophical, morbid, dreamy tone is still very much at play in what you’re reading—see the chapter “An Encounter” as an example. Like his narrator, mine is similarly “oppressed by such strange thoughts, such gloomy sensations; questions still so obscure to me are crowding into my brain and I seem to have neither power nor will to settle them” (33).  The Disintegrations may appear to be unconventional, but in many ways it’s quite old-fashioned, a nineteenth-century novel of ideas rewired for this century. Dostoevsky is one of those writers who have been with me since I was a teenager and follow me around whether I like it or not.

Dennis Cooper, The Marbled Swarm, 2011.
For me, Cooper is up there with Didion as one of the greatest living American writers. I’ve read all his novels. He’s one of the few contemporary American writers who create absolute fictive worlds; by this I mean a book that is placed under the extreme pressure of the author’s totalizing vision—the outside world no longer matters. These are the kinds of books I’ve been drawn to since I was a kid. The Marbled Swarm has this propulsive narrative rhythm to it that was really important to me as I constructed my book’s own idiosyncratic rhythm. I was thinking a lot about my narrator’s secrets, what he reveals, what he doesn’t reveal, what’s unknown to him, what is untellable. Cooper’s masterful work, and its ever-shifting, kaleidoscopic focus on concealment, was a guiding light.

W.G. Sebald, The Emigrants, 1992; translator Michael Hulse, 1996.
I discovered Sebald’s work as an MFA student in the late 1990s. Like so many readers, I was immediately bewitched; I devoured all his books. He died during my final MFA residency, while I was rereading The Rings of Saturn. But it’s The Emigrants, the first of his books that I read, that has stayed with me the most: the delicacy and obliqueness with which he approaches the Holocaust. And of course his amazing fusion of genres—each book an alchemical combination of fiction, memoir, travelogue, history and biography—as well as his deft combining of the traditional and the experimental.

Sebald is one of those writers that I think you don’t want to get too close to, aesthetically. His work is so singular that to be too influenced by it, at least literally, would just result in a pale imitation. I work in an entirely different register, yet my blurring of genres in The Disintegrations—fiction and nonfiction, story and eulogy, poetry and obituary—owes so much to Sebald, as does the  book’s voice and tone in which I try to tread lightly. The trace of his voice, still so strong sixteen years after his death, can be seen in a story like “Aino’s Song”, especially the character of Herta, as well as “My Grandfather’s Hemorrhage.”

Alistair McCartney

Alistair McCartney is the author of The End of the World Book, a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award in Fiction and the Publishing Triangle’s Edmund White debut fiction award. He teaches fiction in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and oversees their undergraduate creative writing concentration. Born in Australia, he lives in Venice, California.

 

Q&A with a Self-Made Woman

Today, the University of Wisconsin Press publishes SELF-MADE WOMAN, the story of one individual’s intense struggle to accept her true self. In this post, Denise DuBois (who grew up as Dennis Dubis in 1960s Milwaukee) answers some questions about her book and gender today.

1. Was there one defining moment that inspired you to write Self-Made Woman?

It was one defining place that inspired me to write my story. The island of Kauai. I had rented a little private studio on the north shore, just off this epic beach in a place called Haena, which means “wilderness” in Hawaiian. There’s something magical about Kauai. I really suspect that there’s more oxygen in the air out there in the middle of the Pacific, no kidding, and more oxygen for the brain means increased alertness and creativity. I wrote the entire 650- page manuscript, every word, on Kauai from 2010 to 2014. I felt like Mozart composing a symphony at my keyboard, which I likened to a piano. I went into the”zone” every afternoon. That was so wonderful!

2. What was an experience you absolutely knew had to be in this book?

It’s just as hard for me to answer this question as it was for me to write about it in the book. Being honest with myself. Not being afraid to put it all out there on the page for the reader. There were things that happened to me in life that just had to be told, much of it self-inflicted. It was painful for me to recount those experiences and put that into writing. Many times during the writing of my book, I broke down in front of my screen, just devastated to be living this all over again. It was like I was there all over again. Very hard to write, but I always rallied. Kauai had a way of refreshing me.

3. How did you approach writing your memoir? Were there parts that were harder to write than others?

My approach was straightforward. It was all in my head, all 650 pages. Each day I worked off a yellow legal pad that I had next to my desktop. It was full of handwritten notes from the previous day of writing and ideas that popped into my head when I went running and  swimming every morning. I got up at 4:30 am everyday.  I wrote from noon to 6 pm, in bed by 9 pm, without fail. There were excruciatingly painful moments of writing, and other parts that were a refreshing relief to write, but in either case I knew early on in the writing process that I was onto something really good, even with the difficult stories. My story had to be told.

My approach was straight forward. It was all in my head. All 650 pages. Click To Tweet

4. Do you think the struggles you overcame were necessary to make you who you are today?

We all have struggles to overcome in life. Mine were no different than anyone else’s. But, I did come close to death many times and was at the door. Being that close to death does, in my humble opinion, have something to do with who I am today. I am a survivor, and I am thankful that I still have my mind intact and wonderful physical health so that I’ve been able to convey my life story. In that sense, it made me who I am today.

5. What kept you going through it all? Was there a specific dream or thought that you held on to?

In the deepest, darkest moments of my life, most specifically when my crystal meth addictions bubbled up like a witch’s brew from hell, when all seemed lost and hopeless, when my moments of complete and utter loneliness surrounded me, I just always thought,  I can pull out of this somehow and not lose faith in myself. Many times I felt so lost that it seemed I could never survive, but I did. For those who find themselves in that horrible place, just know that you can survive, too.

