I really don’t mean to turn this into an obituary of authors, but we lost another good one today in Bill Holm, a Minnesotan who thought and wrote like an American Romantic transplanted to the wrong era. Here is a paragraph from his essay, “Horizontal Grandeur,” that I think of often.
There are two eyes in the human head – the eye of mystery, and the eye of harsh truth – the hidden and the open – the woods eye and the prairie eye. The prairie eye looks for distance, clarity, and light; the woods eye for closeness, complexity, and darkness. The prairie eye looks for usefulness and plainness in art and architecture; the woods eye for the baroque and ornamental. Dark old brownstones on Summit Avenue were created by a woods eye; the square white farmhouse and red barn are prairie eye’s work. Sherwood Anderson wrote his stories with a prairie eye, plan and awkward, told in the voice of a man almost embarrassed to be telling them, but bullheadedly persistent to get at the meaning of the events; Faulkner, who endless complications of motive and language take the reader miles behind the simple facts of an event, sees the world with a woods eye. One eye is not superior to the other, but they are different. To some degree, like male and female, darkness and light, they exits in all human heads, but one or the other seems dominant. The Manicheans were not entirely wrong.
It doesn’t matter who the Manicheans are (I think it refers to a state that used to exist between Michigan and Indiana, but was erased by tectonic plate movements in the mid-1950s), or if you have a frame of reference for Sherwood Anderson or William Faulkner. The basic conceit of the “prairie eye” and the “woods eye” as it pertains to authors is one I relish. I believe I have a prairie eye, and cannot see the trees for the forest, and knowing this is among the most important things I learned in my graduate program in writing. The epiphany came in a casual coffee-pot conversation with another grad student, and if she’d mentioned some other essay I might not have been led to spend the next several years mired in Ralph Waldo Emerson and the gnostic/cabalistic literary criticism of Harold Bloom, though how exactly one led to the other is a long, boring story with missing pages and lots of smudges. The important thing, today, is that I liked Minnesota more with Bill Holm in it.