Kenneth Irby visits Carl O. Sauer and James C. Malin

Kenneth Irby (left) on the road.

Editorial note: The following pieces were originally published in Isthmus 2 (1973): 54–60, and are reprinted here — transcribed from their original typescripts — for the first time. Carl O. Sauer and James C. Malin are arguably the two most significant nonliterary influences on Irby’s writing, each of their names appearing eleven times in his The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962–2006. To call them “nonliterary influences,” however, is misleading. Not only are their respective subjects — geography, and local (i.e., Kansas) history — important to Irby’s work, but also the methodology and broader philosophical approach that each scholar brought to bear on his field, as well as the melding of that approach with a distinct prose stylistics. Thus, we can recognize in the form, method, and theme of Irby’s pieces, traces of his subjects. Irby’s journalistic detail and close attention to the scene’s totality (the Bugs Bunny cartoon, for example, that Irby notices playing on the other side of the partition in Sauer’s hospital room) echo Sauer’s insistently empirical and historicized approach to research (e.g. encouraging other geographers to “get their boots muddy”), as well as his lean and descriptive prose, while Malin’s conviction that “local history is the foundation of all history” is evidenced by Irby’s choice to promptly record and publish such candid accounts of seemingly unremarkable events.

Born in Missouri, Carl Ortwin Sauer (1889–1975) received his PhD at the University of Chicago in 1915, and was professor at UC Berkeley from 1923 to 1957. Primarily concerned with what James Parsons describes as the “agency of humankind in using, modifying, and shaping the earth’s surface through time,” Sauer’s work, which he termed “culture history,” takes a phenomenological perspective, emphasizing process over positivism, and first-hand observation over moralist and theoretical evaluations. His numerous books are particularly interested in the prehistory culture of the American Southwest and Mexico, agricultural origins and dispersals, the discovery and exploration of the New World, land use and planning, and the destructive exploitation of natural resources. His influence is widely felt among twentieth-century geographers, such as Alfred W. Crosby Jr. and William Cronon, as well as early environmentalists, such as Rachel Carson, and a slew of mid-twentieth-century American poets, such as Edward Dorn, Robert Creeley (who first recommended Sauer’s work to Irby), Gary Snyder, and Charles Olson (who appointed Sauer, “my ace,” to the Black Mountain College Advisory Board). Bob Callahan, who introduced Irby to Sauer, and served as the latter’s executor, was the founder of the Turtle Island Foundation, which published a number of Sauer’s late works and, in the late ’70s, employed Irby to compile the index for Sauer’s posthumously published Seventeenth-Century North America. For further information on the relationship between Sauer’s work and mid-century poetry, see James Parsons’s essay “‘Mr. Sauer’ and the Writers,” published in Geographical Review 86, no. 1 (Jan 1996): 22–41.

Born in North Dakota, historian James C. Malin (1893–1979), whom Sauer refers to as “one of those prairie historians,” received his PhD in 1921 from the University of Kansas, where he worked as a professor for the rest of his life. Iconoclastic, eccentric, and fiercely independent, Malin is probably best known for The Grasslands of North America, his two-volume study of the intersection of ecology and history. Although Malin maintained a “defensive sensitivity to the image cast by his state in the rest of nation,” and the majority of his scholarship mines the particulars of his locality — from John Brown, to winter wheat, to the little known Emporia-based poet Eugene Ware — his interests were, by no means, confined to that area, as is evidenced by a number of his offbeat titles, such as Confounded Rot About Napoleon and Doctors, Devils and the Woman. In his retrospective essay “James Malin — An Appreciation” (Kansas Historical Quarterly 38, no. 4 [Winter 1972]), Robert Johanssen summarizes Malin’s four “principles in history,” which Malin elaborated in numerous essays on historiography: “1) change and variation in time and space; 2) recognition of an element of organization in all things; 3) continuity as a general principle, but subject to a partial interruption in varying degrees according to an unpredictable element of uncertainty arising out of the behavior of the particular; 4) individualism.” Michael Brodhead, who introduced Irby to Malin, attended the University of Kansas as both an undergraduate and masters student, and received his PhD in history from the University of Minnesota. After briefly managing the Kansas Collection at KU’s Spencer Research Library, Brodhead became a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and, subsequent to his career in academia, worked as an archivist in Washington, DC. His name also appears numerous times in Irby’s correspondence with Ed Dorn, a selection of which is included elsewhere in this special feature. — Kyle Waugh

