My Americas

Donald Davie

We have all been told about the demographic shift in the United States from the North-East to the Sun Belt of the South-West; and the commentators on politics have been eager to explain that among the consequences of this shift is the Reagan Presidency. But our perception of US life and letters has not yet been affected; our listening posts on this side of the Atlantic seldom pick up the weak signals from Tucson or Albuquerque, on a wave-band still blanketed by the vociferous transmitters of New York. And perhaps this is just as well: for one shudders to anticipate the strenuously polemical ‘study’, perhaps to appear any day soon, that will see in any sympathetic concern with Spanish-speaking or pueblo cultures only some PR manoeuvre by the Reagan political machine. But of course the chronology won’t fit. Death comes for the Archbishop, though it is remembered by an Anthony Powell character only as the name of a lethal cocktail, is the title of a frail and delicate masterpiece by Willa Cather, that much underrated writer, which more than fifty years ago delineated the shape that North American civilisation would assume in the mind if its metropolis were taken to be, not New York or Boston, Philadelphia or Washington, San Francisco or LA, but what the historical records establish as older than any of them, the most ancient city of North America: Santa Fe, New Mexico. And in the years since, that appealing perspective has never been lost sight of altogether. Rather, because it has never since found a promulgator so powerful and independent as Cather, the vista has been, by the opinion-makers of the North-East, domesticated and trivialised: Santa Fe is acknowledged as a milieu of aesthetes and weirdos, and Texas is handed over to the media-merchants who make Dallas. It is recognised that life in the states of the South-West has taken in the past, and may yet take again, a distinctive shape: but the distinction is dealt with by allowing that the life is, like the landscapes where it happens, picturesque and bizarre. And after all ‘picturesque’ and ‘bizarre’ are epithets that we need not withhold from some of the most alarming Reaganites, or the most impudent of philistines.

Yet a culture-shift, or something momentous enough to deserve some such grandiose name, has in fact been happening through the last twenty or twenty-five years. So, at least, some of the most thoughtful and independent observers would persuade us. One of them is John Felstiner, whose book about Neruda was reviewed in LRB a few weeks back by Christopher Reid.[1] Felstiner some years ago wrote an essay that I for my part found arresting and persuasive, in which he argued – largely on the evidence of directions taken by several serious poets (Robert Lowell and Robert Bly, Elizabeth Bishop and Ed Dorn are those who come to mind) – that the North American imagination is beginning to define its identity no longer on a West-East axis, across the Atlantic to Europe, but North-South, across the Rio Grande and down to Buenos Aires. If this should be so, then Tucson and Albuquerque and Dallas (though also, it must be admitted, Miami) would bulk larger, in the North American’s sense of himself, than outflanked New York or still more off-centre Boston – a change that Felstiner, himself a New Yorker, was doubtless very alive to. Such switchings of alignment, radical re-orderings of physical geography as the imagination apprehends it, should not be taken lightly: as we shall see, a new seriousness about such matters is precisely one of the things that the new orientation promises itself, and promises us. The point can be made for now by recalling the importance, for Felstiner’s author Neruda, of the sheerly physical configuration of his native Chile. But the reorientation, if indeed it has happened or is happening, has other consequences, more dramatic if not in the long run any more momentous.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[1] Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu (Stanford University Press). See LRB, Vol. 3, No 10.

[2] Burnt Water, by Carlos Fuentes, translated by Margaret Peden (Secker). See LRB, Vol. 3, No 9.

[3] The Minus Sign by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, translated by Virginia de Araujo. Carcanet New Press, 168 pp., £3.95, 6 August, 85635 296 9.

[4] Instaurations by D.S. Carne-Ross (University of California Press).

[5] ‘Paho at Walpi’, in Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 by Janet Lewis (Ohio University Press).