Too Good to Be True: The Life and Work of Leslie Fiedler

By Mark Royden Winchell | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Those Beautiful Chinese Nights

IF MADISON , WISCONSIN , was 150 miles from Chicago, Missoula, Montana, was 150 miles from nowhere. One had to drive seven hundred miles to the east just to get to North Dakota. Idaho was to the west, Alberta to the north, and Wyoming to the south. For such a vast expanse of land, Montana was sparsely settled. One could travel for hundreds of miles without seeing another human being. It was possible to live as a virtual hermit in Montana. By the same token, a truly gregarious person could know almost everyone in the state. Missoula turned out to be the end of Leslie's journey to the West, which can be more properly understood as his inadvertent flight from the East. If it took him much longer than five years to “publish his way out, ” it was because he soon developed a love-hate relationship with his adopted state, which made it very easy for him to be away for extended periods of time but very hard to leave permanently.

Although he had taught as a graduate assistant at Wisconsin, Leslie's career as a teacher actually began in Missoula. He recalls his eagerness to establish his symbolic role as professor—perching safely behind the teacher's desk, scrawling his name in a bold, illegible hand on the blackboard, half fearing that someone would “slap me on the back and ask me to my beardless face ... if I'd met the new Professor from the East” (BB, 32). In Montana, the term professor was less likely to call to mind a politically engaged intellectual than the piano player in a whorehouse.

Leslie soon discovered that, politically speaking, Montana was a state without a middle. Still a leftist of sorts, he found himself “dashing about to White Fish and Butte and God knows what other Montana places whose very names I could scarcely believe—organizing for the Teachers Union and talking to old- timers, pleased to have found a new ear, about the Wobblies and the Western Miners Union, and especially about `the Company' that controlled then not only the copper but all the radio and press in the state” (BB, 33).

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