Although he was born in San Francisco, Gary Snyder moved to the Pacific Northwest before he was two, and he spent his youth and college years there. His parents, Harold and Lois Snyder, eked out a living on small family farms, first near Seattle, then near Portland. Snyder and his sister, Thea, enjoyed the plants and animals of these rural areas and learned the challenges and satisfactions of hard physical work. Snyder also traces his political orientation through family roots: His grandfather was a labor organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World, and Snyder often cites their motto of “forming the new society within the shell of the old”—of developing a healthy alternative culture rather than seeking to confront and destroy outmoded institutions.
During his high school years, and through college and several years after, Snyder worked at a variety of jobs. Some were cerebral (such as jobs in journalism, radio programming, and teaching), but more often they involved manual labor and craftsmanship in the outdoors—aspects of a lifestyle that Snyder has continued to embrace even after he could have supported himself solely as a writer. This physical work in his youth involved jobs as a ranger and fire lookout, logger, trail crew worker, and seaman. Snyder was refused reemployment as a lookout in 1954 as a result of his involvement with social and political activists, in spite of uniformly superior evaluations from coworkers and administrators.
In 1947, Snyder enrolled at Reed College, a progressive liberal arts institution in Portland, which he says taught him valuable research and writing skills and encouraged critical thinking from a wide range of viewpoints. He earned a B.A. in literature and anthropology in 1951, and his honors thesis, He Who Hunted Birds in His Father’s Village: The Dimensions of a Haida Myth, was published in book form in 1979. This thesis, a research study of a Native American myth from British Columbia, is both a remarkably mature piece of scholarship and an extraordinary early statement of the principles linking poet, community, and nature that would come to guide Snyder’s poetic practice throughout the coming decades.
Also while at Reed, he entered the first of his four marriages—to Alison Gass, a marriage that lasted less than one year. Snyder’s first move toward an academic career was also short-lived: He began a graduate program in linguistics at Indiana University in 1951 but dropped out after a semester. Returning to the West Coast in the fall of 1952, Snyder lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for four years—a crucial period in his development as a poet. In 1953, he began a three-year stint in the graduate program in Oriental languages at the University of California at Berkeley.
Even as a child, Snyder’s imagination had been drawn to Asia. When he first saw Chinese landscape paintings at age nine, he noted close similarities between the wet, heavily forested mountains of Washington and Chinese “mountains of the spirit.” Later he immersed himself in the poetry of China, which he viewed as “a high civilization that has managed to keep in tune with nature.” Ezra Pound and Kenneth Rexroth served as models of older American poets who had also learned from the concentrated imagery of Asian poetry.
During these years in the Bay Area, Snyder also became part of the loosely knit community...
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As an American cultural figure, Snyder has gained the stature of a modern Thoreau while going beyond Thoreau’s isolation to live as a wise elder, a sage whose affable, accessible, and inspirational qualities have not diminished the hard intelligence and rigorous poetic practice of his working life. He leads an exemplary life in accord with both the practical counsel and the visionary ideals that his writings express so eloquently. Snyder’s place in the canon of great American poets is more problematic, primarily because some critics contend that much of his later poetry is more polemical or more relaxed than the most highly praised poems of his early career. Few would dispute, however, that Snyder’s poetic voice often speaks...
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