Next to Reading Matter
(The Easy Chair, Harper’s, June 1952)
I have just said, “The hell with it,” and yanked page 4 of an Easy Chair out of the typewriter. Being a thrifty worker, I will come back to it in a couple of months and finish it, for it is a lovely thing, full of profound thoughts and deft turns of phrase. Or it would be if I weren’t too tired and off my feed to bear up under the thoughts, which are heavy as well as profound. I’ve used up my second wind — I have been to St. Louis and back this week and a couple of days from now I start for San Francisco. So, instead of my publisher, you get to read some publicity stuff I have been preparing, about a book I have written. The ethical justification for running it here is this: in the last seventeen years I have devoted so many Easy Chairs to books by other people that I am entitled, or claim I am, to devote one to a book of mine. The pragmatic justification is a principle I never lose sight of: nobody is required by law or custom to read the Easy Chair. A few pages farther along you will find Mr. Harper, who is so young that he has never learned what second wind is and can be deft about any weight of thought without disturbing the part in his hair.
Personal & Otherwise has already remarked that rumor said my book was about Lewis and Clark and how come the Spanish got into it? Over the years it looked as if Lewis and Clark would not make the grade, and in the outcome they didn’t till page 475. I have browbeaten Harper’s into promising to print a section which comes about a hundred pages farther along, so that if you live virtuously you will be able to read some of the book a few months from now. If you are elderly and a confirmed reader of Harper’s, in fact, you have probably read some of it, or anyway some pieces based on it, for it has been, as we say, “in preparation” for quite a while. My publishers first announced that it was in preparation in1937 and were telling the truth, though prematurely. Since then I have finished it. This publicity matter does not say why or even how, but only illuminates the repulsive process of literary genetics.
In the fall of 1936 I was, augustly, editing the Saturday Review of Literature. Somebody failed to deliver the article he had promised for the Christmas issue, our big issue, the one with some ads in it. He was probably feeling aggrieved about the $50 fee which was all we could pay for lead pieces, and knew that he wouldn’t get even that honorarium for six months unless I lit a fire under the business manager. I had held my high office since September and had dazzled Amy Loveman and George Stevens, who were used to literary people, by a journalist’s willingness to write pieces on short notice.. Four or five days before our Christmas-issue deadline they decided that the editor had to rise to the emergency. Besides, if I wrote the lead piece we would save fifty bucks.
We didn’t. When they decided that our Christmas had better be Early American, I offered to write about a.U. S. Army detachment in the Upper Missouri wilderness on Christmas Day 1804 and at the mouth of the Columbia River on Christmas 1805. But I stipulated that the SRL would have to buy me Coues’s edition of Nicholas Biddle’s History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Since it cost $37.50, our net saving was $12.50. In 1952 my capital gain is zero; a catalogue I received last week lists the set at $37.50, which shows that rare books are the best investment in the world. If you’re Dr. Rosenbach.
Called “Passage to India,” the piece led off our Christmas issue, distressed the business manager because it said nothing about books, and was received with unforgettable calm by our readers. Most of them customarily read only the Double-Crostics anyway, except publishers, who wanted to find out if any of their books were getting a free ride. That motive led my publisher to read my piece and the next time I saw him he said, “You ought to write a book about Lewis and Clark.” It seemed a sound idea and I could work it into my plans, which had been recently and violently remodeled. There was room for a good short narrative account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, say two hundred pages of brisk prose that would tell what happened and let it go at that. It is still a sound idea and there is still room for a short narrative account of the Lewis and Clark expedition, say five hundred pages shorter than my book.
For about fifteen years I had been studying primitive America and frontier experience. (Here I always have to explain that “frontier” does not mean “West.”) I had planned a number of related books showing their effect on the contemporary United States. The plan had had to be remodeled because Harvard University, where I had been teaching, decided that I didn’t know enough to go on teaching there and so had better accept the job I had been offered editing, as Harvard understood it, the Saturday Evening Post. Only one of the books I had laid out ever got written. It was called The Year of Decision and I began to construct a new plan around it. The new plan included, at some time in the future, the book I had promised my publisher, a short narrative account of Lewis and Clark. Just what else the plan included I didn’t rightly know, in fact I didn’t realize that it was a plan till a friend pointed it out to me. In retaliation I dedicated the next book to him; it was called Across the Wide Missouri.
