William Eastlake Critical Essays

Eastlake, William

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Eastlake, William 1917–

An American novelist, short story writer, and poet, Eastlake uses the background of the present-day rural West in his often wonderfully comic fiction. He is, however, a serious artist who utilizes mythic and literary allusiveness in a manner more reminiscent of Hemingway and Faulkner than of local colorists. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Eastlake's novels are neither the stereotyped "Westerns," nor are they regional Southwestern novels any more than William Faulkner's novels are "Southern" or regional novels of the South.

Just as Faulkner created his Yoknapatawpha County out of the area surrounding Oxford, Mississippi, William Eastlake is creating a fictional area in the "Checkerboard" region of the Navajo reservation and its adjacent areas in northern New Mexico. His characters live and die in a physical setting that often has dominated the works of lesser writers, turning their expressions into regionalistic descriptions. D. H. Lawrence once received a letter from Leo Stein which described the New Mexico landscape as the most "aesthetically satisfying" he knew, and Lawrence commented in an article for Survey Graphic that "To me it was much more than that. It had a splendid silent terror, and a vast far-and-wide magnificence which made it way beyond mere aesthetic appreciation…. [It gives] one the greatest sense of overweening, terrible proudness and mercilessness; but so beautiful, God! so beautiful!"

It is a dangerous country for novelists. Because of its very magnitude, its terror, its magnificence, its beauty, its fascinating history, and its mingling of cultures, it has a tendency to overpower the artist. He becomes so involved with the "romance" of the country or its history or its people that his resulting work can be thought of only as regional—as "local color"—literature. But this is not true of Eastlake and his novels. Eastlake is a writer who, like the Ernest Hemingway of The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, keeps a tight rein on his materials, using physical descriptions to suggest or enlarge ideological content. He uses, then, the New Mexico landscape, history, and people not for ornament but for the enhancement of meaning. Reading Eastlake, one is always aware of the desert, the mesa, the mountain, the sky, in all their color and beauty, their proudness and mercilessness, but one is also aware that they may be the symbol of "home," or of the "cradle," or the "coffin" of civilization.

It is not by accident that Faulkner and Hemingway have been mentioned, for Eastlake appears to have been shaped by both writers. His first novel, Go In Beauty, shows the Hemingway influence at its strongest. (pp. 188-89)

[It] is the mystic interrelationship between man's sins and nature that proves most interesting in [Go In Beauty]. Both sins are against the land. The prediction of the Navajo medicine man, Paracelsus, that a "theft" will cause a drouth, and the drouth that results, are central to the novel. Although there are chapters devoted to the satirical treatment of modern society, the mood of Greek tragedy is felt as an undercurrent throughout the novel—a mood which Lawrence had felt, and which Eastlake creates through his treatment of the land and the oracle-like Paracelsus. (p. 190)

Perhaps no other concept reveals more adequately Eastlake's break with modern "objective naturalists" than his concept of time. It is a break from the "traditional" objective handling of sequential events into a recognition of both the reality of the continuum and also the validity of the subjective or Romantic treatment of the moment as forever—that everything which is, has been and will be, is now…. In The Bronc People, [Eastlake's most ambitious and successful novel], the Indian, My Prayer, [says],… "They call everything by a different name but it's the same thing. And they call everything by a different time but it's the same time. Everything repeats. It would be no different if everything in every language and every time was called Cowboy's Delight."