6. “The American Dream” has undoubtedly changed over the years. Would you say your story is your personal American Dream? Does everyone have a different conception of the American Dream, or is there a common thread that unites us?

“Patience, young grasshopper,” said the Master in Kung Fu. I suspect that has always been my own personal American Dream. If you wait for something long enough it will come to you, if you want it badly enough (and I wanted this book very badly for many years), it will come to you. Humanity is the common theme that unites us all. We don’t need countries for that. 100,000 years ago Humanity walked out of the African Savannah and colonized the world for better or worse. I still have faith in Humanity that it’s for the better. I will never lose that faith.

I still have faith in Humanity that it’s for the better. I will never lose that faith. Click To Tweet

7. How do you feel people today view gender nonconformity? Is it getting easier to re-identify oneself or are there more issues many of us aren’t even aware of?

Gender nonconformity has become very fluid and is changing right before our eyes, nationwide. Oregon is now the first state to allow a third gender option on driver’s licenses. People who identify as gender nonbinary—neither male nor female—can list their sex as “X” instead of “F” or “M.” This is a huge win for the LGBTQ community as some people gravitated towards this option and other states are expected to follow very soon. Many universities across the country already have this in place on their application forms too. Such a change from when I transitioned in 2003!

8. What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with how to identify?

Be true to yourself, accept yourself, learn to love yourself first, so that you can learn to love others! Talk to your friends about this, talk to your family, but only if they are accepting of you. Do not isolate yourself as I did. Do not feel ashamed as I did. Do not do crystal as I did, do not drink as I did, do not take other drugs as I did. Escape from all that and save yourself a boatload of misery. I did drugs and alcohol to numb my true self, to run away from my true self, and to forget about my true self. Just remember, in the end you can never run away from who you truly are, from your true self.

Denise Chanterelle DuBois is an actress, environmentalist, and businesswoman. A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, she lives in Portland, Oregon.

Author’s website: https://selfmadewomanbook.com/

Book trailer for Self-Made Woman.

The Land Remembers: Refreshing the Memory

This summer, the University of Wisconsin Press released the Ninth Edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir, THE LAND REMEMBERS: The Story of a Farm and Its People, with a new introduction by Curt Meine. In this post, Meine reveals a different side of author Ben Logan.

When the University of Wisconsin Press invited me to write an introduction for a new edition of Ben Logan’s beloved memoir The Land Remembers, I thought immediately of the several opportunities I had to meet, talk, and share a podium with Ben. Ben died in 2014 at the age of 94. I did not know Ben well. On those occasions when we did meet I was struck by his easygoing demeanor, understated humor, and quiet intelligence. He seemed a man quite at p  eace with himself.

Although we had only those few direct personal interactions, Ben and I shared a connection through the work and legacy of conservationist Aldo Leopold. Ben had studied with Leopold at the University of Wisconsin in the early 1940s, an experience that would prove to have a durable impact on Logan’s life and writing. I had written a biography of Leopold, and over the years had met and interviewed many of Leopold’s former students. Ben stood out by pursuing a career as a writer, not in conservation. Although Ben never mentions Leopold in the body of The Land Remembers, he briefly alluded to Leopold’s influence in an afterword to a 2006 (eighth!) edition:

“[H]umans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of what Aldo Leopold called THE LAND—all things on, over, and in the earth. When I first heard him say that in a University of Wisconsin classroom, it was a moment of great discovery. His definition of land included me, made a place for me in the immense mosaic of life.”

Humans are not separated from all the other living parts and places and mysteries of THE LAND Click To Tweet

Ben Logan

Ben was only twenty years old at the time. His sensitivity to the land, and to the human and natural relationships inherent in land, has many sources in his life, education, and career. But that “great discovery” on campus in Madison would lend a unity to the narrative of Ben’s life and to the story he would ultimately commit to the pages of The Land Remembers. It would also give the book a universality that allowed it to appeal to readers far removed from the Kickapoo Valley ridgetop farm in southwestern Wisconsin where it is set. In remembering his own childhood on the land, Ben tapped into the widely shared human need to re-member ourselves.

In the introduction for the new University of Wisconsin Press edition I sought to fill in some of the details of the story behind the story. Late in life Ben became more open about his painful World War II experience. In particular he was traumatized by the loss in December 1943 of nineteen of his Navy shipmates when their craft hit a floating mine near Naples, Italy. Ben was spared only because he was in a nearby military hospital at the time. The Land Remembers was fundamentally a consequence, decades later, of that tragedy and his resolve to “live both for myself and for those who died.” To pull together a life dislocated by war, Ben returned to the land in his memory, publishing The Land Remembers in 1975—and then returned in his person in 1986 when he and his wife Jacqueline purchased back the family farm.

Preparing the introduction for this new edition thus refreshed my own memory. What I had recalled as Ben’s steadiness and composure gained an edge that I had not appreciated before. Beneath his outer calm I now saw a core of courage: a determination to come to terms with one’s life experience through the power of story.

Curt D. Meine is director for conservation biology and history with the Center for Humans and Nature, senior fellow with the Aldo Leopold Foundation, research associate with the International Crane Foundation, and associate adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work  and coeditor of The Essential Aldo Leopold, both also published by the University of Wisconsin Press.  With Keefe Keeley, he has coedited The Driftless Reader, which UWP will publish in late September 2018.