Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Tue 8 Nov 11 16:59
This week we welcome Philip Fradkin to Inkwell.vue to discuss his new book, "Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death and Amazing Afterlife." The American West in 1960 held a tremendous allure for a young man from the East Coast; and working on a newspaper, the inexperienced writer thought, would allow him to observe and document all aspects of the lives and landscapes to be found in that dramatic land. That premise proved to be correct. For 51 years Philip Fradkin wrote at all levels of the craft of nonfiction. His writing appeared in newspapers, magazines and 13 books. During that time he was a newspaper reporter, urban riot specialist, war correspondent, environmental writer, high-ranking California state official, magazine writer and editor, photographer, author, book publisher, bookseller, university lecturer, academic library consultant, and substitute county librarian. Prizes, including a Pulitzer, came his way. After half a century, Fradkin has decided to end his writing career by the end of 2011 and explore other things that matter to him. "Everett Ruess: His Short Life, Mysterious Death, and Astonishing Afterlife" is his thirteenth and lucky last book. It is the summation, in some ways, of a longer and less extreme life than Everett Ruess experienced. Leading our discussion will be our own <tnf>, David Gans. David is a musician, writer, journalist, and photographer. He was a co-founder of Inkwell.vue and still serves as co-host of the forum as well. Welcome to Inkwell, Philip and David!
Linda Castellani (castle) Tue 8 Nov 11 21:35
Welcome, Philip. Reading the book now, and looking forward to the discussion!
David Gans (tnf) Wed 9 Nov 11 09:43
Welcome, Philip! I first heard of the book from my friend Bob Lippman, who interviewed you on KZMU in Moab a couple of months ago and forwarded the program to me on CD. Everett's story captivates me because I share his awe of the southwest. My wife-to-be took me to Zion, Bryce, Calf Creek and Capitol Reef early in our relationship and got me hooked with the first dose. I have contrived to travel through the Four Corners region at least once a year for the last decade or more, and I have often said I could happily spend the rest of my days wandering there. I always think of that line in "Lawrence of Arabia" in which T.E. Lawrence, answering a reporter's question about his love of a different desert: "It's clean." Southern Utah is where I get my awe on. I watched a flash flood rip through the backstage area at a music festival near Moab a couple of years ago and thought about the millions of such brief events that collaborated to carve this magnificent landscape. I watched a man, who called himself a scientist, standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon and talking into a camera about how Noah's flood had created this landscape in a matter of days; I fumed at the poverty of imagination his view imposes on the adherents of that sorry belief. You've done a magnificent job of describing this young man and placing him in the context of his time and place. I've been to many of the locations described, and I hope to visit more of them. Much has changed in the years since he wandered and disappeared there, but much of that change has made it possible for less-intrepid travelers such as me to visit with less risk to life and limb. So that's why I'm here, talking with you about Everett Ruess. Why are you here? How did you come to write this book?
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Wed 9 Nov 11 11:41
You ask an interesting question: why are all of us here? That was the question Everett Ruess was asking, and he went into the wildernesses of not only the Southwest but also California to find the answer(s). That is why, I believe, this story and my book about his life and times should have a wide appeal. He was on a quest, as all of us were to some extent when we were young. His only problem was that his search took him to extremes, and he disappeared. As I grew older, this story of youth appealed to me more. It was a way to complete my writing life, to close the circle of the largest chunk of time spent in one's life, other than sleeping, by exploring the extraordinary life of young Ruess and thus, through him, my own earlier years. That is the long answer, the one that indicates why this story should have more than my personal or a regional appeal. The short answer is that I came across mention of Everett in Wallace Stegner's "Mormon Country," a small gem of a work about Utah that he wrote in the early 1940s while researching "A River No More: The Colorado River and the West" in the late 1970s. For the reasons mentioned above, the story stuck. I wrote a biography of Stegner, "Wallace Stegner and the American West." He lived a long, productive life. How appropriate, I thought, to write about Ruess, who lived a short, productive life.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 9 Nov 11 13:56
Your last book? What makes you so sure you won't write another?
