"A Small Fire in a Dark Room"
* Excerpts from a keynote address at the Sowell Collection conference at Texas Tech University (1 April 2014)
I want to say a few words about Peter Matthiessen, because we lost him recently, a week ago today. I don't read widely enough to know where all the pieces of this idea fall, but it goes more or less like this. There is something distinctive about truly American literature. For me it starts with Melville, with the development of a moral drama set in a vast, spacious arena — the ocean. That tradition carries on through various people in the late nineteenth century. You could pick, say, Stephen Crane, and his story "The Open Boat," then on through Willa Cather, John Steinbeck, Wallace Stegner, and then here we are with Peter, who's now gone. The themes are different, the cultural attitudes are different, the background is different. But the ongoing drama with all these writers is "Who are we in the context of a physical place?" and "What do we represent, that's not to be gleaned from reading European history?" And I think a large part of the answer to this is the development of a moral awareness—or if you prefer, an ethical awareness—in the context of an American landscape.
For those of you who don't know Peter's work, I can pick out three books which I guess will always be in my imagination. One of them of course, is The Snow Leopard. Also Shadow Country—his amazing distillation of three earlier books into one book, a volume that won the National Book Award. Peter, I think, is the only American writer ever to win the National Book Award for both a work of fiction (Shadow Country) and a work of nonfiction (The Snow Leopard). Another book I would recommend, a bit obscure, is called Far Tortuga. Peter loved that novel and remained angry that so many reviewers just passed over it. It never hooked a brass ring, it just disappeared. But it's a stunning work of fiction, set in the Caribbean.
I'd say that anyone who knew him and whose own waters run deep had a complex relationship with Peter. He was, as has been said recently this past week, at odds with himself in many ways. He grew up in a privileged environment, but throughout his life he was drawn to people who had no notion of, no experience with, those privileges, or with what they might bring. So he had a kind of fight going on in himself all the time about issues of class. He was also one of a cadre, I guess you could say, of American writers who disparaged nonfiction. Peter called it, famously, "cabinet work." Nonfiction for him and his generation, no matter how good, couldn't stand on the same level with fiction.
But there was another part to this, too, a part of him I responded to strongly. He would tell me periodically how disappointed he was with his neighbors William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut because they did little when it came to alerting the large audiences they had to things like global climate change and environmental degradation. Peter felt that, wherever you were aesthetically as an artist, you had somehow to promote an awareness of environmental degradation, show the way in which Homo sapiens is in peril. That obligation clicked into place for him particularly after he finished The Tree Where Man Was Born, looking at where we came from, at the paleoanthropological evidence for hominin evolution. Doing so was at least as important as trying to figure out, or be articulate about, where we were going as a species.
One of the ways we're different from Peter's generation—the postwar writers—is that writers of my generation remain hopeful. But that's really not the right word. "Hopeful" is like the life preserver we use to keep from drowning. The better word here is faith — to have faith in humanity.
Whatever else we are as writers, the thing that stands out for me in my generation is a capacity for empathy. The ability to address something completely different from yourself in a respectful way. To bring back to life what's been thrown away, or what constitutes collateral damage from the ongoing Industrial Revolution, including millions and millions and millions of dead people. The damage from some fanatic's non-negotiable ideas about "Heaven." Heaven's already here on Earth. We live in it. It rises up in human beings. It rises up beyond those windows, on the llano out there, in what too many people still think of as a boring landscape. Step into it. Step into that beyond, and walk away from the road. You'll find heaven.
I want to sum up by saying something painfully obvious but which still needs to be said aloud. Literature—whatever the genre, and in our time (especially in our time)—seems to me to be about two things: resistance and illumination. The great call is to resist that which destroys life. And to illuminate the circumstances from which life can rise up. It's not up to the writer to write policy. It is not up to the writer to tell a story that everyone has to read. It is up to writers to make a pattern out of language, a story, that allows other people, perhaps of greater imagination or greater intelligence, to make policy or create the social organization that helps all of us.
That's all storytellers have ever done — you just try to keep the thing going. And you do it by resisting what threatens life and by illuminating circumstances that promote life, and by encouraging readers to walk away from the story and to improve our circumstances, to make them better than they are.