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Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture
Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture
Larry Woiwode
Crossway, 2011
192 pp., 24.99

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Timothy Jones

Gritty Eloquence

Larry Woiwode's measured words.

I learned something about Larry Woiwode from the cup of coffee he offered me. I had come to his farm and home near Mott, in southwestern North Dakota, interviewing him on the release of the novel Indian Affairs. A gracious host, he asked about coffee.


He took the grounds, stirred in water boiled on his kitchen stovetop, and handed me the mug.

I got, to my surprise, a gulp of not-yet-settled grounds—think French press without the press. Had I waited a while, I now know, the grounds would have drifted to the bottom. But I guess my eyes widened, for Woiwode chuckled and said, "That's cowboy coffee." Pastured horses and acres sown with organic oats surrounded us, and the coffee conjured the ruggedness of the Dakota plains.

Only now, twenty years later, reading his new collection of essays, it occurs to me that I also got a clue to Woiwode's writing. Words Made Fresh, like his coffee, comes with grit. And while Woiwode can send sentences aloft with elegance, he can also wield words like sharpened farm implements. Out of this collection of his eclectic and sometimes acerbic essays emerges a literary intellectual who roots himself to the soil, a poet who works a farm, a cultural soldier who spreads abroad a vibrant faith and steel-cut Presbyterianism.

Even the book's title harkens to the Christian faith that grounds Woiwode's craft. It is "meant to echo the incarnation," he explains in the preface to the volume. But he is interested in more than thoughts made graphic, words made flesh: "The title also issues an assurance that the following essays, which appeared in a variety of venues over the years, have been revised or reworked and otherwise brought up to date so that the words forming the phrases and sentences and thoughts in the paragraphs ahead have, indeed, been refashioned, made fresh."

All ten essays in this collection have appeared before, but only a reader with a freakishly broad range could have seen them all in their original iterations: Esquire, for instance, and Image; Chicago Tribune Book World and Washington Post Book World (neither of which still exists, alas), and Books & Culture. While we encounter occasional grumps against liberal and neo-orthodox Christians and especially critics in the secular academy (understandable given the experiences he recounts in his memoir, A Step from Death), Woiwode is exuberant in his praise of his contemporaries John Gardner and John Updike. He frames tributes to Shakespeare and Bob Dylan with wit and resonance.

And the words themselves make this book stand out. Reviewers have long commented on the power of Woiwode's prose. In these essays he approaches his sentences and syntax with passion. It's as though he bends over his words—tending to their impact, their subtle rhythm, their ability to jolt or unsettle or lift up.

In "Guns and Peace," the oft-anthologized essay that opens this volume, he describes an injured deer on a roadside in Wisconsin (where he lived at the time): "Once in the worst of a Wisconsin winter I shot a deer, my only one, while my wife and daughter watched."

A careful reading of that sentence shows his attention to language. There's unobtrusive alliteration, for one thing: In a 21-word sentence, I count six "w" words, to say nothing of the echoing "one." The syllables ring; put together, they're rhythmically charged. Woiwode wanted his stories, he wrote elsewhere, "to be as compact and direct as poetry as it walked the New Yorker columns in the blue jeans and work shirt of prose," and the same is true of this essay.

That roadside scene unfolds, indeed, with unsettling sparseness: blood, a gun, a wife and daughter as witnesses (back at the truck, they sit "pale and withdrawn"). The deer, Woiwode explained, "had been hit by a delivery truck along a county road a few miles from where we lived, and one of its rear legs was torn off at the hock. A shattered shin and hoof lay steaming in the red-beaded ice on the road."

A bloody accident, a mercy killing: unsettling, yes, but what's the source of the tension that seems to torque every sentence? The narrative shifts unexpectedly. "My wife once said," Woiwode writes, "she felt I wanted to kill her, a common enough apprehension among married couples, I'm sure, and not restricted to either sex (I know there were times when she wanted to kill me), but perhaps with experience infusing the feeling it became too much to endure." Such wrestling would lead to a separation from his wife, a reunion, and even the peace alluded to in the essay's title.

In the decades since that essay's publication, Woiwode's profound attention to language has taken on biblical proportions. "We should expect," he writes, "to give an account, according to a teaching of Jesus, for every idle word that comes out of our mouths. That's a weighty responsibility for a writer."

Words never seem disembodied for Woiwode. It's no accident that he placed the opening scene of that essay in a particular state, where he lived at the time, and a carefully detailed physical location. Which leads to the second thing that strikes me about this collection: The insistent attention to place.

Geography figures prominently throughout Woiwode's novels, and certainly here in his essays. His "Homeplace, Heaven or Hell?" explores why a writer always has grounding at some address. He registers the literary world's sometime smugness about certain areas on the map—the implicit dismissal imbedded in the term "regional" when applied to a writer. Woiwode joins good company here. Flannery O'Connor, too, complained about critics who labeled her as a Southern writer, as if to look down upon quirky and less-cultured provinces. But inevitably, she once told a group of writers, "To know oneself is to know one's region …. When we talk about a writer's country we are liable to forget that no matter what particular country it is, it is inside as well as outside him."

