Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Not Man Apart": George Dennison and Edwin Muir

Robinson Jeffers, a disagreeable poet but unquestionably a great one, spent much of his life hectoring a dwindling audience that human beings need to stop being concerned so exclusively with their own affairs, and turn their attention instead to "the wholeness of life and things" -- the natural world of sea and rocks and animals that Jeffers described so beautifully. Love that, he wrote, not man apart from that, or else you will share man’s pitiful confusions, or drown in despair when his days darken.

I have read two books recently that show, in very different ways, what this sense of wholeness might look like. One is the autobiography of Edwin Muir, a Scottish poet and translator (you may have seen his name on early editions of Kafka); the other is George Dennison's novella Shawno about his life in rural Maine with his family, his neighbors, and his dog Shawno.

The first hundred pages of Muir's biography describe his childhood on the Orkney Islands in a largely self-sufficient farming community. The narrative drifts through early memories: family songs and first scraps of text, walking through the legs of the cows in the field, the butchering of a pig, and the boats that went from one little island to another.

Eventually, when rents go up, the Muirs have to leave for Glasgow, a move that brings about the collapse of their family. As the Orkney section of the book comes to a close, Muir reflects for the first time on the value of the life they had to abandon:
I cannot say how much my idea of a good life was influenced by my early upbringing, but it seems to me that the life of the little island of Wyre was a good one, and that its sins were sins of the flesh, which are excusable, and not sins of the spirit. The farmers did not know ambition and the petty torments of ambition; they did not realize what competition was, though they lived at the end of Queen Victoria's reign; they helped one another with their work when help was required, following the old usage; they had a culture made up of legend, folk-song, and the poetry and prose of the Bible; they had customs which sanctioned their instinctive feelings for the earth; their life was an order, and a good order.
I wouldn't trust a statement like this if it was not preceded by a hundred pages that describe, with great specificity, the elements of this order, from sowing seeds to salting pork. The writing is often beautiful, but its most impressive quality is a sense of truthfulness. As T.S Eliot wrote in his introduction to Muir's poems, "Utter honesty with oneself and with the world is no more common among men of letters than among men of other occupations. I stress this unmistakable integrity, because I came to recognise it in Edwin Muir's work as well as in the man himself."

Dennison's work, to me, gives off a similar feeling of honesty. Even though Shawno is technically fiction, very little of it feels invented, and it hews pretty close to the facts of Dennison's life. After many years in New York, he moved with his family to the little town of Temple in the Maine countryside, and his later works all take place in this setting. Today, he is best known (if at all) for The Lives of Children, a wonderful book about teaching in a free school in New York for poor children. Dennison devoted the rest of his life to fiction, and produced much good work before his early death from cancer.

Unlike Muir's Orcadian childhood, which could just as easily have taken place centuries ago instead of the early 20th century, Shawno is firmly set in the modern world. The family drives to the grocery store to get food and occasionally watches TV at night. But there is, throughout, a sense of community that seems to belong to an older world. This community includes not just the people of Temple but all of the animals, tamed and wild, that share the town with them. Everyone who grows food keeps a dog or, as Dennison writes, "the woodchucks take it all," and these animals, including all of Temple's deer and finches and porcupine, keep crossing paths with each other and the town's human residents.

The book has a meandering quality, moving from descriptions of the creek to the general store to a flashback describing Shawno's days in New York. It is only at the end that a reader realizes how skilfully Dennison has gone about providing the knowledge needed to understand the story's conclusion.

One of the wonderful things about the human characters in Shawno (mostly Dennison's country neighbors, as well as a few other dislocated artists) is the feeling of competence that comes off of them. Today, when all most of us possess is an ephemeral competence involving the manipulation of gadgetry and the navigation of arbitrary man-made procedures, the characters in Shawno can drive posts for a cabin, hunt, replace shingles on a roof, and sugar the maples on their land. Their knowledge grows out of a life lived close to natural cycles, and increases their sense of connectedness with the world rather than drawing them further into themselves. They can also fiddle and draw and sing, the sort of skills that come from generating art and entertainment for yourself instead of always having them supplied to you.

Dennison describes all of this work and play with care and respect. One character sketch, of the man who runs the town's general store, contains a line that I think helps locate the achievement of both of these writers.
Of the men in the village he was certainly the least rural. He had grown up on a farm, loved to hunt and fish, play poker, drink whiskey, and swap yarns. But he had gone away to college, and then to business school, and had worked in Boston for three years. He was not just clever or smart but was extremely intelligent, with a meticulous, lively, retentive mind. He had come home not because he couldn't make a go of things in the city but because he loved the countryside and sorely missed the people. He subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, read many periodicals, was interested in politics and controversy and changing customs. When I met him his three children were away at college. We disagreed irreconcilably on politics. I was aware of his forbearance and was grateful for it. And I was impressed by his wit, and by his kindliness, as when he would allow certain impoverished children to cluster for long, long minutes before the candy rack, blocking his narrow aisle; and as when he built a ramp for the wheelchair of a neighbor who could no longer walk but was still alert and lively. He was not a happy man. He drank too much to be healthy, and his powers of mind by and large went unused. Yet one could sense in him a bedrock of contentment, and a correct choice of place and work.
"A bedrock of contentment" -- like Muir, Dennison is always searching for this sense of rightness, and the vision of a good life that underlies both of these books goes beyond the narrow circle of human concerns to include our relationship with the natural world, and some sense of our proper place in the "good order" that Muir found in the Orkneys.

As you can probably tell, neither writer has much sense of humor, and Dennison's writing in particular is sometimes stiff and high-toned (I usually prefer my "impoverished children" to be old-fashioned poor kids). There are parts of his other books -- Luisa Domic, for example, about a Chilean refugee from the Pinochet takeover -- where I find him sort of insufferable. There is, though, a seriousness and dignity in these two writers that is a much more valuable quality than irony, which is easy enough to find elsewhere. Muir is simply a great artist, and everything I have read by him, from essays to poetry, has been illuminating. I think Shawno is the best fiction that Dennison ever wrote, and along with Jimenez's Platero y yo is probably the best book I have read about a man's relationship with an animal.

It is depressing but in some ways unsurprising that both of these books, along with Muir's poetry, are entirely out of print. As a society, I think we are a little scared of what they have to tell us. Search them out, though. If we want to understand why our civilization keeps absorbing more and more resources while generating less and less human satisfaction, these are the visions we will have to confront, and learn from.


Anonymous said...

Looks like you are an expert in this field, you really got some great points there, thanks.

- Robson

Nick Power said...

I'm glad to see your appreciation of George Dennison. I met him in 1971 when he was giving talks about "Lives of Children" at Ivan Illich's Centre in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I found him to be a consistent with what he conveys in his writing - a generous and truthful human being. I agree with your statements about "Shawno" particularly about his ability to describe the relationship between him and his dog.

Akshay Ahuja said...

Hi Nick,

Many thanks for your comment. I'm amazed at how much valuable work came out of CIDOC, from John Holt to Dennison to Lewis Hyde and David Abram. (I'm sure there are many others.) It seems like it was a really magical, invigorating place.

I'm always wondering where such places are today. I'm glad all of the artist colonies exist, but they don't seem to have anything like the same spirit and sense of purpose as Illich's centre.

Thanks for visiting -- if you happen to read this, I'd love to read more about what Cuernavaca was like in the 70s,