I’ve been thinking about place a lot lately. That’s what happens when you move across the country. This summer my husband and I left Missoula for west-central Virginia, trading in the Rocky Mountains for the Blue Ridge, the vast glacial sweep of Western Montana for the misty green hollows of the Shenandoah Valley. It’s been a hard move, and one, in truth, that I would have preferred not to make. I’ve come and gone from Missoula many times in my life, but this last stint back was different, a rediscovery of Montana as a place, and a better part of me had hoped to stay for good.
When Keith and I first talked of leaving I was heartbroken. Even months later in my new home, tucked in the gentle Appalachians, I still pine for the craggy drainages of the Bitterroots, the secret rock gardens hidden back between those wild peaks, the memory of Bass Lake in June, a delicate crust of ice riming its shore. But awesome as it is, Montana is not the only place I’ve loved. I take solace in the knowledge that if there was one thing growing up in the West taught me, it was to find meaning in place, any place. And that one day I will love this strange new country, and leave it as well. For though I am a wanderer by both nature and fate, I am a person, and a writer, to whom place matters greatly.
Much has been made about the importance (or unimportance) of place in literature. Richard Ford, himself one of the great American literary nomads, once said, “Construed as turf, home just seems a provisional claim, a designation you make upon a place, not one it makes on you. A certain set of buildings, a glimpsed, smudged window-view across a schoolyard, a musty aroma sniffed behind a garage when you were a child, all of which come crowding upon your latter-day senses—those are pungent things and vivid, even consoling. But to me they are also inert and nostalgic and unlikely to connect you to the real, to that essence art can sometimes achieve, which is permanence.” The comment is not without irony, since Mr. Ford has been claimed loudly and proudly, though no doubt not in the way he meant, by each place he has written about, Montana not least among them.
Ernest Hemingway was more pragmatic. “Never write about a place until you are away from it,” he cautioned. Carson McCullers, one of the great Southern writers, opined, “All men are lonely. But sometimes it seems to me that we Americans are the loneliest of all. Our hunger for foreign places and new ways has been with us almost like a national disease. Our literature is stamped with a quality of longing and unrest, and our writers have been great wanderers.”
The author and journalist William Kennedy, perhaps best known for his Albany cycle of novels, took Ms. McCullers’ observation one step further. “Without a sense of place,” he exclaimed, “the work is often reduced to a cry of voices in empty rooms, a literature of the self, at its best poetic music; at its worst a thin gruel of the ego.”
My apologies to Mr. Ford, but I have to confess that my sentiments lie firmly with the latter camp. And I find it hard to imagine that even Ford would be able to argue against the fact that it’s exactly that provisional claim he’s talking about, that designation his characters make upon their own homes, their hoarded memories of childhood and nostalgic consolations, which render them so rich and real on the page. We may be coming to the problem from entirely different angles, since art, as I define it, especially in the novel, is less about permanence than it is about empathy, a connection not with some formless “real,” but with that part of humanity we might not normally know. And it’s to his great credit as a writer, and our good fortune as readers, that Ford, regardless of his intentions, makes these kinds of connections over and over again.
But if Hemingway and Carson McCullers are right, if it’s true that longing and loss are so deeply connected with place, then the real question is why. When I first began writing, there was a rush on the part of some to claim me as a Western writer, and I, still new at all of this and happy for the attention, was content to oblige. My second novel took place entirely in Missoula, a town I knew intimately, and in which I was living at the time. My next novel was set in Colorado. They were both very much regional books, the West as much a character as any of the living, breathing characters. But to my mind these two books are also my flattest, missing something, some intrinsic heft that my other novels, those written with a place in mind and not in sight, possessed. In contrast, the novels that I’m most proud of were conceived miles and years away from their settings.
As is true with so many other elements of the craft, the problem of place in the novel, as I see it, lies in just how much the writer chooses to reveal. Unlike film, where setting is literally in your face, the physical world of the novel lives only in the readers’ (and the writer’s) mind. And the real challenge for the writer is exactly how much detail to supply. Too little and the reader is cheated of the writer’s vision. Too much and the setting becomes nothing more than an overbearing distraction. Here’s where the beauty of perspective comes in, for over time and distance our memories cull themselves, selecting only the most vivid details, those essentials that make a particular place shimmer and breath.
In my newer novels I have chosen to leave the realm of the familiar completely. Forced from this country by politics and recent events, my characters now have mostly lost all sense of home. More than ever, they are wanderers and fools, searching blindly for their own history, conscious only of some dim dream of the place that bore them. Of course that’s the story of all mankind: the desire for return. And at the heart of it all, the place we long to go back to. This Eden, green as the Blue Ridge, clear as Flathead Lake, this smudged window-view. A place, and yet not.
(This essay first appeared in the Sept. 30, 2004 edition of the Missoula Independent)