I had planned to write about Zadie Smith’s pocket-sized collection of essays titled Intimations. It seemed a good plan, this set of six quick, roving ruminations about living and thinking in pandemic time. But when I sat down to reread the book, my phone pinged with the news of Bill Kittredge’s death. It was a gut punch. Kittredge was one of the great spirits of American literature, a man I knew through writerly friendship, a man whose books I read with envious admiration, a man who paid equal attention to the glory of a beautiful sentence and the power of story, who loved telling those mythmaking stories about writers (those poker games in Montana!) on which writers thrive, a man who cared deeply about the fate of the American West and who drew from experience a vision of what the west asked of us. He led me to see the region as a crucible for transforming our pathological way of life into something more just, more generous, more in keeping with the land’s beauty and the dream of a moral life.
So I have moved from “Intimations” to “Recognitions,” the latter a word Kittredge quotes from Aristotle in his essay “Who Owns the West.”
Aristotle talks of “recognitions,” which can be thought of as moments of insight or flashes of understanding in which we see through to coherencies in the world. We are all continually seeking after such experiences. It’s the most commonplace thing human beings do after breathing. We are like detectives, each of us trying to make sense and define what we take to be the right life. It is the primary, most incessant business of our lives.
A large man. Warm face. Given easily to smile. A laugh suggesting soulful joy. Leaning forward in his chair to pay more careful attention to the conversation. Maybe elbows on knees. Feeling his way forward with words. Making you feel that friendship is the greatest gift on Earth. Modest about his greatness. Present to the land and its peoples, the indigenous and the settlers who wrested their livelihood out of the wounds they created. His grandfather built a ranch the size of Delaware in southwestern Oregon where Bill grew up. Where he learned what it is to be complicit in one’s own destruction. Agribusiness, alcohol, marital collapse. Then he became a writer--a writer of Westerns and short stories and essays and memoir—and an esteemed teacher at the University of Montana. He became honest and wrote his way to becoming wise. He wrote the book on what happens when you find yourself living in the wrong story. Again, from “Who Owns the West?”
We figure and find stories, which can be thought of as maps or paradigms in which we see our purposes defined; then the world drifts and our maps don’t work anymore, our paradigms and stories fail, and we have to reinvent our understandings, and our reasons for doing things. Useful stories, I think, are radical in that they help us see freshly. They are like mirrors, in which we see ourselves reflected. That’s what stories are for, to help us see for ourselves as we go about the continual business of reimagining ourselves.
Bill was accomplished at reimagining himself, a journey he tracked in his memoir Hole in the Sky, a book worth apprenticing one’s self to for the craft of memoir—how necessary it is interrogate one’s own failures and to place them in a cultural context. Tom McGuane wrote that Hole in the Sky
is the Rape of Eden recalled first as an idyll and then as a family curse. Kittredge is the child of people who conquered the land but he hears the voices of its original inhabitants, and he knows what went under the plow because he helped put it there. Out of the pain and glory of growing up in a dying dream, Bill Kittredge has produced a great book.
James Welch called the book a masterpiece. I’ve read the book three times and will likely read it again. I’ve taught it in a Literature of the Southwest seminar. I wish I could reread it for the occasion of this advent essay, but Kittredge’s death calls me to speak of him right now in the afterglow of his presence among the living. What was it about that book that grabbed me by the heart and held on? What can I tell you, dear reader, that will make you want to read it too? My notes say:
The personal purpose of historical research.“. . . history driven by an understanding of violence as a commonplace method of solving problems.”Two qualities: story and meditation. How we make ourselves at home in the world. What do we do when we know we have failed?“In a family as unchurched as ours there was only one sacred story, and that was the one we told ourselves every day, the one about work and property and ownership, which is sad. We had lost track of stories like the one which tells us the world is to be cherished as if it exists inside our own skin.”A coming to account for how one’s thought processes change over time.“. . . all day long we try to tell ourselves stories in which we have the luck to bring about some positive effect in the world.”“I was a long time coming to see that stories were the little motors that ran our actual lives, making babies and, off in the war zones, killing them.”
They drained the wetlands and named them “and thought that made them ours.” Fifteen thousand acres of hay, and the move “into the monied technology which is agribusiness.” D-7 Caterpillar tractors and John Deere combines. The teams of work horses were sold off “for chicken feed. A splendor and attachment to seven or eight thousand years of human experimentation and tradition went from our lives with those horses.”
Hole in the Sky is a book about beauty and work and failure and love of the land, a book of moral intelligence and, dare I say, a grandeur of spirit. Bill went on to write the book on generosity, a continuation of the themes of the memoir. The Nature of Generosity moves the meditation from Montana to New York, Venice, Andalusia, and beyond to interrogate the biological and cultural connective tissue that is generosity. Another luminous book that would be a healthy tonic to take during this time of outrage and isolation.
Bill was 88 when the died this December. A good long life. He and his luminous partner Annick Smith often came to Tucson during the winter for a reprieve from the Montana cold. The last time I saw him, we met for lunch at the resort where they were staying—the customary feast of conversation. As we walked back to our cars, Bill leaned awkwardly into a walker, ill at ease with limitation but nonetheless seeing the comedy in his being a big man of the West hobbling along. There he was in all his strength and weakness. I dreaded the day he would leave this world. So I’ve tried to hold his spirit close here, to dwell awhile with his words, which thankfully will remain here among the living while he rides off into eternity.
Back here on earth, I’m sorry to have shortchanged Zadie Smith’s collection. I will give her the last word, because in the title essay of Intimations, she lists imperatives that speak to the empathy with which Bill wrote:
To forgive anyone who has wounded you, no matter how badly, especially if there is any sign whatsoever that a person has, in wounding you, also wounded themselves. To make no hierarchical distinction between people. To tell any story just as it happened, only exaggerating for humor, but never lying, and never trying to give yourself the flattering role.
Alison Hawthorne Deming’s most recent books include Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit and the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven. She is Regents Professor at the University of Arizona. Her new nonfiction book A Woven World will be out from Counterpoint Press in August 2021.