Rick Bass Essay - Bass, Rick (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bass, Rick (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Introduction

Rick Bass 1958-

American nonfiction writer, essayist, short story writer, and novelist.

The following entry presents an overview of Bass's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 79.

Best known for his explorations of the relationship between man and nature, Bass is considered to be one of the foremost writers concerned with the treatment of the environment. While he frequently writes in essay and journal form (sometimes termed “creative nonfiction,” in which he combines observations of the natural world with personal reflections), Bass is also recognized as an accomplished fiction writer. His fictional characters are noted for their realistic portrayals and for their placement in peculiar situations, in which they often exhibit a deep connection to their environments. Bass's tenacious preservationist ideals and his introspective writing style have garnered much attention, and he is widely regarded as an innovative contributor to contemporary American literature.

Biographical Information

Bass was born in Fort Worth, Texas in 1958. As a child, he frequently listened to stories told by his grandfather and older relatives during family hunting expeditions—experiences which later influenced his use of an informal, colloquial prose style in his fiction. In 1976, Bass began his studies at Utah State University, majoring in wildlife sciences and later specializing in geology. After graduating, he moved to Mississippi and found employment as a petroleum geologist. During this time, Bass began to write essays and fiction about hunting and camping. In 1987, he left the petroleum industry and moved to Yaak, Montana, a remote community where he began writing full-time while serving as the caretaker of a ranch.

Major Works

Throughout his work in multiple genres, Bass's writing explores the theme of human connection to various aspects of the environment. In his first book, The Deer Pasture (1985), Bass recalls the hunting expeditions of his youth, presenting detailed reminiscences of people and activities associated with hunting rituals. Wild to the Heart (1987), Bass's second collection of essays, recounts various camping, fishing, and canoeing voyages. In his first work of fiction, The Watch (1988), Bass continued to explore man's relationship to the earth. The Watch earned Bass a PEN/Nelson Algren Award Special Citation. The short stories within this work exhibit a type of “magical realism” in which Bass's characters find themselves in the midst of bizarre, but not overly surreal, circumstances. In “Choteau,” for example, a legendary figure in a small town is remembered for an incident in which he mixes galena (a blue ore) into a stolen cement mixer and spreads it throughout the streets of the town, causing chunks of blue rock to be visible when headlights illuminate them. “The Watch” also demonstrates Bass's affinity for placing characters in extraordinary situations, as the story focuses on a man who is camping in a swamp to escape his son and the ghost town where the two have been living alone. The man encounters a cast of characters who are seemingly insane, including a group of nude runaway laundresses. Oil Notes (1989), written in journal form, chronicles Bass's experiences as a petroleum geologist prospecting for oil in Mississippi. While Bass relates the experiences of his underground exploration and his geological knowledge, the majority of the work details his contemplation of the natural world, his love for his girlfriend (and later wife) Elizabeth Hughes (who provides illustrations for the text), and various comical daily incidents. Winter: Notes from Montana (1991) is written in similar journal style. In this work, Bass recounts his adventures and struggles in the harsh winter of Montana's Yaak Valley. Bass enters the realm of ecological activism in The Ninemile Wolves (1992). In this essay, he examines the controversy surrounding a reappearing pack of wolves in the Ninemile Valley of Montana. Environmentalists fight for the preservation of the almost extinct species, while farmers and ranchers view the wolves as a threat to their livestock and wild game. A similar examination of human society and the destruction of American wildlife occurs in The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (1995). This essay chronicles Bass's search for remnants of a dwindling and almost nonexistent population of the North American grizzly bear in the San Juan mountains of Colorado. Interspersed within the accounts of the search are humorous characterizations of Bass's companions, Doug Peacock and Marty Ring. Platte River (1994) is comprised of three short stories, highlighting characters who are defined by nature. In “Platte River,” the protagonist visits an old friend to mourn the end of a romantic relationship and finds solace in nature. In “Mahatma Joe,” the main character is a preacher who wishes to use his garden to civilize heathens. “Field Events” centers on a man with superhuman strength who is adopted by two brothers hoping to train him in the sport of discus throwing. The collection is unified by the theme of man's coexistence with the forces of nature. In the Loyal Mountains (1995) also addresses man's relationship to the land. This collection of ten short stories explores themes such as wilderness versus urbanization and the power of place. In “The History of Rodney,” Bass focuses on a town that experiences a dramatic decrease in population due to a natural disaster. With the ensuing near-abandonment of civilization, the wild landscape begins to regain its dominance in the mostly vacant town. The Book of Yaak (1996) is an essay in which Bass lobbies for the preservation of the wilderness in the Yaak Valley, calling his readers to action. In this work, Bass expresses his passion for working to conserve the disappearing American wilderness. He also contemplates the role of art in environmental activism. Bass further examines the relationship of man and woman to nature in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (1997), a collection of three short stories. In the title story, protagonist Anne contemplates her ties to her childhood Texas home and the natural world that surrounds it. “The Myths of Bears” presents the story of a woman's escape from her neurologically disturbed husband into the winter wilderness. He soon follows, stalking her as if he were a savage beast. In “Where the Sea Used to Be,” Wallis, a gifted oil prospector, manifests a spiritual connection to the land around him. Bass later expanded this short story into his first and, to date, only novel Where the Sea Used to Be (1998). The book centers on Wallis, a young geologist employed by a petroleum company, and his relationships with his employer and the land.

