Issue 27 |

rev. of Tamsen Donner: A Woman's Journey by Ruth Whitman


Ruth Whitman's
Tamsen Donner has already been widely praised, and for good reason. The book is a poetic journal, imaginatively recreated, of a pioneer woman who undertook the cross-country trek to California in 1846-1847. The Donner party came to grief in the high Sierras, only a hundred miles from the Sacramento Valley.

Tamsen Donner had written poetry, many letters, and a journal; all but three letters have been lost. With these meager materials, Whitman set out to retrace the route that had been so disastrously taken, and to recreate "Donner's" journal. It is a work of poetry interspersed with prose, further divided into sections based on stages of the journey and the land.

The sections are "Prairie," "Desert," and "Mountain;" the last section, the one entitled "Ocean," is of course missing. But images of it occur throughout the book. Whitman is right to emphasize the land, for its vastness is what delayed the people, so that they had to cross the mountains in early winter. Its weather is what killed them. Anyone who has not travelled, even by automobile, in the West will find it hard to imagine how huge and awesome -- those
are the appropriate words -- it really is. Whitman captures those qualities, by an accretion of detail and observation, in vignettes of sometimes stunning beauty.

April 20, 1846,
on the Missouri prairie.

The land flattens out most suddenly, long stretches

of flat fertile land, stands of young corn. The horizon

is everywhere. We picnicked by a huge flat field with

a sky lower and broader than ever in the East I could

imagine. Broad, low and blue, with herds of clouds.

The stretches are punctuated here and there with little

isolated exclamation points -- a house, a barn, a shield

of trees planted by an emigrant. Trees show either that

water is present or someone brought a sapling to shade

his house. Otherwise there are none. Only immensity

and loneliness. We change in relation to the land.

We become smaller.

Whitman is also right to arrange her journal, day by day, in short lyrics, usually with a prose introduction. They emphasize how little time and energy a woman travelling with her family would have had for writing. Many of them consist of a single long, sinuous sentence, which undulates and turns over on itself like the trail itself. The voice is convincingly one in which a 19th century pioneer woman might have spoken, with two points of difficulty. I think it is error for Whitman to attribute foreknowledge to it. In the first poem in the book, she has Donner say:

how could I foresee my end

in that soft Illinois spring?

I began my journey certain

that what was unknown

would be made smooth and easy

I forgot the anger of the land. . . .

The second poem ends:

. . .we have much the appearance

of a large funeral procession

Since we already know the fate of the Donner party from the "Note," and Donner herself could not have known it, a more effective procedure would have been to let it unfold gradually.

A more serious error is that this is one of the more romantic pioneer women that could be imagined. It may be true that anyone setting out to cross the country at that time would have had to be either very hopeful or very desperate. Since the Donners in fact made sacrifices in order to go, it is likely that they were the former rather than the latter. Even so, the romantic note is struck too often for it to be entirely plausible; it seems increasingly wrong on rereading.

All of the above, a random selection, come from Alice James Books, one of the premier small presses in the country. Alice James is "a writers' cooperative with an emphasis on publishing poetry by women." That emphasis is laudable, necessary, and still too rare among publishers. And since the most exciting new writers in the country
are mostly women, it guarantees them a strong list. But I do not see why they need so carefully to avoid the label "feminist." Is it pejorative? But the goal is clearly to remain open to the best work, from whatever source, and to avoid sectarianism. I note the inclusion of work by men, by working-class writers, and at least one Lesbian; and with dismay the absence of any writers of color.

Be that as it may, Alice James aims at eclecticism in the best sense. It is committed to no particular school, tradition, or style; it is open to the variousness of contemporary poetry (including variousness of quality). Because the cooperative is located in Cambridge, and accepts the work of local poets, it can be considered regional. One result is that, in nearly every book it produces, there is wonderful writing about New England -- its flora and fauna, its landscape and seasons, its historical and cultural tradition. But then, that tradition was the original fountainhead of us all.