Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Norbert Blei: Portrait of the Artist as Outsider

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Norbert Blei: Portrait of the Artist as Outsider

Article excerpt

"Knowing that as long as I consider myself a writer, I am doomed to live a life separate and apart, somewhere halfway between home."

--Norbert Blei, Door Way

The relationship between place and art, always troubled for American writers, became especially difficult in the second half of the twentieth century when competing literary traditions extended concurrently our consciousness of the local environment, of a multiplicity of localities around the world, of another multiplicity of historical moments both local and international, of an infinity of possible environments in time and place future, and--were this not enough--of life removed from the dross of time and place, lived in the abstraction of language or idea. Some writers make a cosmos of the pond (or the lake, or the town, or the county) and travel the universe without ever leaving home. These are indeed the lifeblood of any nation's literature. Other writers float upward to placeless abstraction. Still others skip blithely from neighborhood to fashionable neighborhood, home and abroad, sometimes even visiting the place about which they write. Their work is the real sludge in the system, and some long, snowy winter, a literate Montana cowpoke will do us all a favor by inventorying the dated cliches, misrepresentations, and general inanities of The Horse Whisper and its progeny.

As a locality, the Midwest has not been particularly privileged of late, and the current Norton Anthology of Literature, a reasonably accurate index of the academic literary stock market, contains the work of not one living rural Midwesterner except Louise Erdrich. Thus the Midwestern writer looking to advance in the world is especially tempted to leave home, although he is by heritage and proclivity a realist, and realism requires fidelity to details of locale and motivation appropriate to place. The result is, in Lisel Mueller's words, "the forked desire to break the roots and simultaneously preserve them." (1) A pattern of repeated escape and return--ascent into success in the wide world and contact with high culture, descent into anonymity and the home place--is enacted again and again in the writing and careers of Midwestern authors, especially those born in what Fitzgerald once called "the lost Swede towns" of the prairies and plains.

In the first chapter of Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor's small-town narrator enrolls at the University of Minnesota and attempts immediately to redesign himself into a man of the world: "European was a better deal," Keillor writes; "If I could be European, I'd be right where I wanted to be as a person." (2) At the chapter's conclusion, Keillor gives up dreary, English-class irony and the clever essays he thinks his composition instructor would appreciate, and returns to Lake Wobegon. "Whatever its faults," he decides, the home place "is not dreary" (22). Out of this collapse, Keillor made a best-selling novel. Explaining a poem titled "Watering the Horse," which begins with the line "How strange to think about giving up all ambition," Robert Bly recalls escaping Madison, Minnesota, for Harvard and New York, then collapsing, "a hopeless failure," into his "crummy little place." (3) This process was traumatic, but it gave Bly the gifts of sight and insight which made him a famous poet. And then there is Bill Holm in The Music of Failure: "At fifteen, I could define failure fast: to die in Minneota, Minnesota.... No, I would die a famous author, a distinguished professor at an old university, surrounded by beautiful women, witty talk, fine whiskey, Mozart." (4) Holm too escapes only to return: "I aged from twenty to forty, found myself for all practical purposes a failure, and settled almost contentedly into the same rural town which I tried to fiercely to escape" (57). His gift was a dozen published books and a job at the not-very-old and not-very-witty Southwest Minnesota State University.

In ascending, a writer builds connections with the larger world and sharpens his sense of what he is by confronting what he is not; in falling, he discovers his self and develops those dissonant chords in a minor key which characterize great writing. …

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