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William Eastlake's Trilogy: The Southwestern Landscape as Truth and Revelation
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William Eastlake’s Trilogy: The Southwestern Landscape as Truth and Revelation Francesco Marroni William Eastlake’s first three novels, Go in Beauty (1956), The Bronc People (1958), and Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses (1963), are generally regarded as constituting a trilogy not only because they have a common setting—the Checkerboard region of northern New Mexico, with its landscapes, languages, and people—but also because of the genealogical cohesion represented by the Bowmans, a white family whose stories as ranchers and traders merge with the destinies of a number of Indian characters. Despite these converging elements, however, it must be acknowledged that these novels do not share the diegetic continuity and the consistency of plot structures commonly associated with a trilogy. Specifically, their narrative organization appears to be less the result of Eastlake’s response to the rich mixture of cultures and experiences he finds in Indian Country than a comprehensive frame for different, scattered stories. The editorial history of Portrait of an Artist with Twenty-Six Horses bears out this impression. It is well known that the central episode of the narrative, concerning Ring Bowman’s thoughts as he is sinking in quicksand, actually derives from a short story published a few months earlier under the title “A Long Day’s Dying.”1 Although the functional segmentation of this story provides the framing event and, consequently, the unifying plot and a central formal order to the entire narrative, still Portrait strikes the reader as less a novel than a collection of short stories . Significantly, W. C. Bamberger, in his highly perceptive monograph on Eastlake’s fiction, has pointed out that “Portrait is Eastlake’s most fragmentary novel. Some of the stories gathered to create this novel may originally have been earmarked for a collection Eastlake had planned to title Pilgrims at the Wake.”2 Francesco Marroni teaches English literature at the University Gabriele D’Annunzio at Pescara. Journal of the Southwest 49, 4 (Winter 2007) : 561–568 562  ✜  Journal of the Southwest An analogous structural looseness also characterizes Go in Beauty and The Bronc People. Here, the storyteller’s voice is much louder than that of the novelist, in the sense that Eastlake is hardly interested in giving semantic, much less diegetic, unity to these novels. For instance, in Go in Beauty the chapters centered on Alexander Bowman, the expatriate writer, establish only a superficial dialogic relationship with the chapters concerning his younger brother, George Bowman, who, in contrast, never leaves Navajo Country. From a structural point of view, The Bronc People is possibly the most successful component of the trilogy; at the same time, it is fairly apparent that its lack of unity results from the inclusion of separate stories that, tonally, often clash with the narrative focused on the formative years of Little Sant Bowman and Alastair Benjamin, two boys pursuing their dreams while roaming the high country of New Mexico.3 It would seem that fragmentation (with its effect of discontinuity) constitutes the limiting factor in Eastlake’s art. It may be interesting , therefore, to quote a 1978 interview in which Eastlake, however obliquely, expounds his own aesthetic ideas on the novel, starting from Conrad’s deep influence, particularly as concerns his understanding of the relationship between reality and fiction: [Conrad] gave me an insight into how things looked and felt. And also his view of life and his willingness to survive and prevail when he discovered that the universe is meaningless: it didn’t discourage him. . . . He felt that an artist—out of the chaos of nature and out of the capricious storms at sea he went through—can make an orderly universe. . . . Order is only a temporary accident of the universe. But it didn’t discourage Conrad. He still went about his job of trying to create some order and beauty and meaning in a meaningless situation. And he found the symbols and characters that could create that order.4 In this passage, chaos is the crucial word. Chaos means that any artistic representation of reality must confront it creatively, as this is the only way the artist can extrapolate meaning from obscurity and, ultimately, nothingness. What Eastlake seems to be...