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Wed 9 Nov 11 15:09
Some things you just know. I have completed the circle mentioned above. After fifty-one years of working in all aspects and at all levels of the craft of nonfiction, I have become tired of arranging words in meaningful ways. Repetition threatens. Time to quit and explore other things that matter. That excites me; writing another book doesn't.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 9 Nov 11 15:45
This is the sort of thing that usually gets discussed at the end of an interview, but here we are so I'll go ahead and ask: What are some of those other things? Answer that, please, and then I'll start asking you about the book. (I ask at least in part because I am 58 years old and I still feel that my best work is ahead of me. I am at the top of my game as a musician and I just signed a contract to write a book, and I can't imagine retiring.)
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Thu 10 Nov 11 08:53
Very good. This book is also about the arc of time: very short for Everett, longer for you, and quite long for me. The book travels from past to present. At the age of seventy-six, I am involved in things that are more present and intuitive, at least for me, like being in a place and not having to take notes and employing a digital camera quickly, which helps me be present in that place. Everett was looking forward, you are already there, and I am trying to fill the few remaining holes in my life. Now to Everett and his time, keeping in mind the fact that he was young and lived in a different era that becomes the puzzling present by the end of the book.
David Gans (tnf) Thu 10 Nov 11 09:43
I really love the way you integrated his own words, in italics, into the narrative. A brilliant editorial decision. And how fortunate we are that Everett's life was so well documented. I suppose we wouldn't have heard of him at all if it were otherwise. So please tell us who Everett Ruess was and how he became a roving visual and verbal journalist at such an early age.
mother of my eyelid (frako) Thu 10 Nov 11 13:24
Mr. Fradkin, I just received a copy of your book and will rush to read it tonight. In the meantime, I wonder what you think of W. L. Rusho's book _Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty_ (1983), which contains letters Ruess wrote to friends and families (1930-1934, when he disappeared) and some chapters on his disappearance and possible whereabouts. (I also read Rusho's _Wilderness Journals of Everett Ruess_, 1998) In 2000 we camped at Lower Calf Creek Falls, and while there the remains of a man were found--which was very exciting until we found out that they were of a man much more recently dead. Like David, I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life exploring the Four Corners region, and Ruess is part of the spirit of that land. I think people who go missing without a trace (I'm thinking also of Jim Thompson, the silk magnate who disappeared in Thailand) embody the legends and history of the land that swallowed them up. I'm looking forward to learning more from you!
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Fri 11 Nov 11 07:30
I also just got the book, and am rushing. Interesting family background - intellectual brilliance, a kind of quiet bohemianism, but not a ton of money.
