Winter 1999, Volume 16.2
James D. Houston
In the Beginning Was the Word
James D. Houston has authored several nonfiction works and six novels, most recently The Last Paradise (University of Oklahoma Press, 1998). A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford, his honors include an NEA Grant, The Humanities Prize, and a Rockefeller Residency at Bellagio, Italy. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.
Words are the basic tools, if you are a writer. But why? Why do you choose one set of tools rather than another?
Over the years I have played quite a bit of music, acoustic guitar and upright bass, a little piano. I’ve made some money at it too, from time to time, and could have made much more. Why didn’t I choose music as my main line of work? Why did I choose words instead of notes?
Why didn’t I choose sound?
Why not a hammer and a chisel?
Why not paint?
Why not the brushes and the stepladders and the dropcloths of the painting contractor, to follow in the footsteps of my father?
When these questions first rose to the surface, I had been reading a lot about the lives of writers, and I had made what was, for me, a fascinating discovery. I was struck by how often there has been a minister or a preacher or a rabbi or a priest somewhere in the immediate family. I had begun to keep a list, which now is rather long and includes, to name a few—the father of Jane Austen, the father of James Baldwin, the father Isaac Bashevis Singer, the father of W.S. Merwin, the father of E.E. Cummings, the father of Robinson Jeffers, the grandfather of William Burroughs, the grandfather of Joy Harjo, the father and grandfather of short story writer Joy Williams, the grandfather and great-grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father and two brothers of Harrier Beecher Stowe, the father of Amy Tan. In other families, where there had been no minister nearby, there would sometimes be a devout and Bible-reading mother, such as the mother of Herman Meville who wrote articles for a Methodist journal….
As my list grew, it started me thinking about possible links between the literary urge and the role or presence of scripture in one’s life or general vicinity. Needless so say, there are numerous ways to account for a literary urge. But in my case the presence of scripture seemed to be a key. As I pondered this, I eventually came to understand the influence of the church I happened to grow up in, which was New Testament Christian, congregational in style, and fundamentalist. This was not, by any measure, a literary or intellectual world. In fact, it was the opposite. Yet in this world language had exceptional power, since all our devotional activities and efforts to communicate with God consisted primarily of words.
Both my parents came from what is sometimes called the Bible Belt. My dad was born in Oklahoma, the son of a cotton sharecropper and itinerant blacksmith. He met my mother one summer in the early 1930’s while he was doing field work in the Texas panhandle. Neither of them had much education. When they finally packed up their suitcases and left west Texas behind, they were immigrants from farming and ranching country where all the land was wearing thin. The community they joined had a lot in common with the one they’d left, composed mostly of transplanted southerners and southwesterners who had come west during the 30’s or soon after the outbreak of World War Two, when the shipyards of the San Francisco Bay Area started working double and triple shifts seven days a week.
They all clung together, as immigrant families usually do. They ate the same foods they’d eaten back home. In our house, it was blackeyed peas, cornbread and buttermilk, porkchops and applesauce, white-flour biscuits and red-eye gravy. They listened to the same country/western songs—Roy Acuff doing "Wabash Cannonball" and "The Great Speckled Bird," "San Antonio Rose" by Bob Wills and Texas Playboys, and "Detour: There’s a Muddy Road Ahead." They built their Sundays around the same Bible classes and sermons.
Coming of age in San Francisco I was often ashamed of my parents and resisted their downhome ways. In my view they were "Okies," and I was not an Okie. I was born in the city by the Golden Gate, where you saved your paper-route money to buy cashmere sweaters. I spent a good part of my youth looking down upon the things they tried to offer me and looking for ways to distance myself from what I thought they were. It took me quite a while to recognize the many gifts hidden right alongside what I had so earnestly rejected. It took me quite a while to see how the very desire to be a writer began in those Sunday morning services that had been transported from the Bible Belt to the far Pacific shore.
Fundamentalist means you look to the letter of the Old and New Testaments for guidance, and nowhere else. We were so fundamental that almost everything had been stripped away from the place of worship. Think of the role words can play, when all other enticements and sensual attractions are gone.