Critical Reception

Bass's evocative fiction and nonfiction are consistently praised for their lucidity of expression and depth of emotional intensity. His early nonfiction writing (The Deer Pasture and Wild to the Heart) was received favorably, and are noted by many as whimsical yet deeply emotional. Bass ventured into the realm of fiction with The Watch, which did not meet with the widespread praise that his nonfiction work encountered. Some critics condemned his short stories as overly simplistic and lacking in depth of thought and emotion. In addition, the individual stories within The Watch have been faulted for lacking cohesiveness. Several critics however, acknowledged The Watch as the work of a talented, developing young writer, despite its flaws. Oil Notes was negatively viewed by critics who felt Bass to be excessively preoccupied with banal details which gives his work a sense of superficiality. Others considered Oil Notes to be interesting and saw Bass's personal reflections as enhancements to the journalistic style. Bass's later essays and collections, The Ninemile Wolves, The Lost Grizzlies, The Book of Yaak, and Brown Dog of the Yaak, were met favorably by most literary critics. The essays were viewed as successful commentaries on the negative effects of human society on the natural world. Bass has been praised for his passion for the environment and, as in The Lost Grizzlies, for tempering sorrow with optimism for regeneration in the future. Bass was also applauded for his consideration of the issue of art versus ecological activism. Commenting on Bass's later works of fiction, critics often focus on character development in relation to individual connections with nature, as in Platte River. Reviewers favorably discussed Bass's treatment of nature's enduring spirit in spite of man's destruction of its beauty. In the Loyal Mountains is especially noted for its placement of ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances, and for its commentary on the inseparability of man from nature. Man's connection to nature is also featured in The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, and critics lauded the “magical realism” evident in the work. Some readers labeled individual stories within this collection as unrealistic and predictable, but most found charm in the surreal elements and the descriptions of nature which have become characteristic of much of Bass's fiction. Where the Sea Used to Be, Bass's only novel, was praised for its vivid imagery and intense character dynamics.

Principal Works

The Deer Pasture (essays) 1985

Wild to the Heart (essays) 1987

The Watch (short stories) 1988

Oil Notes (nonfiction) 1989

Winter: Notes from Montana (nonfiction) 1991

The Ninemile Wolves (essay) 1992

Platte River (short stories) 1994

In the Loyal Mountains (short stories) 1995

The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado (essay) 1995

The Book of Yaak (essay) 1996

The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness (short stories) 1997

Where the Sea Used to Be (novel) 1998

Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism (essays) 1999

Criticism

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 May 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Oil Notes in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 57, No. 9, May 1, 1989, p. 667.

[In the following favorable review of Oil Notes, Bass is commended for his vivid attention to detail, his honest expression, and his dual vision of life.]

Oil Notes is the record of a year in the young life of Bass, author of The Watch (1989), a highly praised short-story collection, and a geologist by trade. His purpose in these absorbing reflections is to establish his credentials as an oilman, describe his passion for digging and discovering oil, and pursue the various analogies discovered in a geologist’s view of life.

Bass is a...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Charles Solomon (review date 18 March 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Wild to the Heart, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 18, 1990, p. 10.

[In the following review, Solomon presents a positive appraisal of Wild to the Heart.]

Unlike his short stories, which flounder through their oppressively Southern settings, Rick Bass’ essays in Wild to the Heart are crisp, neatly structured and highly entertaining. His first-person accounts of camping, fishing and canoeing capture the lure of the wilderness and the camaraderie of the people who love it. Bass’ spare prose has a studied artlessness reminiscent of Japanese brush painting. The description of the summer afternoon in “Fish Fry,” when the...

