Larry Woiwode bestows on us ten thoughtful and fearless essays in “Words Made Fresh.” He tackles subjects as disparate as education, faith, the role of place in artistic inspiration, John Updike, William Shakespeare, and Bob Dylan. And throughout, he poses questions and conundrums, expresses doubt and hope, and passes judgment in a graceful, even-handed way.
Right out of the box he gives us a hint of the depth and unblinking earnestness we will encounter in each piece. In “Guns & Peace: An American Icon,” we find a startlingly frank questioning of his own motives when attending to a mercy killing of a deer after an automobile accident. The physical description of the landscape and his perception of it is stark and memorable – perfect. In “Homeplace, Heaven or Hell: On the Order of Existence” he launches a theme to which he returns again and again in other essays: the role of the childhood home in the creative process. He handily debunks the big-city critics and guardians of orthodoxy who would label a writer from the hinterlands as “regional,” which when they use it is nothing but pejorative. He flips the table over on them, saying not only is region and homeland important in the creative process, but an accurate and faithful attachment to it is a prerequisite part of any great art. He applies this principle in turn to such diverse writers as John Gardner, John Updike, and Shakespeare.
Mr. Woiwode holds with John Gardner that true fiction must have a moral element, that the author’s intent regarding the moral issues propounded must be clear and that lessons and ideas flowing from the action must point in the right moral direction. Mr. Woiwode several times avers his service to Scripture, and always admits that this places him far outside the mainstream of academia. Well, not outside the mainstream, diametrically opposed to it. I am aware of the “on the outs” status of Christianity in current “correct” thought; Mr. Woiwode, while staking his ground squarely and usually straightforwardly, fails in main to acknowledge the cynical and exclusionary way in which the vast community of honest, self-avowed Christians of the U.S. were hoodwinked into supporting illegal and immoral schemes hatched by administrations enjoying their very support.
The long, elegiac piece on Updike (“Updike’s Sheltered Self: On America’s Maestro”) deserves a broad audience. Written to the highest standard of critical essays, this comprehensive appreciation gave me more pause and more food for thought than anything I have read, ever, on Updike. Unified, persuasive, well-paced, even-handed, this is the main attraction of this collection. The treatment of Gardner’s “Mickelsson’s Ghosts” is an outstanding example of what I aspire to on the “Deeper Appreciations” pages. (It embarrasses me for you to look at them now. I am substantially re-writing the “Housekeeping” essay – and hope to fashion an actual conclusion for it.) I need to get to that piece and see what Mr. Woiwode’s fussing about.
Enlightening, thought-provoking, well-written in the extreme, Mr. Woiwode does himself, his faith, and his craft proud. This is an important collection for anyone interested in today’s literature, thought, education, or culture. It’s only too bad Mr. Woiwode’s faith puts him in the wilderness of “incorrectness.”