Five years before the first of those books was published I had got a bellyful of the editorial life and had quit it. I went on studying primitive America and preparing to write, sometime, a short narrative account of Lewis and Clark. Friends of mine kept asking me when I was going to get around to it, and so did my publishers. The answer was always easy: any time how, all I’ve got to do is tie up a few loose ends. In 1945 I gave up every other activity except writing an occasional piece for current cash and sold the securities — what a word! — that represented my savings so that my family could live while I wrote a book about Lewis and Clark. By the summer of 1946 I was only a couple of days short of beginning. I spent that summer covering the trail of Lewis and Clark, studying the topography and the rivers and the weather, talking with historians and geographers and engineers. I had made several such trips for that purpose before this one; as it turned out, I was to make a number of others after it. When I didn’t start writing that fall, the questions of my friends and my publishers got pointed and they have grown sharper over the years. They knew that at any time from say 1940 on I could have started to write about Lewis and Clark tomorrow morning. I knew as much myself but I knew too that there was a sound reason for not writing yet. The closest I could come to phrasing it was, “I don’t know enough; I’ve got to do some more work.” When asked, usually in words I would not care to print in Harper’s, what that meant, I talked about “background.” That convenient word does not mean a thing but it protected me against further questions which might have revealed that though I knew I had to do some more work I didn’t know why.
Like this. In a letter which Jefferson wrote to Meriwether Lewis before the expedition got started, he alluded to a young man who had gone up the Missouri River some years before in search of the Welsh Indians. I had never heard of them but clearly the allusion called for a footnote in my book. I directed my secretary, whose proper title would be research assistant, to spend a couple of hours finding out what she could about them. A week later she had a bibliography of some twenty items; presently the two of us had run it up to 370 items. She worked on nothing but the Welsh Indians for five months. I worked on them for two months and then took off on a number of new subjects which they opened up, all relevant to my book though I did not know how. I corresponded with other students, beat the underbrush, dug in the unlikeliest places, and swore at the loss of time. An uneducated man, I do not read Welsh and so I had to pay high to get a lot of letters, journals, and scholarly articles translated. Presently I knew more about the American history of the Welsh Indians than anyone before me had ever known — all right, you name the others — indeed, knew enough to lecture about them at Harvard and I did. So far as Lewis and Clark were concerned, the Welsh Indians were worth about two paragraphs, and the young man Jefferson had alluded to was worth about five pages. But by the time I was finished with them and ready for another time-consuming detour I understood why I had previously spent a good many months reading about mythical continents and islands, mythical people and cities, the delirious dreams of the conquistadors, El Dorado, the Amazons, and so on and on and on.
I got used to having specialists of all kind; after I had pumped them for hours, say, “Will you tell me what So-and-So has to do with Lewis and Clark?” Brazil wood, for instance. “My dear fellow, don’t you know that by the time of Lewis and Clark nobody supposed there was brazil wood in North America?” Sure; I knew better than this chap did, for I had found out, whereas he was merely assuming; but I knew too that brazil wood had something to do with my book. It is not even mentioned in the text but it led me to several detours that paid off, for instance a demonstration that a famous narrative of exploration which had always been accepted as fact was entirely fictitious.
There was a period when I was reading Spanish narratives of the sixteenth century. I could not have said why but it seemed logical enough; by now, reading about the fall of Troy would have seemed logical preparation for Lewis and Clark. My intimates would inquire what the hell Cabeza de Vaca had to do with Lewis and Clark. Nothing, but maybe it would be fun to write that great story as a kind of introductory chapter. “See here, people who write history aren’t permitted to take time off to have fun.” That’s true, but how about letting the reader have some fun? But while I was reading about Coronado a figure clad all in white came in through the window and nudged my shoulder. I perceived that Coronado was the first white man who had ever heard of the existence of the Missouri River. (I needn’t say that he didn’t know what he was hearing about.) I am an ignorant and naive man; I supposed that I was the first person who had ever perceived that fact. Presently I found out that I wasn’t; but the figure in white, now wear- ing an emerald star on the end of a chain, came back and nudged me again and I picked up some significances that had been disregarded. I began to suspect that one theme of my book was the Missouri River. That would explain why I had been visiting it at least once a year for a decade.
What was the importance of the Missouri? Clearly that Lewis and Clark, about whom I was going to write a short book, had gone up it. Well, you have to begin at the beginning. My training in geology can be described as imperfect but I studied the geological history of the Missouri, which in some places is pretty hair-raising. Maybe I’d better learn something about its volume and seasonal flow; that took me to monographs that are even duller than those political historians write, which is high praise. Either the Geological Survey or the Army Engineers, and I forget which, has a sectional map of the Missouri, sixty or a hundred and twenty or five hundred sections. I sweated that out. Every so often I get asked to speak at some college; I usually find reasons to decline but I was accepting any offer that would take me near the Missouri. So I accepted one from the University of South Dakota, which is at Vermillion and near the river.
