Monday, December 06, 2010

Silver State Makes a Lasting Literary Impression


Over the years, a variety of writers, some famous and others not so well known, have spent time in the Silver State and departed affected by the experience.

While Mark Twain is perhaps the best known of these literary lights who was changed by staying here for awhile, there are others who have been equally touched by a close encounter with the broad expanses of Nevada.

Twain, who spent about two years in the state in the early 1860s, wrote a book about his Nevada experiences, “Roughing It,” which was published in 1872. The writer poked fun at many aspects of the state and in particularly the inhospitable nature of parts of Nevada.

For instance, he wrote, “some people are malicious enough to think that if the devil were set at liberty and told to confine himself to Nevada Territory, that he would come here and look around, while, and then get homesick and go back to hell again.”

Even the first history book written about Nevada noted that the state wasn’t quite like any other place. The Thompson & West’s History of Nevada, published in 1881, noted, “Nature was in her eccentric mood when forming this region, and turned out some strange results from the store-house of time.”

More than a century later, a couple of other writers spent time in the southern half of the state and were equally amused by what they saw. Blackjack players and authors Lance Humble and Carl Cooper described Las Vegas as looking “like somebody took one of Lberace’s jackets and made a city out of it.”

However journalist Chuck Palahnuik viewed the glittery city and came up with a slightly different take: “Las Vegas looks the way you’d imagine heaven must look at night.”

In the mid-20th century, it was Reno—not Las Vegas—that fascinated many writers. For instance, in 1945, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, author of “The Oxbow Incident,” penned “City of Trembling Leaves”about his adopted hometown. In it he wrote affectionately about downtown Reno and noted, “The trees of the Wingfield Park-Court Street region dispense an air of antique melancholy. You become sad and old as you walk under these trees, even on a bright, winter day when all the leaves are gone and the branches make only narrow shadows across homes covered with sunlight.”

Of course, not everything written about Nevada has focused on Las Vegas and Reno. Nevada writer David Toll, author of “The Complete Nevada Traveler,” has spent decades exploring the state’s byways and backroads. In the 1976 edition of his book, he wrote “the mountains of Central Nevada are like sleeping women, sprawling languorously across every horizon.”

Similarly, Richard Lillard, author of “Desert Challenge,” wrote in 1942, “Seen by a Californian or a New Yorker, Nevada is unorthodox, impious, backward, and undeveloped, and yet hospitable, individualistic, romantic. It is the home state for extremes.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century, naturalist John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club, hiked through many of Nevada’s remote mountain ranges. In 1918, he wrote a book describing his travels, “Steep Trails.” In it, he noted, “Nevada is one of the very youngest and wildest of the states; nevertheless, it is already strewn with ruins that seem as gray and silent and time-worn as if the civilization to which they belonged had perished centuries ago.”

Later, another naturalist, Nevadan Sessions S. “Buck” Wheeler, who penned several books about the state, described what he liked most about the landscape: “It has a spectacular beauty—great, jagged mountains of banded limestone rising high above desert valleys; vast basins sparsely dotted with the green of the creosote bush and the silvery tint of the burrobush on the gray, desert soil; dry stream beds; Joshua trees; dunes of white sand; and endless, sunbright space. To some it is austere and frightening; to others it has a lonely grandeur, which is friendly and comforting.”

But when it comes to having the last word on the Silver State, few have ever said it as well as Carson City’s own Robert Laxalt. In his 1977 book, simply titled “Nevada,” Laxalt wrote: “It is in the hinterland that one finds the old heart of Nevada. The hinterland of Nevada is a country of far horizons broken only by mountain barriers lost in the haze of distance, and unexpected green valleys that break upon the traveler's eye with the breathstopping impact of a mirage.”

Is there anything more that could be said?

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