It may seem incongruous to link Robert James Waller and Chicano literature: he of the best-selling novel The Bridges of Madison County; and Chicano literature so unread and so unknown—except to the initiated and the curious.
Robert James Waller died on Friday, March 10, 2017, at his home in Fredericksburg, Texas, due to complications of pneumonia and multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cells. QEPD—Que En Paz Descanse—May He Rest in Peace.
I had read The Bridges of Madison County before I met Robert Waller, and I was struck by the creativity of the work and by the reactions it engendered among the literati. Meryl Streep is reported to have said she hated the novel and would not appear in the film unless the script proved better than the novel. I liked the novel and Clint Eastwood provided the kind of direction that kept the tone of the novel in the film while spinning out the yarn of Robert Kincaid (National Geographic photo-journalist) and Francesca Johnson (World War II Italian war bride) living in the Midwest of America.
But the novel is a masterstroke of plot, reminiscent of the early English novels. That’s probably why I liked it. My penchant for the early English novel developed during my graduate studies in English. Both in the novel and the film the story unfolds by discovery While the novel held my attention, it was the association I made between the novel and its detractors and Chicano literature and its detractors that has given me pause.
While Mexican Americans had written fiction (short stories and novels) between 1848 and 1960 the first novel of the Chicano era (1959) to be considered as a Chicano novel was Pocho by Jose Antonio Villarreal, published in 1959. The novel received scant notice and went almost immediately into remainders. What lifted the veil of obscurity from Pocho was its relevance to the Chicano experience—as it was being articulated in the post-World War II years just before the punctuated activities of the 1960’s—and that I had identified it as the first of the Chicano novels in my essay on “The Chicano Renaissance” (Social Casework, May 1971) and in my study of Backgrounds of Mexican American Literature (University of New Mexico 1971). Chicano writers were a novelty to mainstream literary circles which is why I essayed the two works cited. Even so, few mainstream readers, if any, were familiar with Chicano writers. In fact, there was a certain disdain in the inquisitive tones of mainstream folk as they inquired about Chicano writers and Chicano literature.
Chicano writers were not taken seriously in 1966. They couldn’t be any good if they hadn’t made it to the American literary canon. But the mainstream literati was as unbalanced vis-à-vis Chicanos as it was unbalanced vis-à-vis writers emerging out of the Civil Rights movement. Chicano literature was a suspect term as if smuggled into literary parlance by critics with questionable credentials. In like fashion, those who spoke well of The Bridges of Madison County were immediately suspected of literary malpractice. What would Harold Bloom, the elitist literary critic, say about the novel? This is why The Bridges of Madison County is most like Chicano literature. Elitist literary critics like Bloom were not saying nice things about Chicano writers. Abetted by vendidos (renegades) like Richard Rodriguez, they felt smug in their assessments and assertions about Chicano literature and the culture that spawned it, the same way they felt smug about their assessments and assertions about The Bridges of Madison County and the pulp culture that spawned it.
I’m glad I liked the novel, for when I met Robert Waller in 1994 I immediately liked him. He was personable, witty, charming in an old-world way, and a probing conversationalist. My first impression of Waller was at a Cotillion in Alpine, Texas, where I was on the faculty at Sul Ross State University and where Waller had purchased a 1,000 acre ranch with the profits of his novel and had settled into the community, remaining as incognito as the ubiquitous cactus of West Texas. Despite the low profile he sought to maintain, Waller was the principal celebrity in the area. Though he eschewed celebrity status he was nevertheless gracious in autographing books when asked. There was always a ready smile on his face. I found him genuine, though some thought he was full of himself.
In 1996 he gave a lecture at the university and a guitar concert, having rehearsed prodigiously for a cruise engagement he had agreed to. He was adept at the guitar, and had a number of guitars on stands in a music and recording studio he had fashioned for himself in “the ranch house” that was his dwelling on the ranch. The first time my wife and I went out to his ranch on university business, he showed us around the place and when I mentioned my interest in the jazz guitar after seeing his guitars he beamed. We swapped a few licks on that trip and Gilda, my wife, came away buoyed by the fact that he had donated to the university library a significant collection of international first-edition copies of The Bridges of Madison County. Gilda was professor and Dean of Library and Information Technologies at Sul Ross State University in Alpine.