While I was at the university I cajoled a historian, a geologist, and an anthropologist into giving me a seminar on the local stretch of the Missouri. In the course of it we drove to a hill called Spirit Mound. Lewis and Clark had stopped for a day in order to look it over, having heard that the Indians of the region said a race of ferocious dwarfs lived there. I had chased those dwarfs through a full century before Lewis and Clark; the French in Canada and Illinois had been hearing about them for a century. They were very interesting dwarfs and had a talent for rapid change; sometimes they were bloodthirsty cannibals, sometimes elegant and civilized, sometimes Chinese. I had found that they tied in with a lot of things that had something to do with my book, with the Welsh Indians, the bearded Indians, Deacon Arnold’s round tower at Newport, the Kensington Rune Stone, the Book of Mormon, and the Western Sea. When our motorized seminar got to Spirit Mound I asked a rancher who lived nearby if he had ever seen any dwarfs there. He said he certainly had, he saw them frequently. They were, he explained, mirage. Why not? And that put them square in the center of my book, which was full to the bung with mirages, including many of my own.
By 1948 I was ready to write my narrative account of Lewis and Clark, that is I would be as soon as I could tie up a few loose ends. (Had I better read Marco Polo? Was it true that the big trees had been named for Sequoya? Who first expressed an intelligible idea of the continental divide?) In 1950 tt Army Engineers flew me and some of my friends, one of whom was Bud Guthrie the novelist, the entire length of the Missouri River in their tony DC-3. They took us on stretches of it in big boats and medium-size boats. I wanted to travel the upper stretch in a little boat. The idea shocked and frightened the Engineers — boats on the Upper Missouri? That would be dangerous, in places the river was four feet deep, they could not be responsible for our safety. Eventually they gave in, though they sent out their DC-3 twice every day to make sure we hadn’t been drowned.
We got only three days of navigating the Missouri but we shoved our steel dugout off as many sandbars as Lewis and Clark did and I learned more in those three days than I had in any of the fourteen years I had now been working on my short narrative. God bless, in a limited sense, the Army Engineers. At this moment the Saturday Evening Post, which I never did get round to editing, was printing an article of mine that put the slug on their flood-control activities. When the piece came out General Sturgis, our host, wrote me that he wasn’t feeling as sorry as he had been about the frequency with which writers were getting shot in Korea.
Shortly afterward a deep sleep came upon me and when I woke up I knew what the book said about the Missouri River. The Missouri was the Northwest Passage, it was the Passage to India, it was Bud Guthrie’s Way West. It had been entirely logical to detour through Verrazano, John Smith, Lahontan, brazil wood, dwarfs, the Jesuits in China — you can always trust the disorderly mind, it never errs. And sure enough the book was about Lewis and Clark. I had merely misjudged their place in it by some hundreds of pages; they came at the end, not the beginning. Now when my friends or my publishers asked me when I was going to start writing, I had a reasonable answer. I would start writing as soon as I learned a little more about Sir Humphrey Gilbert, James Cook, Columbus . . . and maybe I had something there. Could I begin with Columbus? As it turned out, no; I had to begin seven hundred years earlier. But if any reader of the book, assuming that it finds some readers — if any reader thinks it a bit long-winded, he may reflect on the fact that the first draft opened with a comparative study of interior North America in Late Ordovician and Middle Devonian times. Very logical too, for in both epochs there really was a Northwest Passage, but, I decided, somewhat far afield for a short book.
I could keep this up indefinitely, telling you how I got started on Indian tortures for instance, or bragging about the months of work I did on the Louisiana Purchase, some of which provided fully as much light as you can get from a match at five miles. Actually I started writing a few months after I found out what the book was about, and starting to write was the biggest anticlimax since first love. I finished the book last July. I finished it again last January. With this advertising copy I finish it forever.
I understand that it is to be published in October and is to cost five or six dollars. Facing my obligation to pass judgment on books I discuss in the Easy Chair, I hesitate to say it is worth what it costs. Maybe, considering how the dollar has fallen off. Writing it certainly wasn’t worth what it cost.
I could formulate a lot of morals from the experience I have outlined here but most of them would not be trustworthy. This one may hold water: if the SRL had been able to sell a little more space in 1936 we might have been able to offer a hundred dollars for a Christmas piece, and in that event I would never have had the experience, which would be just fine. And I would like at least to break even on one part of it: anyone who wants my Coues’s edition of Biddle for $37.50 can have it by return mail.