(The entire section is 195 words.)

Lee Lemon (review date Summer 1990)

SOURCE: “Bookmarks,” in Prairie Schooner, Vol. 64, No. 2, Summer, 1990, pp. 131–32.

[In the following excerpt, Lemon praises The Watch, as the work of a talented yet still developing young writer with a strong voice.]

The Watch, the first collection of stories by Rick Bass, is also primarily about the land and the men who love it. It does everything a first collection by a promising young writer should do—establishes a new voice, stakes out an area of human experience as the author’s own, implies a coherent set of values, and both satisfies and leaves room for development. The voice is finely modulated, totally unsentimental but concerned; the...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

David Miller (review date April 1991)

SOURCE: “Slices of Wildlife,” in Sewanee Review, Vol. 99, No. 2, April, 1991, pp. 323–24.

[In the excerpt that follows, Miller positively assesses The Deer Pasture as a lighthearted yet introspective narrative.]

Fresh out of college and immured in an office in Jackson, Mississippi, Bass looks back fondly on annual family deer-hunting forays. The stories in The Deer Pasture are raucous and salty—truly Texan, but reminiscent of that lovable desert rat and anarchist, Edward Abbey (who was conscripted for back-jacket commentary). Hunting, at least in this version, is decidedly social, a male-bonding ritual rather than an occasion for solitary reverie....

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Thomas J. Lyon (review date September 1991)

SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Sierra, Vol. 76, No. 5, September, 1991, p. 120.

[Lyon offers a favorable appraisal of Winter: Notes from Montana, in the review below.]

Winter: Notes from Montana offers good evidence that the Yaak country in northwestern Montana has, in John Muir’s phrase, “grown into” Rick Bass. A Texan who went to college in Utah, Bass then took a job in Mississippi, only to find that the summons of the mountains had become insistent. When the settling urge came to him, his compass pointed wild and north. He and his friend (now wife) Elizabeth determined, after much searching, that the Yaak River Valley...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Carol S. Long (review date Summer 1992)

SOURCE: A review of Winter: Notes from Montana, in Western American Literature, Vol. 27, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 153–54.

[In the following favorable review of Winter: Notes from Montana, Long examines Bass's work as a contemplation of human civilization juxtaposed with nature.]

“It’s easier to learn certain things when you’re watching them occur in slow motion.” Thus Rick Bass assesses his winter learning in the Yaak valley of Montana which he describes unsystematically in these journal notes dealing with isolation and community, snow and fuel.

Fuel is not a new interest for Bass. His 1989 Oil Notes is in substantially...

(The entire section is 465 words.)

Brad Knickerbocker (review date 9 September 1992)

SOURCE: “Three Generations of Wolf Pack Life,” in Christian Science Monitor, September 9, 1992, p. 13.

[In the review of The Ninemile Wolves that follows, Knickerbocker praises Bass's passion for nature and discusses his focus on the correct relationship between man and the natural world.]

The biological and political world of endangered species includes thousands of little bugs and plants most people never hear of or care about, except when they get in the way of building something mankind wants or interfere with the extraction of natural resources. What are called the “charismatic megafauna”—the bigger critters (usually mammals)—are either warm and...

(The entire section is 675 words.)

William H. Rueckert (review date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: A review of The Ninemile Wolves, in Georgia Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 199–202.

[In the following positive review, Rueckert discusses Bass's examination of the unbalanced relationship between human society and wild nature in The Ninemile Wolves.]

The highly charged moral and ontological language of the following passage is characteristic of Rick Bass’s feisty, often polemical account of the return of wolves to Ninemile Valley, in the remote northwestern corner of Montana (his own home territory), after a sixty-year absence:

I have come away from following the Ninemile wolves convinced that to...

(The entire section is 1313 words.)

Terrell Dixon (review date Spring 1995)

SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Western American Literature, Vol. 30, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 97–103.

[In the review that follows, Dixon positively assesses In the Loyal Mountains, discussing the collection's focus on the survival of the wildness within nature despite human attempts at urbanization.]

One day I left the South, fled my job, and ran to the heart of snow, the far Northwest. I live in a cabin with no electricity, and I’m never leaving.

These words that open “The Valley”—one of ten short stories that make up Rick Bass’s new collection entitled In the Loyal...

(The entire section is 3206 words.)