January 20, 1973: A visit with Carl Sauer

Yesterday afternoon to visit Sauer with Bob Callahan — Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley, construction on new wing incessant and deafening as we walked up — room 450, Sauer in bed reading newspaper, looked up, Hullo Callahan, exchanged a few comments about his illness, gall bladder operation (almost as an aside, brushing such matters aside as of no importance except as impediments to the real work — later: “get back to the office again — after 2 weeks of not living”) — “going home tomorrow” — Bob introduced me, I told him I was from Fort Scott, he said he didn’t know much about that aspect of — not much work on that era of — had studied a lot the Indians of that area but not with that later — I told where how when Fort Scott founded — silence (did he hear me? he showed signs of difficulty hearing sometimes — stern gaze, bright eyes, intense alive presence despite 83 years, skin hanging in creases — slow speech, many pauses, gazing usually off, up, into his subject/determination) — I said I knew Malin with whom I guessed he’d had some exchanges — he asked, “you were a student at the University of Kansas?” I said yes, undergraduate, he said, “yes, Malin … one of those prairie historians” — long silence — Callahan picked it up, told him Northern Mists paperback contract was signed, should be out March or April, Sauer very pleased, eyes even brighter, asked if cover would be kept, Bob said yes, Sauer said (the artist) had done a good job, he was glad it would be kept, had actually submitted 3 different covers from which that one had been picked — Bob assured him a good photo reproduction of the cover would be done — questions of distribution:  Sauer:  students’ll buy pb, but they are distributed well — Bob said (and I seconded) Book People (answer to “who’s distributing?”) were good outfit, C.O.S. apparently hadn’t heard of — mention of Donald Lathrop’s work — at Univ of Illinois? yes — anthropology or geography — anthropology — dept — “the geographer, the alligator … whatever the third is, that animal constellation he’s been working on, from his trips to the Upper Amazon” (later, Bob: jaguar the third term — like “The Politician, the Lighthouse Keeper and the Trained Cormorant” of Sherlock Holmes’[s] unwritten cases) has this work been published? — no,  you’ll just have to write Lathrop — Callahan:  so-called primitive man must have been quite a geographer to get around as he did — extending senses of that: Chinese feng-shui, geomancy — Sauer: “we have a Korean graduate student here, named Ywon, Y–w–o–n, who’s working on geomancy, you might get in touch with him …” talked of how missionaries almost never get into anything of what is going on in the country around them, that barrier in them being almost a sine qua non for there being there, the exceptions proving the rule, etc. — Callahan asked of the French explorer, whose letters … Pleistocene lake named after … Lahontan, Sauer says [Louis–Armand de Lom d’Arce, Baron de Lahontan, 1666–c.1713], and tells long and rather detailed story of Lahontan here in the U.S. — career officer, intimate of Count de Frontenac, royal lieutenant to the colony of Newfoundland, which post he deserted and fled back to Europe, was disgraced and could never return to France — sole among his cohorts who had any sympathy with, insight into the Indians — wrote account of his travels, partly faked, and set of dialogues, including one (also made up?) with Huron chief, depicting nobility of high civilization of North American Indians (Callahan says later was influence on Rousseau and notion of the “noble savage”) — one of the few, Sauer emphasized, who had real insight [I thought of Jaime de Angulo, both nationally and personality] — “so much emphasis on this wrong notion of ‘evolutionary progress’ has held so many back for so long — even Teilhard suffered from