But this concept is most successfully handled through description. For example,…: "The mesa here was eroding away in five giant steps that descended down to the floor of the valley where the abandoned hogan lay. Each of the five steps clearly marked about twenty million years in time. In other words, they had been laid down twenty million years apart, and were so marked by unique coloration and further marked by the different fossil animals found in each. It took the four boys about twenty minutes to descend these one hundred million years but they didn't think that was very good going." (pp. 191-92)

There are other Romantic elements to Eastlake's novels, for example, his use of what Jungian critics might call archetypal symbols to suggest or to explore the mythic consciousness of the human race. Little Sant Bowman, son of the owner of the Circle Heart, is at the rodeo. Traditional to the cowboy, the rodeo is the traditional and symbolic expression of a way of life. Like the Olympic games of ancient Greece, it is the place where only the best compete. Or perhaps it might be likened to the Roman arena before it was corrupted. And certainly it may be compared to the bullfight, traditional and meaningful to the Spaniards. Or, it is as meaningful as the annual hunt in Faulkner's "The Bear." The primitive but religious nature of the rodeo is suggested in a description of one of the events. "What they did with these was to put a clutch of pigs in a pickup truck out at one end of the field, then all the horse-mounted men came hell for leather, dismounted, grabbed a greased pig, remounted, held the flashing object high, like Montezuma's men the golden mantle, like offerings to the god, the animals flashing and screaming, fighting along the arms, upward to the sun."

As at the bullfight and the Olympic games, there are judges, "pulling on their chins as wise men will." (pp. 192-93)

Eastlake's writing is a controlled mixture of realistic detail (to the point of being specific about the exact number of shells a Winchester .30-30 will hold), and of allegorical symbol (the "marvelous," as Hawthorne would have called it)—the whole conditioned by a humorous treatment that makes it all credible and thus acceptable. (p. 193)

[The theme of The Bronc People]—the destruction by civilization of nature and a way of life that was in harmony with nature—is a theme that runs through much of Southwestern and Western literature. Mr. Peersall [the character who functions as Eastlake's spokesman for the Western spirit] also reflects the skepticism toward law and order in the civilized community that is traditional with the Westerner….

But it is not just the Western philosophy that Mr. Peersall espouses. It is deeper than that, and more consistent with the main stream of American literature and thought. Mr. Peersall often sounds like a Western Thoreau. He is a naturalist with a love for, as well as a curiosity about, nature. He is an individualist, and a proponent of moral courage. And in civilization, he sees the loss of freedom for the individual. His action during the Tularosa school dispute is Thoreau-inspired, though active instead of passive. (p. 196)

That "no man is an island" is perhaps true; but in another sense we are all alone. Eastlake, the unmodern—or perhaps the more modern—accepts that condition. The modern tendency has been to merge with the herd, to conform to the "other-directed" society, to be forgotten in the mass. American writers, from the twenties on, have elaborated on that tragic aspect of man's nature—his physical and spiritual (or psychological) isolation from his fellow man. Eastlake's answer is a return to certain important aspects of frontier individualism….

In Eastlake's novels, the triumphs are the momentary, and often illusory, achievements of man; the tragedy is in the land, and in nature—the continuum. Perhaps no other writer has used the New Mexico landscape so artistically and meaningfully to point up the timelessness of the earth on which man lives. (p. 197)

Portrait of an Artist With Twenty-six Horses is marred by more technical difficulties than either of the earlier novels. It appears to be a loosely constructed collection of episodes, some previously published as short stories, held together by an incident that, in itself, might make another fine short story but that does not provide a satisfactory structure for a novel despite Eastlake's ability to provide transitional materials to blend the stories together. The situation of the sinking man reflecting on his life is obviously rather trite, but, strangely enough, the treatment is not. Nor, on closer examination, does the structure seem so loose. The novel does center around the meaning of the portrait by the young Indian artist named Twenty-six Horses. (pp. 199-200)

One can … overlook the unevenness of tone—say, from the comic-pathetic episode of the Jewish refugees who seek revenge on a former Nazi to the unhappily slapstick characterization of a between-the-breasts gun-toting Texas schoolmarm and wife of a timid atom-bomb worker—and recognize that Twenty-six Horses contains some of the most brilliantly and humorously satirical passages of all the Eastlake novels…. [The] foibles of modern man [are] reflected through the mirror of the Indian.

