Sunday, August 07, 2005

Influences Part 1

The subject of influences and finding one's own voice is a big one, and I am going to have to think a lot about it. But let us make a start.

My mother started reading Kipling to me-- The Jungle Books-- when I was about three, and they may be the reason I started reading about then, along with Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds. (I will pass over my baby pronunciation of such birds as "Pomarine Jaeger"-- that my mother did not laugh indicates she was and is a kind woman).

Given the watered- down pap kids are given today I should report that then-- 1953?-- I had little difficulty understanding the basic tales, nor nightmares from the tragedy and bloodshed, though of course I asked many questions. Subsequent knowledge of everything from the Raj to the Pribilof Islands has only deepened my respect and admiration for the man.

(Although I will go into more detail later on writers, I should point out that I don't just consider it nonsense that Kipling was merely a "racist" or imperialist or childrens' writer-- I consider him a protean genius. I own and have read everything he wrote and even have a book by his father. I have also read extensively in the critical literature-- luckily he attracts writers like Angus Wilson as biographers and critics, rather than theory types!)

Kipling once wrote a story about a group of Jane Austen devotees who cllesd themselves "Janeites". I am a "Kiplingite". But other than making me appreciate the music of words and giving me a taste for Asia I'm not sure where my first master comes in.

Next, Hemingway, who I discovered in my late teens/ early twenties? through the odd door of Islands in the Stream-- I was quite nautical at the time. I had "had" to read him in high school-- suddenly I saw his poetry, and read his invaluable advice. I also saw his love for nature, which led years later to my giving a paper on "Hemingway as Nature Writer" at the annual Hemingway Festival in Sanibel and to this amusing exchange (sickening name- dropping alert). Patrick Hemingway: "I never knew you knew so much about Dad's writing". SB: "Pat-- we never TALK about your Dad's writing!

You don't proceed or read on a neat timeline, so my devotion to the travel writers and SOME nature writers-- though I am usually identified as one, it would not be my most comfortable self- identification-- was ongoing, before and after this. Will Beebe, the scientist- adventurer- generalist, was a childhood favorite I can still read. In my teens I read Gavin Maxwell and thought "This is it!" He is the first writer mentioned here-- I read him before I "got" Hemingway-- whose life and ways became a big influence that I can see. He is another who is considered a nature writer but really isn't. For an introduction to him you could do worse than check out my intro to this edition of his Harpoon Venture, reprinted in Edge of the Wild.

Other important travel writer influences were to be Bruce Chatwin and the amazing women, Karen Blixen high among them. ( Though of course she was living, not "travelling"). Patrick Leigh Fermor, though really all one can do is stand in awe (and wish he would complete the third volume of his 1930's walk from Holland to Istanbul before he dies-- meanwhile see Between the Woods and the Water .)

And-- he may get a post to himself-- T. H. White, also started in my teens. I have as I said everything of Kipling's, everything-- in first edition!-- of Chatwin (fairly easy when you start by buying In Patagonia as a new book)-- and I collect White, thought there are some rarities of his I may never have.

Oddly, of these writers, Hemingway and Chatwin are stark though hardly minimalist, Leigh- Fermor ornate, and Maxwell, Kipling, White, and Blixen between the extremes somewhere. I figure I am "between" also, but beyond that observation, I can't really see the prose influences-- more the sensibility. Any thoughts, readers?

I admire English comic writers like Waugh but can see little influence. I like Chinese and Japanese Buddhist "mountain"- type poetry (though also Kipling, Ted Hughes, Robinson Jeffers, and Roy Campbell). And then there are a group of American males about ten years older than I who exerted a-- sometimes good, sometimes not so good-- influence over me and my prose style, less lasting than those above, in my twenties. More about the travel writers, and them, next time up. And after that, how one's own style develops-- if I can figure that out.


Matt Mullenix said...

Steve wrote: "I figure I am 'between' also, but beyond that observation, I can't really see the prose influences-- more the sensibility. Any thoughts, readers?"

I'm not well-enough read to spot the influences of others' writing in yours, Steve, but I wonder at this point if I could. You were a writer already into his own by the time I found that excerpt from "Rage" in the Smithsonian(?). But maybe you'd like to share some of your early unpublished work with us :-) and let us try to find the ghosts of Kipling and Hemingway in it? Maybe it's not there either.

At this stage in my own writing, I recognize my prose not only as derivative but darn near chartable. I finished my last blog project with a list of books I'd read over the course of the season. I expect that, knowing which months corresponded to which books, you might find Melvillian grammar or sentences of six-to-eight words, none of them longer than a syllable, a'la you-know-who!

Reid Farmer said...

In Jeffrey Meyers' Hemingway biography he has a section where he has a number of quotes from Hemingway stressing what a strong influence and inspiration Kipling was for him.