I picked out a yellow-jacketed copy of Oliver La Farge’s posthumous collection of short stories, The Door in the Wall, from a striking display in the window of Any Amount of Books, one of the few remaining used bookstores on Charing Cross Road, when in London recently. I’ve never learned just why so many British publishers put out books with bright yellow paper dust jackets in the 1950s and 1960s, but someone in the store had the bright (sorry) idea to collect a couple dozen of them and put them together on a display in one of their windows. Still on the hunt for short story collections, I spotted and quickly grabbed this book, La Farge’s third, published by Victor Gollancz in the U.K. and by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S..
The La Farge family’s contributions can be found all over the records of U. S. cultural history. His grandfather John La Farge was a distinguished painter and muralist; his father Christopher was part of one of the prominent architectural firms that shaped the face of American downtowns around the turn of the last century; his brother Christopher guaranteed his place in neglected American literature with a series of verse novels; and his son Peter was one of Dylan’s generation of American folksingers. And if that wasn’t enough, La Farge was named for his great-great-grandfather, the naval hero of the War of 1815, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
Yet Oliver La Farge was never one to rest on his family laurels. Instead, he early on discovered a passion for anthropology, and in particular for the native Americans of the Southwest. In his foreword to this collection, La Farge’s New Yorker editor, recalls visiting the writer at his home in Santa Clara, New Mexico, where La Farge had immersed himself in Hopi and Navaho culture. La Farge’s first novel, Laughing Boy (1929), a Pulitzer Prize winner, was set in the Najaho territories in New Mexico, and he remained an advocate for their rights, even serving as president of the Association of American Indian Affairs in the mid-1950s. You can see a video clip of La Farge as spokesman for the Association from the Longines Chronoscope on YouTube (link). (Indeed, the first story in the collection, “The Creation of John Mandeville,” make a passing reference to the horrific experience that David Grann recently chronicled in his best-selling Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI: “Bill asked why the Indians wouldn’t sell their oil, and Applegate said it was partly that they knew what oil had done to some of the Oklahoma Indians….”)
Anthropology and the study of native peoples of the Americas is at the heart of The Door in the Wall. La Farge’s protagonists are almost all anthropologists and academics, drawn to field work and usually never less than half-frustrated when cooped up in a classroom or office. As such, the whole tone of this book could strike some readers as dry or even dessicated. They are men (exclusively) who are driven more by intellectual curiosity (and sometimes superiority) than by emotion, and not one of them would ever be likely to utter the words, “I feel …” unless they really meant to say, “I think ….”
But they were also men whose work depended upon their ability to keep their eyes and ears (and minds) open. Maxwell recalls La Farge telling him,
You can behave very much as you would anywhere else–with certain limitations. It goes without saying that you don’t ask questions about tribal customs and ceremonies. And since they don’t know you, I think it is probably a good idea not to ask questions at all. Keep your eyes open, and see what there is to see. And don’t try to charm them. It throws them off balance if you rush in and try to make friends with them immediately…. So you wait. You don’t do anything until they have had a chance to sense who you are, the aura around you.
For my part, I liked them and the book. It fed a certain nostalgia I have for a time when a show with a name like “Longines Chronoscope” could take up air time with a geeky guy in glasses like Oliver La Farge explaining and defending the interests of people with almost no political or economic power or influence whatsoever. La Farge was not naive, and he would never pretend that selflessness isn’t often a flimsy cover for selfishness and ego. And he was not blind to considerations that are just now getting the attention they deserve: “His tone made what he told of himself seem unusually intimate and she knew, as a woman can know, that there was only a narrow line between that intimacy and another that she did not want at all.” I mean–just how La Farge expressed this shows a combination of insight and discretion that makes me wish we had a few more grown-ups like him around today.