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Fri 11 Nov 11 12:51
David asks who Everett was. That's a hard one. It took me 100,000 words to tell his story. Here's the version on the book jacket: Everett Ruess was twenty years old when he vanished into the red rock canyon lands of southern Utah, spawning the myth of a romantic desert wanderer that survives to this day. It was 1934, and Ruess was in the fifth year of a quest to find beauty in the wilderness and record it in works of art whose value was recognized by such contemporary artists as Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston. From his home in Los Angeles, he walked, hitchhiked, or rode a burro up the California coast, along the crest of the Sierra Nevada, and into the deserts of the Southwest. Seventy-five years after Ruesss disappearance his bones were supposedly discovered in 2009. Misguided journalism led to bad science and erroneous DNA results. Here's a version for this discussion: He was raised in a family that treasured independent thinking and beauty, and then he set off at the age of sixteen from Los Angeles to seek beauty in the wilderness areas of California and the Southwest. These were the depression years of 1930 to 1934 when Everett was on the road, corresponding with his family, keeping journals, meeting people, remaining alone, making powerful block prints and writing poetry, and trying to figure out who he was and how he could fit into the civilized world. And then he headed south from the small town of Escalante, Utah, in the fall of 1934 and disappeared, leaving a mystery that has never been solved and that is responsible for the myth. He is a wilderness guru, the thinking goes, on a par with Muir and Thoreau. I don't believe so. I think the reality of his life as a talented and troubled adolescent has more to tell us than the myth. Someone asked about W. L. Rusho's books about Everett. They were published by Gibbs Smith of Utah and made Everett known through his letters and journals to a wide, predominately western audience beginning in the early 1980s. In that manner they performed a valuable service. I knew Bud Rusho from working on a book about the Colorado River in the late 1970s when he was with the Bureau of Reclamation in Salt Lake City. We were in contact with each other during the controversy about the discovery of the bones (the "Astonishing Afterlife" cited in the subtitle) thought to be those of Everett in 2009. He died earlier this year. Everett's story hadn't been put together in a probing narrative form until my book was published this summer. Someone mentioned the mixing of my words with those of Everett. I wanted Everett to be part of the story I was telling, not separated by quote marks or indented text for longer quotes, so I integrated his words with mine by using italics for what he had to say. The other innovation was to use footnotes on the page that related to the immediate text that had special interest and relegating citatons and other less interesting comments and references to endnotes. His best known poem and an amazing Q & A with his father appear in full in an appendix in the back. There are photographs, a bibliography, and an index. There, I think I have answered the questions.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 11 Nov 11 15:17
Tell us more about his family and upbringing, please. Was it unusual for a boy's life to be so well documented? Seemed like everyone in this family had a habit of keeping journals, writing letters, etc.
Julie Sherman (julieswn) Sat 12 Nov 11 07:48
Off-WELL readers with questions or comments can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Sat 12 Nov 11 09:57
I used to have problems with reading biographies because the authors always seemed to spend too much time with the early years. Cut to the chase, I urged them. Having written biographies of Wallace Stegner and Everett Ruess, I now understand why the early years are important. In Everett's case the first fifteen years constituted three-fourths of his life. There is another reason why his upbringing is important. Not only did it shape him before he had time to shape himself, it provides answers for readers, particularly for the two mysteries in the book: what caused him to leave home at the age of sixteen with his parents' blessing and why and how did he disappear. Understanding his background gives some clues. I leave it up to the reader to find his or her way through the complexities of this individual. Both sides of his family were steeped in the Unitarian religion, which emphasizes finding your own way, whether in religion or life, through using your mind and being independent from formal dogma. I know whereof I speak because I was brought up in the same church and also had parents on the progressive side of the ledger. Everett's parents emphasized learning outside of school, finding beauty through art, and personal ethics. The family wandered about the country, starting on the West Coast in the Bay Area, migrating to Los Angeles, moving to the East Coast, then to the Midwest, and finally back to Los Angeles. Settling in Los Angeles in 1928, Everetts mother, Stella, became involved in the cultural renaissance that city was experiencing in its art and poetry clubs. His father, Christopher, a scholarship graduate of Harvard and its divinity school, first was a Unitarian minister, then a county probation officer in Oakland, back to the ministry, then a salesman of desks designed to encourage youngsters learning, and then a probation officer in Los Angeles. They were a middle class family, whose highest goals were not materialistic. Writing and the literate and visual lives were emphasized. All were encouraged to keep journals and exchange them so they had an idea what the others were thinking and doing. When it came time to leave home, Everett wandered through California and the Southwest. His brother, Waldo, older by two years, wandered about the world and finally settled in southern California.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 12 Nov 11 12:26
Was it unusual for even the most liberal of families to allow their progeny to wander off alone at such a young age?