The meeting halls of my boyhood were deliberately under-adorned. Light drifted in through long panes of plain translucent glass. The walls were bare. Rows of wooden pews faced an open stage, a pulpit, a single cross above the curtained baptistry. Sometimes a bouquet of flowers would appear, but nothing else to beguile the eyes, no statuary, no incense to entertain the nostrils. There were no robes or hats or sceptres, no gleaming pendants or rich brocade to appeal to your sense of theatre, no bells or chimes or gongs or drums, not even a piano or an organ to help the spirit soar.
According to the logic of our Elders, the New Testament makes no mention of stained glass or carved statues or upright pianos, and if it was not right there on the page in front of you in God’s own words, you’d better not presume to dress up a worship service just because it seemed like a good idea.
God’s written word was the measure. And if you hold to the letter of the New Testament, you do not have much left but words to express the longings of the human spirit:
Words in the form of scripture readings from the pulpit.
Words in the form of prayer, both public and personal.
Words as they form the sermons and exhortations and invitations to come forward and be baptized in the name of The Father and The Son and The Holy Ghost.
The fact that all our preachers and deacons and elders had come from somewhere south and east seemed to give the words more weight and zeal. They all had ties to Texas or Oklahoma or Arkansas or Alabama or Tennessee. The voices carried a mix of drawl and old-fashioned oratory that somehow sharpened the effect of the King James Version, when it was quoted or read out loud. They savored the archaic terms, as if it were a private language that belonged to them. Belonged to us. Words you never heard anyone else use, they would utter with special relish, words like "viper" and "begat" and "smite thine enemies," and "raiment" that could be "girded about the loins."
Songs unaccompanied by musical instruments would have to rely totally on the voices delivering words of praise to the Lord.
Even at meal times the words came first. Give thanks to God with your voice, then eat.
And sometime after dinner, in my earlier years, one of the women’s voices would begin to read from the New Testament, or from the Old. Sometimes it would be my mother’s mother, born in the Cumberland Mountain region of Tennessee in 1888, a seamstress by trade, who had followed her daughter out to the coast. After three elementary grades she’d had no further schooling. She was working in a textile mill in Huntsville, Alabama, when she met the man who became my grandfather, good looking and footloose. They had two children before he disappeared, went back to Georgia, some people said. Grandma never talked about him much. In later years she referred to herself as "a widow." Church work was the center of her life. She studied the Bible every day. It was her solace and her reference and her inspiration.
All of this was carried in her voice, carried across the continent from the mountains of eastern Tennessee, and into our front room there in the Sunset District of San Francisco, as we listened to her read aloud the stories of David and Goliath, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the Pharaoh, Paul and Silas, the parable of the Prodigal Son.
"Bring hither the fatted calf," she would read, "and kill it. And let us eat, and be merry, for this my son was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found…."
Sometimes it would be my mother doing the reading. She was born in Huntsville, raised on a Texas farm. She always did the best she knew how, passing on to me and my sister whatever she had learned from her mother to share with her kids, and how can you not listen to your mother’s voice when she is reading to you from Genesis, and The Psalms, reading how flames appeared upon the heads of The Apostles on the first day of Pentecost after Jesus ascended, and how they spoke in tongues, with miraculous command of new and unknown languages.
Eight or ten years of this, when you’re young and impressionable, can have a profound effect. It all sinks in. The words sink in, their very sounds and, at some level, the potent message they carry. In the Gospel According to St. John one sentence spells it out:
In the beginning was The Word,
and The Word was with God
and The Word was God.
Quote a verse like that, and you run the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, as if you have hit upon some true path to salvation via the sacred calling or prose or poetry. I would not want to go nearly that far. Nor do I wish to suggest that writing can become another form of religion. This is more personal. This is about what you can internalize growing up in the presence of scripture.
An abiding belief in the powers of words has been part of my inheritance. But when I first started writing, for the high school paper, that was the farthest thing from my conscious mind. For quite some time the motive was simply to get a story told, hoping to see it in print, and later, hoping to get some money for the effort. As the years went by, writing turned out to be a good deal more that that. In Zen terms you might call it a form of Practice. The daily struggle to pursue a line of meaning becomes a kind of path that allows you to travel both outward and inward.
There are a million paths (as Don Juan once said to Carlos Castenada). Mine happens to be made of words, and there is no mystery now about why I chose it. Long after I left home, at age seventeen, and left the family church behind, the role and the appeal of words stayed with me, the idea that they might provide access to a higher power, whatever name you choose to give it, the idea that words themselves might somehow save you.