The wide, wide resonance of local details
Novelist Larry Woiwode on the unbreakable bond between specificity and universality
“When a writer crosses the line of impropriety and talks about the act of writing itself, he or she’d better speak about it from the inside, as a person in a suit of armor might describe an itch starting to crawl up an arm, not as a scholar focusing on the makeup of a medieval gorget of mail. The itch in this instance is the relevance of place, or locale, to contemporary fiction.
“The French novelist George Bernanos says about his native Provence in Essais et écrits de combat I, after being absent from it for thirty years,
“Whether here or there, why should I be nostalgic about what actually belongs to me, is mine, and which I cannot betray? Why should I invoke the black puddles of the beaten-down path, or the hedge resounding under the melancholy beating of the rain since I am myself both the hedge and the black puddles?
“Here is a heartfelt response to homeplace, in which details of a particular place become one with the writer. Some critics might view Bernanos’s response as regional. When canonmeisters label a writer ’regional,’ they suggest that the writer isn’t in quite the same league as the big boys, equating regionalism with parochialism — an attitude that honors certain areas of the United States (or the world, for that matter) as right and proper, preferable to others — while the rest is regional. Every traveler knows that the vast tracts of continent from New Jersey to California contain varieties of typography, and isn’t quite healed until the Pacific coast. The area is called the Midwest, although it contains areas of the East and Northwest and West.
“In our anxious modern tendency to categorize — a reflex that suggests fear and has its apotheosis in computer circuits, as if fear dictates even the patterns of organization in the machines we invent to think for us — we seem to have forgotten the unpronounceable county in Mississippi, whose creator said it was the size of a postage stamp, or the locale of the Odyssey of our latter-day Ulysses, Dublin, or the best-selling prophet who never strayed far from his birthplace, Bethlehem.
“Let me say, then, that the properties of a particular place are important, yes, but the human beings are more important than locale. And the inner state of a character is of far greater importance than any external estate containing him or her, no matter how extraordinary its geophysical distinctions. Of even greater import is the character’s need to relate events that have had an emotional effect on his or her character to a friend or neighbor, the auditor of fiction.
“These elements make up what is known as narrative, and they can be transferred to any landscape on the planet, or to any vehicle in orbit around it. In one of the most limited poems, William Blake gives voice to a clod of clay and a pebble in a brook. It’s difficult to narrow your vision more than that, though Theodore Roethke does in his greenhouse poems. In the ‘The Clod and the Pebble,' Blake dramatizes self centered and selfless love, and by implication suggests that selfless love renders living in the world bearable, if it isn’t the foundation on which redeeming life in the world is built. It might help to have a Christian perspective to arrive at this last, larger inference (the clay as God-man trod down) but the poem is one that anybody from any culture at any given period can pick up and resonate to, as with Bernanos. Both speak to an unequivocal nature in every human being.
“So it's time to shed one obvious misapprehension about writing — that the physical locus of a piece of fiction limits the way in which meaning may widen from it, as rings of water widen around a cattail that a blackbird abandons. I can indeed reverse the premise and say that to the degree writing is true to indigenous detail, to that degree it resonates with wider meaning — or universality, as some might say. Think of the young man from rural Stratford who never forgot the local flora or any Bottom or Dogberry or resident of Arden, or the poetic, power-stricken Richards who aspired to be kings of one kind or another.”
— from Larry Woiwode, “Someplace, Heaven or Hell? On the Order of Existence,” in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011). Larry Woiwode offered further thoughts about reading and writing on Volume 111 of the Journal.