Tuesday, September 20, 2011

`Grapple Them Unto Thy Soul With Hoops of Steel'

When I returned to Texas in June, I resolved to learn more about the state, including some of its writers. My first memorable discovery was Adventures with a Texas Naturalist (1947) by Roy Bedichek (1878-1959). Though professionally an educator, Bedichek was a naturalist in the best amateur sense. His eye for detail was acute and he loved the varied landscapes of Texas. He started writing Adventures, his first book, at age sixty-eight at the urging of friends and fellow writers J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964) and Walter Prescott Webb (1888-1963), whose books I’m also investigating.

Bedichek’s book is slow-paced and meditative, and doesn’t indulge in politics or nature mysticism. He can write, a rare quality among writers. In a chapter titled “Co-operatives,” he describes a visit in 1937 to a woodland ten miles west of Lufkin, along the Neches River in East Texas. He sees a pair of pileated woodpeckers and scrawny cows in “cut-over lands” created by “big lumber interests.” Then he sees “monster sweet gum” lying on the ground: “Not counting its great bole, the top alone covered a space, oval in shape, approximately one hundred feet long and fifty feet wide at the center.”

Bedichek hears the humming of ruby-throat hummingbirds among the wildflowers growing around the felled tree – “masses of deep purple tradescantia mingled with red mallow in full bloom,” sunflowers, morning glories, “a bell-shaped flower, pale blue with yellow center, which I did not identify,” and “a coneflower called locally queen of the meadow.”

I like the encyclopedic urge to catalog the scene, with Bedichek’s willingness to confess occasional ignorance and his inclusion of folk names for flowers, which are at least as poetic as Latin names. With the “deep bass” of the hummingbirds he hears “humming in a higher pitch” – honeybees – and sees butterflies flitting among the blossoms. Here’s how Bedichek concludes the passage:

“The massive corpse of this tree was disintegrating amid a display of life’s most lively and colorful expressions: bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and flowers. Of course, less conspicuous life was thriving therein, but I can’t find that I made any note of it. I rarely notice an insect until it is in the bill of a bird, and then I want to know all about it.”

This voice of prickly attentiveness and curiosity is one expression of civilization, the gift for perceiving beauty in a clear-cut tract of former woodland, “after the rich and ancient life of the country had been ravaged.” In 1960, the year after Bedichek’s death, Dobie published I’ll Tell You a Tale, an anthology of his work, and dedicated it:

“To the memory of my cherished friend Roy Bedichek, a whole man of just proportions; a rare liver, in solitude as well as with genial companions; ample natured and rich in the stores of his ample mind; always understanding, whether agreeing or not; always enlarging both his own views and those of others. In talk he called forth all my powers, made me laugh, live more abundantly, love life with more reason.”

That stands as the finest epitaph I’ve ever read, confirmed by my reading of Bedichek’s book. It also stands as a pleasing corrective to the prevailing consensus about Texas as a backward, unlettered, marginally civilized place. In his introduction to I’ll Tell You a Tale, Dobie refutes the patronizing charge of regionalism. He’s no “county-minded provincial,” he says:

“Reading Hazlitt, Herodotus, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Boswell, Montaigne, and certain other emitters of luminosity never palls….I am so grounded in respect for the English language as used by noble writers for more than five hundred years that I have never been contemporaneous with more than four or five writers whom I admire. My contemporaries have lacked amplitude, wit, Johnsonian horse sense, play of mind, and other virtues common to predecessors still waiting to be enjoyed. Most modern American writing in the `best seller’ lists is so loosely—often sloppily, ignorantly, hideously—composed that it has no appeal for a craftsman disciplined to lucidity, and the logic of grammar, bred to a style `familiar but by no means vulgar,’ and harmonized from infancy with the rhythms of nature.”

The quoted words are spoken to Laertes by Polonius, a character always more misunderstood than Hamlet:

“Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion'd thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Any other playwright would have rendered Polonius/Lord Burleigh as a hideous monster, but the truth is grey everywhere in Hamlet, and “hooks of steel” notwithstanding he is satirized sympathetically. In the speech to Laertes/Robert Cecil (his son in real life) he gets much better lines than in his actual precepts the speech is based upon. “To thine own self be true,” in particular, makes unabashed self-interest sound almost noble.