John Balzar (review date 28 January 1996)

SOURCE: “Ursa Major,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 28, 1996, p. 2.

[Balzar is an American journalist and critic. In the following excerpt, he presents a negative assessment of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado.]

Rick Bass is a wiry former petroleum geologist who has made himself part of a colorful clique of Western environmental iconoclasts, a fraternity begot by the late Edward Abbey. They are successful because they convey from wildness three things: beauty, pleasure and meaning. And what more could one ask of life?

In his ninth book [The Lost Grizzlies], Bass has all these ingredients,...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Matt Sullivan (review date March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of In the Loyal Mountains, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, p. 17.

[Sullivan is an American writer and critic. In the following review of In the Loyal Mountains, he favorably examines Bass's depth of introspection into seemingly mundane, simple human existence and the solace found by humanity in the natural world.]

Those familiar with the fiction of Rick Bass know that he is able to create wonderful characters who live in a world as peculiar as our own. With the publication of In the Loyal Mountains, his latest collection of short fiction, he has once again accomplished this feat, writing convincing stories so...

(The entire section is 571 words.)

D. E. McIvor (review date March 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, March, 1996, pp. 17–18.

[In the review that follows, McIvor offers a positive assessment of The Lost Grizzlies, discussing Bass's characterizations and focusing on the way in which Bass and his companions give reverence to the spirituality of the land.]

Rick Bass has a knack for choosing discomforting issues and writing about them in a conversational voice that is at once modest, self-effacing, and eloquent. And so, on the surface, The Lost Grizzlies is an entertaining account of three forays into the San Juan...

(The entire section is 1085 words.)

Michael Branch (review date Summer 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, in Western American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 162–63.

[In the following excerpt, Branch praises The Lost Grizzlies as an appealing narrative which explores both sorrow and optimism in the battle to conserve American wildlife.]

In The Lost Grizzlies, his ninth book, Rick Bass filters the bear story through a very different sensibility. Bass’s more literary version of the tale is distinguished by his appealing, characteristic blend of idiosyncratic humor and lyrical intensity. The book’s humor centers on the legendary Doug Peacock,...

(The entire section is 363 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 September 1996)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 64, No. 18, September 15, 1996, p. 1364.

[The review below presents a positive assessment of The Book of Yaak, praising its exaltation of the inspirational forces of nature.]

[The Book of Yaak is] an urgent plea by a longtime resident to preserve one of the lower 48’s remaining wilderness areas.

Nestled where Idaho, Montana, and Alberta, Canada, meet, the Yaak Valley—the name means “arrow” in Kootenai—is a treasure vault of old-growth pine, spruce, and Douglas fir. It is also a prime target for the logging industry, which now seeks to open the Yaak to clearcut...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Pam Houston (review date 26 January 1997)

SOURCE: “Yakety-Yak,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 26, 1997, p. 8.

[Houston is an American author and critic. In the review of The Book of Yaak that follows, she applauds Bass's passion for saving the ecosystem of the Yaak Valley and discusses his inner contentions, especially regarding the use of art to advocate environmental preservation.]

“Some nights my heart pounds so hard in anger that in the morning when I wake up it is sore, as if it has been rubbing against my ribs—as if it has worn a place in them as smooth as stones beneath a waterfall.”

This is the first sentence of the...

(The entire section is 1254 words.)

Verne Huser (review date Summer 1997)

SOURCE: A review of The Book of Yaak, in Western American Literature, Vol. 32, No. 2, Summer, 1997, p. 184–85.

[In the following favorable review of The Book of Yaak, Huser commends Bass's passion, coherence of motif and place, and effective use of art for the advocacy of wilderness preservation.]

I’ve finally finished reading Rick Bass’s The Book of Yaak. It took me a while. It was not tough reading or dull or unimportant. I just didn’t want to leave it—and because I was involved in my own attempt to save a sacred place, it spoke to me in a special way.

I’d heard Rick speak at a seminar on nature writing last year in...

(The entire section is 878 words.)

John Skow (review date 8 December 1997)

SOURCE: “The Wilderness Within,” in Time, Vol. 150, No. 24, December 8, 1997, p. 97.

[In the favorable review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Skow praises Bass's use of imagination and his ability as a fiction writer.]

Rick Bass drew good reviews in 1992 with The Ninemile Wolves, a moody nonfiction report of a Canadian wolf pack that crossed the U.S. border a few years ago and colonized one of the Western states. But Bass’s fiction (The Book of Yaak, In the Loyal Mountains) seems to get categorized as good-with-an-asterisk. He’s regional. (So was Wallace Stegner, of course, until he became a national monument.) Bass may...