it — every day we’re getting better, etc. — now Leakey’s son has found hominid skulls much much older than those his parents found and yet in terms of evolution — brow ridge, jaw, etc. — more advanced — I remember Prof. Le Gros Clark years ago, even before we’d more accurately dated those remains, saying that if Swanscombe Man were to walk down a London street today in modern dress, no one would notice him — it isn’t that man’s intellectual capacity was less then than now, that mistaken notion, but that he had less to work with” — went on to say, the real problem’s understanding people the way people think who think differently than we do (to which I added, even understanding the way we think!) — commented on Jaime de Angulo as one of the few capable men of imagination who could get with other people — “one of the few — and they wouldn’t pay any attention to him” — and Paul Radin — Bob quoted Nancy de Angulo, that Jaime and Radin would sit up arguing all night, never agreeing about anything, loving each other deeply — I mentioned The Trickster was back out in a paperback, at which Sauer smiled and his eyes glinted — spoke for a while on the “far too great emphasis on the economic motivation for man’s acts” — Callahan quoting:  “imposing our sense of economics on ‘primitive’ man, which is an economics of an entirely different order” — Sauer especially speaking about horticultural development, domestication of plants — his last pronouncement was on this, then a long pause — Bob said we had to be getting on — he said, well, come again, pleasure to talk to you, next visit’ll be at 13 — Rose! — I gave him my Max Douglas poem, apologized a little in advance for my use of his statements, told him who Max was — “he lived in St. Joseph?” — I said yes — “never knew there were any poets there” — he said he didn’t know much about the younger poetry, but he did figure it was serious stuff “and not just show-off” — the room was shared with one other man, not visible on other side of screen but seemed to be Chinese from evidence of his wife and kids there visiting, and his voice — tv going on that side all the time we were there, volume turned down as the family left, from where I stood I couldn’t help noticing what was on from time to time — old pre-WWII b&w cartoons, then Bugs Bunny, about to be run over by train driven by fiendish villain, then film “breaks” in the cartoon, pause, then B.B. steps out front to explain projector gave way, “That’s All Folks!” — other patient answering nurse over intercom, yes, bring me a darvon — his kids, two girls, ages c. 3 and 5, playing with yo-yos as they left — talking with the greatest geographical mind of the 20th century, accompanied by Bugs Bunny! — not much reading material in evidence:  few newspapers, Bob said later the Berkeley Gazette on Sauer’s lap when we came in was open to article on recent archaeological finds in Greece, with map — headlines on school board upset, city government problems — couple of magazines on night table, but covered up — one bottle of what looked like milk of magnesia or kaopectate — not Phillips — Sauer’s glasses off most of our visit — his arms usually behind his head, occasionally straight up into air, one or two times grabbed exercise bar on chains overhead — face lean, gray stubbly moustache, hair white — looking much as in Land and Life photo, but of course much older, almost 40 years — bright, almost fierce eyes and demeanor — not unpleasant, but intense, no bullshit — often simply said nothing in reply to statements (as about Malin after “prairie historian”, and Bob said he’d clammed up on Malin whenever he had mentioned him on previous visits), lapsed into silence — couldn’t tell if it was drugs/sedation (some, perhaps), or tiredness (certainly), or simply already thinking about another subject, reading to break out in a new direction — we were there only about 30–40 minutes

