A polygamist of place: The tradition of the Eastern Westerner

  • DeVoto at typewriter

    David Gessner
  • Stegner riding a horse

    David Gessner
  • writer in a dilemma

    David Gessner

I begin with a confession. While it's true I have only one wife and no hidden mistresses, I am a polygamist of place. The writers I've always admired most, from Thoreau to Colorado's Reg Saner, have made it their habit to wedge into one place, to know that place well through long association with the land and people. In this way, they learn things that will only reveal themselves after a relationship of good, hard duration.

I'm more fickle. My first book was a paean to the beauties and wonders of Cape Cod. The book ended with my father's death, and concluded with these words: "Like my father, I know where I'll finally settle. He has committed to Cape Cod. I will follow him." I wrote those sentences while typing in a study that stared out at the front range of Colorado, 2,000 miles from the Atlantic. Recently I completed a book about my love of the West. I penned its last line in an attic room overlooking the white breakers and deep blue waters of Cape Cod Bay.

This division of devotion has caused me no small amount of anxiety, not just for moral but for practical reasons. In these competitive and crowded days, writers, like everyone else, tend to specialize. Nature writers in particular carve out their little fiefdoms, niches to claim as their own, and, as a rule, these niches keep getting smaller and smaller. Years ago Edward Abbey wrote of how every place now has its own Thoreau - -Thoreau of the Rockies' or the "Thoreau of New Jersey" or the "Thoreau of Arizona." In the years since Abbey's death it's gotten worse: Now we have the Thoreau of East Harwich and the Thoreau of Mexican Hat. But as others settle their territories, I find myself charging from coast to coast like an adulterous husband in a madcap '60s movie, passionately declaring my love for one place before hurriedly packing my suitcase to rush back and proclaim my love for the other. This is not a stable position for an essayist to work from, particularly one who is prone to lecture, at the slightest provocation, about how good writing should grow from local ground.

Unsettled by my two-timing ways, I turn where I often turn when in need of guidance: to books and literary heroes. Specifically I turn to those two monumental Westerners (and closet Easterners), Wallace Stegner and Bernard DeVoto. Though both were raised in the West, they moved to Massachusetts as young adults, and took an almost giddy delight in their new homes. DeVoto called himself "an apprentice New Englander," but if he was an apprentice, then it was of the most passionate sort. He threw himself into the East, specifically into "the hallowed ground" of Harvard and Cambridge, with the passion of a convert. Stegner was no less effusive. "Cambridge was our Athens and our Rome," he'd say later. While both would work long and hard to debunk stereotypes of the Westerner as rube, and the East, specifically the Northeast, as the country's center, their own attitudes and actions at least mildly mimicked the stereotype. They wrote and acted as if they'd emerged from the dry Western desert and could now gulp down a cold glass of Eastern culture and sophistication.

DeVoto was particularly guilty of this. For all his bristling toughness, he never stopped angling for a full professorship at Harvard and, had it been granted him, one imagines he might have reacted like Sally Field getting her Oscar: "You like me ... you really like me."

While his words often traveled West, he spent surprisingly little time there himself, much of his field work the result of hurried road trips before rushing back to "civilization." Stegner, on the other hand, would ultimately return to live in the West, but, like a man sipping a bottle behind the barn, could never stay away from the East for too long. Perhaps, after he had been ensconced as the Dean of Western writing, there was even an element of guilty pleasure in summering in New England.

Unsettled by my current crisis, it's heartening to see signs of inconstancy in these two icons. As I sift through their lives for clues to put to use in my own, I keep coming back to the fact that both Stegner and DeVoto first wrote powerfully of the West after settling East. It makes me feel less guilty about having written about the wonders of Cape Cod while staring out at Boulder's Flatirons. Of course, my own journey was in the opposite direction. Raised in Massachusetts in a house cluttered with Harvard paraphernalia, I worked hard to make sure I attended Harvard myself, at least in part to please my powerful father. Living in New England for seven years after graduation, I experienced feelings of claustrophobia, of clutter, of judgmental puritan eyes upon me. Of course I could never put words to these vague feelings until I finally moved West at 30.

In heading West I lived out an American cliché. After an operation and radiation treatment for testicular cancer, I left behind friends, job, longtime girlfriend, and countless ancestral ghosts (as well as a testicle), and moved to Colorado to get healthy and start anew. I don't remember if I thought or spoke it consciously, but I suppose I understood that on a small, personal scale I was living out our national myth - tossing off old burdens and moving Westward to experience renewal and regeneration. The strange thing was it worked. If DeVoto was inebriated stepping onto the hallowed ground of Cambridge, I was no less so hiking the mountains of the Front Range. Feeling ever stronger and healthier, I interwove these associations with my new place, a place that I believed was helping heal me. I became an apprentice Westerner. Fittingly, my new Western friends gave me a nickname that all but replaced the name my father gave me, the name that I shared with my father. Though Cape Cod had been my first love, the West now became the object of my affection and, as with any loved one, I reveled in it both physically and symbolically.

And then, when my love was strongest, something even stranger happened. I started writing well about the East. Like Stegner and DeVoto, I suddenly had the advantage of looking at a place from somewhere else, defining, as we always do, by differences. It's common to speak of "needing distance" to write about something important to us, and that distance can be literal as well as emotional or chronological. The thing that people who remain stuck in one place perhaps can't see is that America, for all our malls and McDonalds, is still a remarkably regional country with remarkably regional differences. Stegner himself might have remained what he most feared being - a "regional writer" - had it not been for his mental and physical straddling of the country. Perhaps to know and love a new region is to see the old region more clearly.

It may be true that transplanted trees don't always take, but one thing that I've found does transplant fairly well is the capacity to love a place. The tools you develop in one place - the bird books you skim through, the questions you ask and the people you find to ask them of - work well, with some slight adjustments, in other places. I've always been partial to Erich Fromm's take on love: love as the exercise and development of certain muscles. If the ability to love is a skill, that skill also allows us to love new places.

And here, trumpets blaring, I could tie things up neatly were it not for the facts. I'm back East again. I hope I'll soon settle in one place, or, at least, determine that one place plays the role of steady wife, the other of mistress. I can see my two options in my two heroes. Stegner took West as wife and New England as summer fling; DeVoto made the opposite choice. Undecided still, I squat on Cape Cod while my books remain in a storage locker back in Colorado, a promise to myself that I'll make it back. In the meantime, like any good polygamist, I'll take Steven Stills' advice and love the one I'm with. If the model of polygamy may no longer be a practical one for human relationships, for love of place I embrace it. And, as Stegner and DeVoto remind us, we often see what we love most clearly from a distance.

These days, David Gessner writes and draws in East Dennis, Massachusetts.

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