Unlike many critics, literary historian Frederick Turner likes America. His new book, Spirit of Place, subtitled The Making of an American Literary Landscape, celebrates nine American writers who quarried art from local sites. Lacking any tradition of professional authorship, they had to sort out the conflicting claims of America and Europe: bare-bones originality versus encrusted antiquity; the raw, crude, and often violent materials of American life versus European manners and erudition.
The personal costs were not negligible. Thoreau, in Turner’s view the first of our authors to love an American place for its sake alone, had to endure the scorn of Concord townspeople who considered him a crank and an idler; George Washington Cable drew the wrath of his neighbors when he delineated the ironies of race in his portraits of New Orleans; Mari Sandoz survived the scorn and physical abuse of her father, Old Jules, who wrote her following an early triumph: ”You know I consider writers and artists the maggots of society.” Nor do hometown indignities necessarily end with the writer’s death. Faulkner’s bootlegger, interviewed by Turner in the mid-1980s, still had not forgiven America’s greatest novelist for being a ”cocky little sum bitch.”
Paradoxically, while these writers were discovering and immortalizing their regions — their ”little postage stamp” of native soil, as Faulkner put it — those same places were often threatened with extinction. In the New World the paradisiacal garden is always being made into a theme park. Maybe Mark Twain’s Hannibal is the saddest of the places Turner visits. Huck’s hometown is now a place for hucksters touting Indian Joe Campgrounds, the Mark Twain Savings & Loan, the Mark Twain Beagle Club, and so forth. Some places have proved more resistant to change. Outside Santa Fe, Willa Cather’s sunsets remain as beautiful as ever.
Turner’s careful plotting of well-known and lesser-known locales resembles a kind of Monopoly board of American literary properties. He trusts the power of literature as well as the spirit of the place in which it is created, and his book is a sure-handed guide to American literary landmarks. B+