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The Garden of Yesterday

It seems I had to travel to Winnipeg to discover, in the inventory of a favorite bookstore, that there is a new biography of Larry McMurtry, our late great American novelist, written by a chap named Tracy Daugherty. This life is an absorbing read for me, but not always a comfortable one, as so much of the narrative knife cuts to the bone.

It is a literary trope of the prairies, grounded in real experiences, that authors of the Great Plains have ambivalent relationships with their home country. A boy from northwest Texas, but one cognizant of the larger region comprising the Red Rivers of north and south, McMurtry said, “I like looking straight up to the guts of the Great Plains.” So now I feel like he is looking right at me.

Yet Daugherty says McMurtry the author had “an aching need to fill the hollowness of his raising.” I am ambivalent about all this ambivalence.

Yet I do not suffer the deep disquietude of James W. Foley, the man often referred to as North Dakota’s first (unofficial) poet laureate. Like McMurtry, Foley experienced a boyhood divided between his father, who hobnobbed with Teddy Roosevelt in the Badlands, and his mother, who stayed in Bismarck — where Foley graduated from Bismarck High School in 1888.

Also like McMurtry, Foley perceived himself in the midst of a great transition on the Great Plains that would change life in this place forever. He struggled with this change. I’ll give you three markers of his struggle.

First, his 1906 poem, “A Letter Home.” Wherein a lad in North Dakota pens a letter to his father back east somewhere to declare that he will never come home again, that he has cast his lot with the “freedom of the West.” Foley writes,

It’s so broad and boundless and its heaven is so blue
And the metal of its people always rings so clear and true

We should note that this most popular of Foley’s poems was composed on commission for the Fargo Forum which was publishing an edition to encourage immigration to North Dakota. Still, the context of Foley’s other work tells me that at this time, his affection for the plains was honest and heartfelt.

Second marker: another poem, “The Passing of the Prairie,” which you can find in Foley’s book, Tales of the Trail, 1913. Here his love of country remains, but its object is a lost world. Perhaps Foley feels himself complicit in the erasure of his frontier world by the mass immigration of the Second Dakota Boom. He writes,

They have stuck it full of fenceposts, they have girdled it with wire
They have shamed it and profaned it with an automobile tire

In 1912 Foley pulled up stakes and moved himself to Pasadena, California. In 1926, when the business women’s club of Grand Forks declared 4 February as “Foley Day,” to be celebrated with readings and honors for the great man — Foley was a no-show.

In the meantime, though, he wrote another poem, “The Garden of Yesterday,” which you can find in still another of his collections, The Voices of Song, 1916. I consider this to be Foley’s master work. He knows his world is gone, he cannot go back: “For Time is Keeper of the way — the Garden there is Yesterday.” Forgive me now for a hopelessly obscure allusion, but Foley’s keeper of the garden is a dead ringer for the Angel of History sketched by the tragic philosopher of History, Walter Benjamin — an author whom I first encountered through Larry McMurtry’s essay, “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.”

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