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Sat 12 Nov 11 13:27
I don't really know; but my guess is if the son made a good case for hitting the road at the age of sixteen, the parents would go along with it. Perhaps not so for a daughter. There was some correspondence in the Ruess archive at the University of Utah about a young woman from Pasadena, I think, who wandered for a while. She returned home under a cloud of moral suspicion. I left my home in New Jersey in 1952 at the age of seventeen to work on a Forest Service fire suppression crew in the State of Washington. I returned to that job the next year. My parents encouraged me to explore on my own, as did Everett's. Depends on the teenager and parents, whether liberal or conservative. I have said the first mystery involves the discussion in the Ruess family about the youngest son's departure on his first journey in 1930. It is a mystery because he was at home and, consequently, there are no letters or a journal to enlighten us. Stella and Christopher did worry about Everett while he was on road. He was lonely at times and craved letters from his family.
David Gans (tnf) Sat 12 Nov 11 13:32
I appreciate the thoroughness of your descriptions of the landscapes he traversed and the portraits of how the park system worked at the time, how sparse the populations were in all these places, and how people interacted. Would you please tell us about the resources you used in your research? People and agencies?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 13 Nov 11 06:59
OK, I got the book the day after this discussion started, so I'm pedaling hard to catch up. I'm now far enough into it to have some comments and questions. First as the parent of an adolescent, you have my compliments for portraying and understanding that age in life. A biography of an adult quite properly tries to answer the question "what sort of person was this?" People are contradictory and complex, but it's a reasonable question to ask about someone who lives to maturity. It's clear that Everett Ruess, like most adolescents, was many things, and I think your book does an excellent job of illustrating those complexities and explicitly pointing out that such things are normal for adolescents. On the one hand, for example, he's a sensitive and talented artist who is immediately recognized as a kindred spirit by Edward Weston. On the other, he's a bully who basically beats up a Navajo girl to steal her puppy and then later beats the puppy and drives it away. One area in which you do seem to be going out on a limb is in saying that Ruess was suffering from the onset of bipolar disorder. I'm not saying I disagree with you - I've got to keep reading - but it's definitely a bold claim that has to remain somewhat speculative in view of the fact that the "patient" is long dead. Can you talk a little bit about how you reached this conclusion and at what point in the writing process you reached it?
Sharon Lynne Fisher (slf) Sun 13 Nov 11 07:12
This sounds fascinating and I'm sorry I didn't get a copy of the book. Did you indeed find out what happened to him?
Mark McDonough (mcdee) Sun 13 Nov 11 07:18
Hey, don't spoil the ending for me! :)
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Nov 11 10:04
> Did you indeed find out what happened to him? There was one major false alarm in 2009, discussed in great detail in the book. But no, Everett's remains have never been found.
David Gans (tnf) Sun 13 Nov 11 10:07
<scribbled by tnf Sun 13 Nov 11 10:07>
mother of my eyelid (frako) Sun 13 Nov 11 13:40
For some reason I'm reading this book backwards, possibly because I read at the end of chapter 1 (Davis Gulch) about the 2009 controversy, felt embarrassed that I knew nothing about it while it was happening, so I jumped ahead to the chapter that describes it. It was fascinating and written like a detective story, and it has taught me that I can't place unequivocal faith in a DNA test anymore. Which is so disappointing, since I had thought that a DNA result was the last word in deciding the guilt or innocence of a condemned prisoner. I don't expect you to discuss this right now since we're immersed in Everett's upbringing, but I'd love to hear what you've concluded from the role of DNA testing in learning about Everett's fate. Maybe it just teaches us that some things are meant to remain mysteries?
