The American West has a relatively short history that can be measured in a few generations. Therefore, as a literary form the memoir has become the primary vehicle for illuminating that history in a personal way, especially for outsiders. The serious novel being an unkickable dead horse, the memoir has taken on a patina of respectability as the form best suited to explain the real West. Like other university creative writing programs around the country, our regional ones are big on the verb “journaling” (“I journal right along with my students,” one post-literate English instructor told a reporter), a modus operandi ripe with politically correct overtones, and designed to unleash upon the West hordes of memoirists with ideological axes to grind. Today writers such as William Kittredge, Ivan Doig, Mary Clearman Blew, Linda Hasselstrom, Kim Barnes, Annick Smith, Patricia Nelson Limerick, and Judy Blunt have put their individual stamps on the multi-generational history of the West. That these writers at one time or another have all taught in university settings says a lot about the health of the memoir as a form.
In the last decade or so the form has been increasingly expropriated by academic feminists as a means to explain away bad marriages, or overbearing fathers who ruled the patriarchal ranch roost. Clearman Blew (All But the Waltz), Hasselstrom (Going Over East), Barnes (In the Wilderness), Smith (Homestead), Limerick (Something in the Soil) and Blunt (Breaking Clean) celebrate the idealized “strong women” who won the West, reflecting a prevailing view in the regional academy. Not only are personal memories employed, but also the surviving diaries and journals of pioneer women, and the letters of ranch wives are endlessly scrutinized to make the feminist case. But the underlying theme is that these so-called strong women were actually victims who through grit and hard work prevailed against overwhelming odds to add a civilizing influence to a male-dominated West. These writers have nothing but contempt for the John Wayne-Hollywood Myth of the West, no matter its innocuousness.
Back in February, I reviewed for the Weekly Standard Judy Blunt’s Whiting Award-winning Breaking Clean (Knopf, 2002, 320 Pages, $24), her memoir of growing up on a hardscrabble cattle ranch near Malta, Montana. While Blunt was good at the daily details of this life (In my Weekly Standard piece, I said: “she was taught not only to work, but to know the morality of work”), she couldn’t keep her feminist agitprop out of it, thus marring the book.
The main hook that she used to hang her story of patriarchal oppression on was the tale of her adult married life, particularly her relationship with her father-in-law. Frank (Blunt only used first names in the book, an odd quirk maybe designed to ward off litigation; then again, all names might have been changed) was a crusty old rancher who firmly believed that women should know their place. After years of making Blunt miserable by constantly butting in on her marital and domestic life, he put a nice climax on Breaking Clean by smashing her typewriter to pieces with a sledgehammer in the barn after she was late preparing lunch for the hired summer haying crew. This triggered an epiphany for the author, and she soon ended her shaky marriage and moved with her kids to Missoula, where she enrolled at University of Montana and started her life as a serious writer.
But as reported last May, the only problem with the smashed typewriter story is that it’s apocryphal. Despite its totemic power it never happened. Caught on this (by local media reports that included an interview with “Frank”) and admitting her deception, Blunt shrugged off the made-up scene as good symbolism; after all, a similar incident could have happened to any number of oppressed Western women. Blunt is unapologetic that the climactic scene of her award-winning memoir is a lie. In a twisted way, she sees it as a lie that tells the truth. But apropos Picasso’s famous observation, Breaking Clean is not Art, therefore it should tell the truth.
As a single woman who struggled for years to raise three children, get a college education, and write a respected memoir, Blunt could be forgiven her chutzpah, except that she spends an inordinate amount of time cultivating a second career by attending seminars, where she attacks other contemporary Western writers who have come from outside the region, and have the effrontery to write about it. I know this because I met her five years ago at a Gallatin Writers seminar in Bozeman, Montana, though being at the time an unheralded hack (still proudly so), I was not personally subjected to her polite but pretentious campus blather. And at the time I had not read her either.
A couple of years ago at an annual gathering of regional academic literati called the Missoula “Festival of the Book,” which was broadcast on local public radio (where else?), Blunt blasted Livingston, Montana author David McCumber (who was not present) for the authenticity of his book The Cowboy Way. McCumber, a Montana newcomer who for years worked as a West Coast journalist — notably for the San Francisco Examiner — had the gall to get a job on a White Sulphur Springs ranch owned by Bill Galt, a prominent old school Montana cattleman. Before Galt hired him, McCumber rightly confessed that he knew little about the cattle business, but wanted to write about it as a participant rather than an observer. His resulting vivid account is the best I’ve ever read (considering that like McCumber, I’m an outsider) about the day-to-day work on a ranch through the changing seasons. In his eight months there, McCumber put in long days of herding cattle, repairing miles of fences, haying, irrigating, and repairing trucks and other equipment — all the time under the unforgiving gaze of Bill Galt and other top notch hands. McCumber gave up a social life, writing and reading to pursue these sometime seven day weeks of brutal labor, and in the end wrote a fine book about it.
At the seminar, Blunt criticized The Cowboy Way as the work of a man who took a ranch job with the suspect idea of “writing a book” about it, therefore making it a dishonest effort. But it turns out that Judy Blunt has personal experience doing just that. She joins a growing list of writers and historians on the Left such as Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Bellesiles, who have no trouble plagiarizing, fabricating facts and conducting shoddy research with the aim of advancing their particular agendas.
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