short pieces: Walker, Tolkein, Stegner and more

Ah, the irony: I said just the other day that I was done with Faulkner, and yet here we are. In a continuation of going through those pages that have been piling up, I’ve read a few essays and short stories – including one by Faulkner.

A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner: This may be the format for him & me, because I found him perfectly comprehensible and amusing in this short form. It seamlessly evokes a small Southern town with its prejudices and whisperings and feelings of rectitude; it has atmosphere. It also has an engrossing, entertaining, and fully-formed story in it. And I think this is a mark of the master of the short story: that it can feel complete. Those less adept at it leave us feeling like we missed out on something. Not so here. I won’t say any more about the story itself, except that yes, Faulkner can be enjoyable; and if you’ve balked before, as I have firmly balked, you might consider giving this one a try. If you hate it, it’s only six pages long.

An interview with Terry Tempest Williams from YES! magazine: “Survival Becomes a Spiritual Practice.” I still love Terry Tempest Williams. She is wise, even when she can be kind of gauzy and dreamy, as here. I like that this interview addresses two “places” that “we” are in just now: a state of the world, as well as her own geographical placement, moving back and forth between Vermont (where she teaches part of the year at Dartmouth) and her home in the Utah desert.

The Sense of Place” by Wallace Stegner: If I ever get my hands on an audio-cassette player, I have a whole collection of “sense of place” essays by Stegner, read aloud by the man himself, and I cannot wait to hear them. Send me a tape player, somebody.

This essay rounds out that inaccessible collection, as I understand it. Stegner describes us as being defined by place as well as defining place. He presents a possibly controversial idea, that

at least to human perception, a pace is not a place until people have been born in it, have grown up in it, lived in it, known it, died in it – have both experienced and shaped it, as individuals, families, neighborhoods, and communities, over more than one generation.

A few lines earlier:

The deep ecologists warn us not to be anthropocentric, but I know no way to look at the world, settled or wild, except through my own human eyes.

I like this honesty, because I acknowledge and respect the caution not to be anthropocentric; but Stegner makes a true point that we can only know the one perspective, really. (I guess I would counter that being less anthropocentric should simply involve acknowledging that there are other perspectives. I think Stegner gets that, though.) He gives equal airtime to those who have, perhaps, grown up nowhere, too.

If the rest of this essay collection continues on this path – of exploring what we mean to our places and vice versa, how we define one another – I need to hurry up and find that tape recorder.

Leaf by Niggle” by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (because that is how his name is spelled out at this link. Funny, I never knew what J.R.R. stood for, I don’t guess). What an enchanting story! Niggle is a “little man… who had a long journey to make.” He doesn’t want to take his trip, but he knows he has to. He’d rather finishing this painting first: a painting of trees and countryside. He wants it to be perfect. But there are other pulls on his time, and he ends up being forced to go on his journey without perfecting his work. In fact, he’s so rushed he does not even pack a bag. I won’t tell you the rest…

I wondered throughout if this was a big beautiful allegory for art, for the making of art – Tolkien’s own writing, or any of ours. There are some lovely images and moments:

He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill. He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.


There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder…

Can’t you just see Middle Earth developing, demanding that Tolkien attend to it, in the same way?

“My picture!” exclaimed Niggle.

“I dare say it is,” said the Inspector. “But houses come first. That is the law.”

Ah, and there’s the rub.

This story can be said to comment on religion, the value of art, the question of what we owe our neighbors; it indicates some of Orwell’s 1984; there is a great deal in this short story (nine pages). Strange and fanciful and lovely, like all of Tolkien’s work.

My Father’s Country is the Poor” by Alice Walker, 1977, The New York Times. In a short two and a half pages, Alice Walker paints beautiful, heartbreaking pictures: of her father and her own life, of a visit to Cuba, of the difficulties of race, culture, class, and their inextricability. She tells us “what poverty engenders… what injustice means.” Only Alice Walker, and even in 1977, so much that we should attend to. I don’t want to comment too much on this; better that you go read her words, which are few and flawless.

2 Responses

  1. so impressed you are getting to all this (including the previous on poetry)

    Trivia: Dartmouth is in NH, just across the Connecticut river from VT; it’s always interesting to hear where Dartmouth-related people choose to live – NH or VT? Much different cultures, outside of the academic bubble: conservative independent tax-free NH (think rich & property rights) or socialist income-tax VT (think Bernie.)

    I read a Stegner collection that includes “Sense of Place”; I remember noting the same passage you quote first; and like you I found the piece thoughtful & worthwhile – and reflective of his background & time period.

    ​Love your thought on how Tolkien’s Middle Earth could have evolved from a fragment, out of his control!

    ​Thanks to Alice Walker: for the wonderful word griot, for the tantalizing sense of Cuban history Pablo suggests, and for this: “A society in which there is respectful communication between generations is not likely, easily, to fail.”

    • Yes! It’s very cool. I have another set of poems and stack of essays on the desk, waiting. These are geared more towards building my background in creative nonfiction classics: look for Montaigne.

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