Philip Fradkin (philfrad1) Sun 13 Nov 11 17:51
I need to reply to David, Mark, Lynne/David, and mother of my eyelid. David asks about what resources I used in my research. The simple answer is all that I could put my hands on. The principal repository for material on Everett is the archive his brother Waldo gave to Special Collections at the University of Utah. There is an online guide to the Ruess Collection. I think I made a half dozen trips to Salt Lake over the nearly three years I worked steadily on the book. The Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley near where I live provided background material on the era. I searched local public libraries and those located in national parks and monuments where I went for material on the times. I believe it is necessary for a writer to go to all the important places that his subject visited and wrote about. What comes immediately to mind is San Francisco, Monterey, Big Sur, Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, and Los Angeles in California. Both in past years and during this time I hiked part of what I call the Ruess trail in California and the Southwest. I have written and visited many of those areas in the past, but not with Everett in mind. In the Southwest I went to Monument Valley, Grand Canyon, Bryce, Zion, Mesa, Superstition Mountains, the Roosevelt Lake area, Flagstaff, Holbrook, Tonto National Monument. I visited public and private archives, interviewed people who knew people that Everett met, met him themselves(like Pat Jenks), or could give me information on the time. I live in those places I am researching because I have a VW camper. I hike to get a feeling for those places, which included three trips into Davis Gulch. I make a visual record with my camera and an audio one with my tape recorder, which I transcribe when I get home. There is more but I can't remember it all. (The book has notes etc. that is a more thorough guide to where and how I conduct my research.) What I can say is that no one has ever probed as deeply or as thoroughly into Everett's life and times than I have with the tools that I learned over a half century. Lynne asks did I find out what happened to Everett, and David answers for me that except for a false alarm in 2009, his disappearance remains a mystery. I find it interesting when I give readings that some people can't deal with mysteries. Mother of my eyelid, who skipped to the end, asks me to discuss the very important issue of false DNA results. I would like to delay that discussion until more of you complete the book. Please remind me to deal with this later. Mark, the father of an adolescent, can relate to that time in our lives when we were all sort of mixed up and trying to find our ways in the world, and I think that is the best way to regard Everett. He was gifted, but he wasn't perfect. Mark then asks how I came to the conclusions about his having bipolar disorder without being an expert and having the chance to examine him. This is the reason the current Ruess family, consisting of two nieces and two nephews, gave me for dropping their cooperation. First, other writers mentioned it, but did not thoroughly treat or research the subject. There was a need to do that, just as there was a need to spend fifty pages in my biography of Wallace Stegner carefully dealing with the issue of plagiarism in his Pulitzer-prize winning novel "Angle of Repose." (The Stegner family did not object and made clear that it did not want a hagiography.) I am not an expert in manic depression, an illness that was unknown in the 1930s, and I haven't been an expert in a number of medical and scientific issues I have written about over the years. But through careful research, contacting experts, and having them read what I have written, I have been expert enough to give an accurate description of the subjects. (Besides I don't trust scientists. They have been wrong about subjects I have written about, such as radioactive fallout having no adverse health effects [see my book "Fallout"]. In the Ruess book the scientists were wrong about DNA, which is supposedly incontrovertible. I have learned to trust my conclusions, knowing that they are arrived at carefully.) That is exactly what I did in this book. I took a lot of care in handling the bipolar and the homosexual issues, the latter also mentioned fleetingly by other writers, with sensitivity. Everett had tremendous emotional highs and lows, and talked about death and suicide frequently. What does that mean? I have described what it means in terms of bipolar disorder, but in a way that allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions. The family wanted a perfect Everett. Well, he wasn't that nor was he a mythic figure, he was something far more interesting--a human being. I have three guidelines for what I write, and I adhered to them in this book as well as others: be accurate, fair, and readable. That others have different opinions about what I have written, is fine: all that I ask of my readers is think.
Gary Greenberg (gberg) Sun 13 Nov 11 18:12
>manic depression, an illness that was unknown in the 1930s, Manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder, was well known in the 1930s. It was one of the illnesses described in the first taxonomy of mental illnesses, created in the 1890s, by Emil Kraepelin. Kraepelin traces the illness back to the ancients. Along with schizophrenia (then known as dementia praecox), it accounted for much of the diagnosed mental illness in this country. In its classic presentation, manic depression comes on a little later than schizophrenia--very late adolescence, early 20s. About the age young Reuss was when he disappeared.
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