In Go In Beauty, there is the wonderful speech of Paracelsus, who tries to convince his fellow Navajos that the white man is not completely inferior. In The Bronc People, there are My Prayer, and President Taft, and The Other Indian. But none of these can match, for example, the mother of Twenty-six Horses, who, when she feels that she is losing her son, buys a restaurant in the village of Coyote and hangs up signs like "REAL LIFE WHITE PEOPLE IN THEIR NATIVE COSTUMES DOING NATIVE WHITE DANCES" and "WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO REFUSE SERVICE TO EVERYBODY." (pp. 200-01)

[Although] the Indian is not the only mirror [for satire], he is the most effective. And he is most effective because Eastlake has broken from the realistic treatment of the Indian. Eastlake's Indians are closer to Faulkner's Ikkemotubbe, Herman Basket and Craw-ford than to Oliver La Farge's Laughing Boy and Red Man. In other words, they are not realistic Indians, although they act and speak more like Indians than the real ones…. [Eastlake has constructed] Indian characters that reflect the most ridiculous aspects of the twentieth-century Anglo's frantic need for material progress with its resulting destruction of the Anglo's own psychological balance. The important point is, of course, that Eastlake has not been content with describing the Indian as he is, but has used the Indian for an artistic purpose. (p. 202)

Of contemporary Southwestern writers, only two seem to have been able to break from a description of the land, its people, and its traditions to interpret them in the novel form in a manner that breaks from the restrictions of regionalism. These two are Edward Abbey, in The Brave Cowboy and Fire on the Mountain, and William Eastlake in all three of his novels. Of the two, William Eastlake is the more complex and the more interesting. There has been no other Southwestern writer, certainly, who has used the Southwestern land, its people, its traditions, and then added the symbolic undertones that lend the depth of universal meaning; who has created a new mythology out of the old; and who has treated all this through a full use of tone that includes the comic, the tragic, and the satirical. It will be a serious loss to American literature if Eastlake's novels are neglected because they happen to be set in the country where there are cowboys and Indians. (p. 203)

Delbert E. Wylder, "The Novels of William Eastlake," in New Mexico Quarterly (copyright, 1965, by the University of New Mexico Press), Summer, 1964, pp. 188-203.

William Eastlake is the funniest, most profound, most musical writer I have read in years. He has the greatness of soul not only to kid the characters in ["Dancers in the Scalp House"] … but also to kid himself and his own style and thought as a writer. He has the confidence, in other words, of a man half-bard and half-bum, yet undeceived as to the truth in all the confusion. Eastlake is wise: a poet in the best sense….

The subject of the book is the impending doom of the Indians and the Indian land by eagle-killers, sellers of 50-foot "ranchettes," and the Atlas Dam; which looms over the whole movement of the book….

The true subjects of the book are America and William Eastlake's plenitudinous mind, but the vantage from the Navajos in New Mexico and Arizona offers an especially glaring and rich theater for our diseases….

But do not think that Eastlake riots in the sentimental. His mind is tough, reasonable, and crawls simply everywhere in the connections he makes. Funniness, last resort of the Indian, he has aplenty. His humor ranges from middlebrow easies like the President staring "unimpeachably" out of his limousine, to ranges of wit so complex you would have to be at the top of your class to appreciate.

I was at first put off by, then agreed with, Eastlake's wildly mobile point of view. It is hard to get used to the thought of the eagles named Sun and Star, because an eagle can't think, as we all know. The book, however, accustoms you to their vision and feeling. We remember that several of the people the Indians are fleeing from cannot think either, and that along with the Indian we would do well to eliminate much of our human pomposity in these last days for pure air and unspoiled beauty.

No, humor doesn't get you through everything. Eastlake is a fine American humorist, and he is wise. The last beautiful passage strikes in no uncertain tones one of the finest dirges I've seen. (p. 43)

Barry Hannah, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 12, 1975.