Waller seemed comfortable in his ranch surroundings, dressed in jeans, western shirt, and boots. He wore his graying hair long, almost shoulder length. He spoke about his academic life in Iowa where he had been Dean of the business school at Iowa State University before hitting it big with The Bridges of Madison County. With genuine interest he asked me about my work, my background, how I came by my interest in the jazz guitar. The day waned, we had a simple but filling dinner which he and his companion had cooked. There was beer and more conversation as night fell, then we went outside to look at the stars which always seem bigger and brighter in the Texas night sky, especially in Alpine, just north of the big Bend National Park, one of the last pristine areas in the state, originally ordered preserved by Theodore Roosevelt.
There were many encounters with Robert Waller over the next several years. He was busy writing—two novels I did not find as compelling as The Bridges of Madison County. There oft chances that writers have only one book in them. Perhaps that was the case with Robert Waller, I thought, until he wrote A Thousand Country Roads, a sequel to The Bridges of Madison County in which we read about Robert Kincaid’s life after his “affair” with Francesca. Perhaps this is one novel in two parts, but this does not lessen the power of Waller’s prose nor the creativity of such a splendid first novel.
American canonists expect to read Faulkner or Steinbeck or Hemingway in the works of American writers, thus severely limiting inclusion of non-Faulkner /Steinbeck / Hemingway writers into the American literary canon. This excludes, of course, minority American writers a priori. For sure, Mexican American / Chicano writers whose works were/are often written in Spanish or a binary blend of Spanish and English with the onset of the Chicano Renaissance which encouraged such work but was not well-regarded by American readers.
Now, Robert Waller’s work is not a binary blend of Spanish and English nor is it steeped in Chicano ideology, but it does exhibit a binary strand in its architecture and thematics. Architecturally, The Bridges of Madison Country blends the plot of Robert Kincaid and Francesca into the story line of Francesca’s children who are “rummaging” through their mother’s things after her death. The plot reveals the struggle Francesca’s children have on learning about their mother’s infidelity. They are tied ideologically to the concept of fidelity which is shattered by the discovery they make in reading their mother’s words to them. Both refuse to believe the revelation at first but ultimately come to accept its veracity and to see their mother not in the light of a fallen angel but in the light of human propensities that flesh is heir to.
Other than elitism, I’m not sure why critics and canonists object to The Bridges of Madison County. It may be, after all, because Waller did not come out of the standard literary pipeline. Waller is indeed a literary maverick. While not disdainful of the criticism heaped on The Bridges of Madison County, he has kept that criticism in perspective. Keeping in mind that his novel may not be in contention for the Nobel Prize, he is not crestfallen reviewing his royalties not only from American sales but from distribution of his work in dozens of foreign languages. Like Madame Bovary, The Bridges of Madison County is a story about the human heart and its quest for fulfillment as it encounters the foibles of life.
The last time Gilda and I visited Robert Waller at his ranch was when he invited us to a barbeque soiree and an evening of guitar music. He was the consummate host, making sure we had all eaten well. With an accompanist, he treated us to a preview program he had worked up for his cruise gig. He was technically superb, but as I mentioned to Gilda: I found no fault in his performance save that it lacked the kind of “heart” guitarists develop for the instrument and for the “sounds” it can produce in the hands of a “felt” artist—that indescribable sense that elevates the music from the performative to the artistic. I’m reminded that I left the field of the jazz guitar when I realized that however gifted I was as a jazz guitarist I was never going to be an artist at the instrument. I was good enough to be a studio musician and to back up stellar singers, but I was not going to be a Julian Breem. This is not to diminish Robert Waller’s virtuosity on the guitar, just to point out that Waller was a better story teller than a musician. Waller continued to write and to play the guitar; as I do.
Copyright © 2017 by the author. All rights reserved. Photos of Robert Waller and poster of Bridges of Madison County used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos in the public domain.