[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]


September 1, 1972: A visit with James C. Malin, Lawrence, Kansas

Yesterday afternoon to Malin’s with Michael Broadhead — ’30s white stucco modern, flat-roofed, strictly rectangular house, windows at corners, Bauhaus/Malin (he designed it himself) — tile floors, plainly furnished, curtains for doors between rooms downstairs — evidences of Malin’s work everywhere downstairs but the kitchen, the dining room become another study, table piled high with manuscripts and card files — three reproductions of The Last Scout in the living room — old van Beinum recording of Das Lied von der Erde standing on the music stand of the upright piano, also a Westminster Telemann, and Claudia Muzio arias — many old 78 albums visible — spiral stairwell to upstairs open in step-patterned cut above piano (so their daughter when a child could watch and listen from the stairs during their evening musicales, his wife told Hwa-di) — Mrs. Malin brought cookies and coffee, then left us after leaving a box of cookies (animals) for Linus — J.C.M. very slow, using cane, dressed as usual in his jump suit/coveralls — but not sick, ill-seeming, just slow — couldn’t always remember names he wanted to, or find photos, journals in the great stack next to his chair — talk of John Brown, his own John Brown book, recent controversies over that — he knew Oates’ book but had not read it — defended himself against attack from Smith College rabbi that he was racist and anti-semitic — said he was the first to give a fair account of the one Jew who rode with Brown — Wiener — spoke of St. Louis as key to materials of Jewry of the Great Plains and West, the Jewish community there very tightly organized, consistently outfitted “their young countrymen of whatever country” as salesmen, first with pack, then if they did well, a cart, and eventually a store — said no one had really investigated such matters at all — Michael noted that some work of this sort was now coming out of Santa Barbara (a journal), but that it was almost entirely California in focus — much talk in early part of our visit seemed to center on Malin’s various battles with critics — but he in good spirits, humorous resignment to detractors/misunderstanders evident — when asked about one recent (well-meaning but unimpressive) article on his work, he sighed, “I just don’t know what to say about that article” and continued looking for a book he had mentioned, without looking up — spoke of Gould Colman’s interview with him, the transcript deposited in the regional history library — Michael asked if it was restricted in access, Malin said yes, to keep curiosity seekers out, not serious scholars — though denied there was any really juicy material there — said he had materials for several scandalous articles that would be unpublishable, but he didn’t think he would write them — didn’t say about what of course — (all this re the recent piece in the Kansas Historical Quarterly on Lindley and J.C.M. flap in the ’30s) — mentioned he had several articles’ worth of material written or to be, on Ware — I asked him how he had gotten on to Ware in the first place — he had projected three grasslands regional studies: the first, on Kansas City, had been written, the other two never were: a), on fuel — coal mines at Leavenworth and in SE Kansas, Fort Scott a focus there, and in digging into Fort Scott matters, he got onto Ware; b) was to have been building materials and native architectural design of the plains — I asked him if Ware’s poems were still in print — he said, technically, no, but that he had some copies of the last (15th) edition (Putnam, 1939) the Ware family had turned over to him — I offered to purchase one, he said, no, he wouldn’t sell me one, but he would give me one (pristine, with dust jacket, and pasted on flyleaf, white label saying “Compliments of James C. Malin”) — some talk of the Western Historical Assoc. meeting in October in New Haven, the session there to be devoted to his work — he characterized the members’ publications as either buffs’ (American West magazine) or academic (Western Hist Assoc Journal), and said he belonged to neither — our great communications problem today, he said, though the current period is the greatest for expansion of man’s knowledge of any in man’s history, the problem is keeping up with it — we spoke for a while of the 1968 Pleistocene Great Plains symposium in Lawrence — he said he had only seen the Peter Wells paper, not the rest — thought that Wells showed that the prehistory and vegetational history of the Great Plains were much much more complex than we had ever thought — but also felt he may have overstated his case, “as we often do when we’re on to a new and important thing” — of Sauer: has more ideas than any of the younger ones working, but “a very disagreeable man” — Michael asked: in his work, or personally — Malin: “personally — if he likes you, fine, but he takes strange dislikes to people, then he can be very disagreeable indeed” — a little talk about William Allen White, his preface to Rhymes of Ironquill — won’t tell you anything about Ware, Michael said — J.C.M. agreed, wondered why White had been so famous when he had so little to say — just before we got up to leave, I gave him a copy of To Max Douglas, saying: perhaps this will amuse you — then the new Tansy with Don Byrd’s piece on him in it — then Michael gave him the recent Io with his piece on Coues in it — Malin seemed genuinely surprised and touched literary people, poets, knew and were interested in his work — “I hadn’t known at all — there’s such a communications problem,” he smiled — as he showed us to the door, he said: “the one thing that despite all his history and civilization homo sapiens still cannot determine satisfactorily, is quality” — as we walked away with Mrs Malin was next door chatting on the front stoop with younger neighbor lady — I remembered then I had asked him about the musical history of the region: SW, Kansas City jazz, ragtime, especially in connection with earlier migration routes — and he had said he could never investigate such matters, because he hated jazz, rock, etc. — Michael said: with which period of jazz does your dislike begin? — he answered: all of it — our visit perhaps an hour all told, slightly more

[Sent by Irby to Bob Callahan, April 10, 1973]