New Mexico has been a fount of inspiration to many writers. D. H. Lawrence, Willa Cather, Paul Horgan and Oliver La Farge were among those moved to write about the land and its people. But most writing about New Mexico has focused either on the beauty of the landscape or events of the frontier period. One of the few authors to write about the Indians of the present is William Eastlake…. Eastlake is most sensitive to the language and life of the Indians. His novel deals with a fundamental conflict in the Southwest, the struggle between those who want to despoil the land—speculators, bureaucrats, drive-in entrepreneurs—and those who want to preserve it—the Indians and a few Anglos.

Dancers in the Scalp House is the story of some Navajos and an Anglo couple who are trying to prevent their homes and way of life from being washed away in the waters of a new dam. The story gathers force as it broadens into the larger theme of the spiritual death of white Americans.

Unlike his earlier books about New Mexico, which include Go in Beauty, The Bronc People and Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-six Horses, Eastlake's latest novel is more fanciful than realistic. (p. 57)

Eastlake uses the confrontation between the Indians and white America to jab at parts of American society that he considers ephemeral and pernicious. For example, the Playboy clubs are represented by a huge outdoor advertisement of a naked, neon girl which is torn down by the Indians, and the Governor of California wears a small sign advertising Disneyland, "a parlor of entertainment in California."

In contrast, the Indian way of life is described as a function of the natural order, shared by the eagle, the coyote, the sun and the moon. The Indian world "is a circle that contains all the rhythms of the poetry of life." It is a "continuity in time and place and person."

Caught between the world of the whites and the world of the Indians is Tom Charlie, called Thomas Charles by the whites. He is described as the "man who did not know who he was." Tom Charlie symbolizes the dilemma faced by most Indians: whether to accept white civilization and lose an important part of themselves or reject white civilization and remain outcasts from the larger American society. (pp. 57-8)

[The] dilemma of the Indians is related to the lives of all Americans, Eastlake suggests…. The struggle between progress and nature becomes a struggle for the soul. The plastic men in the novel have died spiritually and they are determined to add the Indians to the casualty lists….

Drawing on the belief in the power of nature to rejuvenate us spiritually, Eastlake is following in the tradition of Chateaubriand and Wordsworth as well as Americans such as Thoreau and Whitman. The theme is still important today. Unfortunately, some of the comic passages in the novel dilute the theme. The reader is tempted to dismiss the antics of the characters with a wry smile, and that response can easily be transferred to the novel's profounder elements.

In Go in Beauty, Eastlake wrote that "if the Indian Country ever fell to the advancing ravages that civilization called progress," he would set it all down. Dancers in the Scalp House is a continuation of that effort, the recital of a "dream, a white nightmare, a phantasmagoric and contemporary white frolic and farce in which the Indian is victim and buffoon to the white man, but played out on the real Indian land, not stage, of Indian heritage and hope." (p. 58)

John Friedman, "Another Great Good Place Going," in The Nation (copyright 1976 by The Nation Associates, Inc.), January 17, 1976, pp. 57-8.

It was inevitable after all the bogus historical novels of the Bicentennial that someone would show the Revolution from the other side—not just the British side, but that of the fence straddlers who regarded the events with an eye to main chance….

[Readers] will recognize … William Eastlake's time-, space- and brain-warped terrain. It is littered with eight-horse, double-wide mobile homes and populated by publishers like Big Brown who want to bring out edible books under the imprint of the Digest Reader.

As the comic scenes increase both in number and hilarity, "The Long Naked Descent Into Boston" reads like history as recorded by Woody Allen….

But too often the laughs seem to leave Eastlake lightheaded and he repeats variations on lines as old as burlesque "so Paul will be back here in a trice…. And he started out on a horse." At other times he overuses clichés and colloquialisms, apparently with the intention of poking fun at them….

Finally, however, the book is buoyant. It makes a few low passes, looking as if it might crash, but like Poxe's balloon it keeps rising again to new heights, light, dizzying and funny. (p. 10)

Michael Mewshaw, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 10, 1977.