Woiwode, too, takes aim at geographical imperialism: "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."

His return to his native state in 1978, young family in tow (not long after writing the opening essay set in Wisconsin), lies behind some of his keen focus on place. He makes no apology for fiction set in the Midwest or Plains states, even if he does offer a defense: "Indigenous detail," as he calls it, makes writing real, incarnate: "Universality is compounded of specifics, or we have no referent to relate to." That very detail, he says, packs down writing "with wider meaning—or universality, as some might say."

I detect in his defiance what a friend calls a "rebellion of the regional" against élitist urbanite hegemony. In the seemingly off-the-grid Dakota plains, "I had the feeling," Woiwode writes, "of returning home." Indeed, he represents the fifth generation of his family to inhabit North Dakota. And he tells the story behind the move: "A denomination we decided to join had one church, we learned, in North Dakota. With a compass I drew a radius of forty miles, using the church as pivot point, and we found a farm within that circle. It was the sort of place we had looked for, in different regions of the country, for seven years, and it was in western North Dakota." There may be a kind of rustic romanticism in such writing, until one actually has to endure the dailyness, even tedium, of such settings: Woiwode never ceases to draw hard and burnished details from his Plains state topography. If his prose sometimes soars into high atmosphere, it never goes long untethered from place. The scent of soil, the near-blinding shimmer of snow, the clean airiness of a Plains sky seem to orient and ground him.

In all this, Woiwode joins a strong tradition in recent literature. One thinks of the farmer-poet-novelist Wendell Berry cultivating land in Kentucky (and Berry gets appreciative treatment in an essay in Woiwode's collection). Or Kathleen Norris' sojourn in nearby South Dakota, leaving behind the heady New York world of poetry. Or Frederick Buechner, who has spent his most of his writing career with pen and legal pads in tiny-town Vermont. For Woiwode, place is more than a plot of land and a house; it allows for a kind of pilgrimage to stability and self-discovery.

The insistent pull of story is the third thing that strikes me about these essays: no wonder the longest essay of the collection focuses on a maestro of storytelling. "Updike's Sheltered Self" explores Woiwode's decades of following John Updike as "a contemporary whose work I admire above most others," unrolling his own story against the backdrop of Updike's sometimes controversial career, tracing his assimilation of Updike's novels. The essay, at forty pages, runs longer than his essays on John Gardner, including one that labors to detail the plot turns of Gardner's Mickelsson's Ghosts. And while long, his appreciative (but not hagiographic) portrait of Updike seems to succeed in a way the essay "Gardner's Memorial in Real Time" may not. I felt I traced Updike's corpus through Woiwode's own pilgrimage through space and time, and the effort was rewarded. (Woiwode even more recently has tried his hand at a story for children, in the charming Plains-tale The Invention of Lefse.)

If words, place, and story have grasped Woiwode and oriented his work, something else has mastered him. To the two categories in the subtitle, "Essays on Literature and Culture," I would append another: Religion. Time and again this recipient of multiple literary awards and secular honors cannot help coming back to his sturdy Christian faith and steady moral grounding.

You see it as he wrestles, to give one example, with Updike's penchant for explicit descriptions of coupling: "With [Updike's novel] Couples, the philosophy of Playboy moved into the hearts of heartland America." While he doesn't want to imply Updike started such trends, "I believe," he writes, "you could say Couples hit the gas on a trend, rather than the clutch or the brake." (Woiwode, at the same time, bristles at "popular Christian writing of the pietistic, sanitized, untruthful bent; and … the act of dragging a pulpit into fiction.")

Woiwode finds himself moved by Updike's confessing of an "unshakable assurance that he will not die," a conviction rooted in the "truths of Scripture" and "God's unconditional nature." For Woiwode, one of the key questions in his analysis is Updike's relation to the Christian faith and the heritage of historic Christianity, "always a literate and literary religion."

Ultimately Woiwode sees his own writing not simply as a passion but also as a stubborn call. He still remembers his mentor, renowned New Yorker editor and novelist William Maxwell, saying, "You always know when you've finished a good (or great) book, because when you get up from it, you know your life will never be quite the same." This collection of essays suggests that more than the accolades he's won, and the lyricism his prose routinely achieves, Woiwode's humility before the Word made flesh makes him eager for that kind of difference.

Woiwode does not wave his "testimony" furiously in front of the reader. But he's added something to "Guns and Peace," the opening essay detailing the deer's shattered shin and torn-off leg. In the afterword that accompanies the essay reworked for this edition, he tells of changes since that time: "My wife and I reunited and reared our daughter and two more daughters, plus a son, on a ranch in western North Dakota."

More than just the essays collected here, then, has been made fresh—and new: In his Dakota "incarnation," he writes, "I own firearms, mainly for predators, especially rabid ones, and I do not cling to them as I cling to the faith that reunited my wife and me and caused our internal lives and the lives of our children to blossom and prosper in peace."

Timothy Jones is Dean of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, South Carolina. He is a former editor at Christianity Today and has authored several books, including The Art of Prayer (WaterBrook).

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