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Prairie Schooner 79.4 (2005) 13-20

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In Rooms of Memory

Recently, I picked up this old book from a stall outside a used bookstore in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, and as I held it a certain remembrance slipped from its pages though I had never read the novel. The Walls of Jericho by Paul I. Wellman. The book has no jacket and its boards are of a maroon color. A striking illustration, perhaps in a pen and ink wash, decorates the end papers. The picture leads the eye along the perspective of a half-harvested wheat field and into a small town in the distance. The standing water tank and an assembly of grain elevators – a windmill on the outskirts – identify the place as a prairie community. I know this place; that is, I remember passing through it on a childhood journey to visit cousins in Topeka, Kansas; my grandfather at the wheel of the Buick. It is always a hot and dusty excursion from Kansas City, and my grandmother sits in the passenger seat, fanning herself with a program from last night's Democratic Party meeting. She had been one of the principal speakers. Yes, I remember all that, and I remember the moment in the present tense in which all memory is stored.

How much of memory is imagined? Thomas Hobbes argued that imagination and memory were one and distinguished only by the names given them. But was he suggesting that the one makes the other – that all memory is composed of fancies that have slyly taken root around the recall of a moment like the chickweed that appears around the trunk of the lilac in my garden? Lately we have become obsessed by the loss of these images as if the weight of them have become more than ageing sinews can bear while the energy to create new simulacra wears out. Perhaps we are born with these images already seeded within us and, one by one, they mature and wither. [End Page 13]

Also in the book's illustration, the horrifying tentacle of a tornado has just set down in the outskirts of the village, and the density of the black cloud from which it descends suggests power enough to take the whole town to Oz and back – water tank, grain silos, the one church steeple and all. These prairie tornadoes have Old Testament awe about them, terrifying, as they are spectacular. They resemble the furious return to the earth family of some member that has been banished. I remember them too.

But I do not remember this old novel, so why do I hear my mother's voice say, "Yes, The Walls of Jericho. It's worth reading. About Kansas." Because of her endorsement made on the street before the bookstore, I buy the novel, and the guy seems happy to take my dollar.

But when did my mother make this recommendation? When do I remember her saying it? Was it during one of her own returns to my grandparents' house in Kansas City, where I grew up; an impassioned return if not furious and bringing us tidbits of culture from New York City? These items were shared with us, accompanied by the cracking of chewing gum or the emphatic crunch of raw vegetables between her canines. The sound of that savage consumption snaps in my mind even as I write these words. This novel now on my desk was published by J.B. Lippincott Company of Philadelphia and New York in 1947 which would be five years after that living room on Roberts Street – where I thought I first heard her praise this novel – had ceased to exist. By 1947, I had been taken east for the rest of my life, had finished high school, begun college and seen service in the Navy, so if she did make this recommendation, it wasn't made in Kansas City. I have imagined the place incorrectly.

Wellman knew the place he imagined as Jericho though he made the town up. The writer was born in...


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