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.
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.
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.
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.