(The entire section is 570 words.)

Thomas Curwen (review date 18 January 1998)

SOURCE: “The Call of the Wild,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 18, 1998, p. 5.

[In the review that follows, Curwen positively assesses The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, discussing individual character connection to place and proper character actions in response to various types of pursuits.]

At 9,100 feet, Yovimpa Point sits on the edge of the Earth. From here the world falls away in a succession of unspoiled plateaus and cliffs that drop nearly 5,000 feet before rising again to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, leaving Yovimpa with a clear shot over forests of pinon and ponderosa pines to a horizon more than 100 miles away. The view takes you...

(The entire section is 1504 words.)

Matt Sullivan (review date March 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Bloomsbury Review, March, 1998, pp. 17–18.

[In the following positive review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Sullivan focuses on Bass's characters and their relationships with nature.]

In the title novella of Rick Bass’ latest collection of fiction, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, Anne, a woman reflecting on her life, observes: “I’d hate to have to choose what the single most beautiful thing I’ve seen is.” Like so many of the characters living in his fiction, and so many of the observations made in his nonfiction, Bass’ words contain a true appreciation of...

(The entire section is 870 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 April 1998)

SOURCE: A review of Where the Sea Used to Be, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 8, April 15, 1998, p. 510.

[The review below presents a positive assessment of Where the Sea Used to Be.]

[Where the Sea Used to Be is] an ambitious and often captivatingly beautiful story, both Bass’s 13th book (In the Loyal Mountains, 1995, etc.) and his first full-length novel.

In sensuous descriptive prose whose incantatory rhythms invite comparison with both Lawrence and Faulkner, Bass tells a tale of familial, sexual, and, in a way, fraternal conflict among four uneasily related characters who are, simultaneously, denizens, preservers, and...

(The entire section is 384 words.)

O. Alan Weltzien (review date Summer 1998)

SOURCE: A review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness, in Western American Literature, Summer, 1998, p. 221.

[In the review of The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness below, Weltzien offers favorable assessments of “Where the Sea Used to Be” and “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness,” yet condemns the plot of “The Myths of Bears” as predictable and weak. Weltzien discusses the work as an overview of Bass's work to date.]

We’ve grown used to a prolific pace from Montana writer Rick Bass. The present collection of three “novellas,” successor to Platte River (1994), represents his eleventh title in twelve years. The Sky, the Stars, the...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 August 1998)

SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. 66, No. 15, August 1, 1998, p. 1067.

[The review that follows presents “Fiber” as another of Bass's repeated attempts at advocating conservation of American wilderness.]

[“Fiber”] is the first separate publication of a fierce plea for the preservation of nature, in the guise of a short story, originally published in the anthology Off the Beaten Path: Stories of Place (not reviewed). The themes raised here will come as no surprise to fans of Bass’s work as a novelist (Where the Sea Used to Be, p. 510, etc.) and essayist (The Book of Yaak, 1996, etc.); wild nature still offers, for...

(The entire section is 279 words.)

Antioch Review (review date Spring 1999)

SOURCE: A review of “Fiber,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1999, pp. 242–43.

[In the following positive review, “Fiber” is presented as autobiographical fiction.]

In [“Fiber,”] a mysterious edgy piece of work that reads at once as autobiography, fiction, essay, and call to arms, Bass explores the taking of logs from the forest, the essence of taking—and the essence of activism. He summarizes his life: geologist, writer, activist, and cutter of sawlogs. He warns that “Fiber” is fiction, then leads the reader on a slippery trail through the woods of his beloved Yaak Valley and his protagonist’s life, part his own, part his fantasy. He...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Mary Paumier Jones (review date July 1999)

SOURCE: A review of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism, in Library Journal, July, 1999, p. 89.

[In the review that follows, Jones offers a favorable assessment of Brown Dog of the Yaak: Essays on Art and Activism.]

[This] slim volume [Brown Dog of the Yaak], which inaugurate[s] Milkweed’s new “Credo” series, express[es] the importance of place. [It] contains the author’s statement of belief, a short biography by series editor Scott Slovic, and a bibliography of the author’s published work. Bass (The New Wolves, The Book of the Yaak) had a pointer named Colter, an extraordinary dog, and Bass succeeds in translating...

(The entire section is 183 words.)