Collecting Howard Norman
In 1994, Howard Norman's novel, The Bird Artist, was one of the most acclaimed and talked-about books of the year--a poignant story of a social misfit in a bleak Canadian coastal town, who murders the local lighthouse keeper. Quirky and powerful, it was nominated for the National Book Award, gaining the attention of a sizable number of readers and collectors who, up to that point, were unfamiliar with Norman's writings. The nominees that year included several other young novelists, and one more established writer--William Gaddis, one of the Grand Masters of American letters in the postwar era. Gaddis's novel, A Frolic of Our Own, won the award, but The Bird Artist gained Norman an enthusiastic following and established him as not only a serious but a collectible modern writer--one whose body of work is among the most varied and unusual in contemporary American literature and which presents a number of interesting and formidable challenges to the collector of his first editions.
Despite having come relatively recently to the notice of a large number of readers, Norman has been writing for over 30 years, and publishing in literary journals for nearly that long. His first book was issued over 20 years ago. Like several other writers whose works have become highly collected in recent years--Cormac McCarthy comes to mind as a prominent example--Norman's "overnight success" came after a quarter century or more of working in relative obscurity, and in Norman's case, the obscurity was compounded by the fact that he was working well outside the realm of traditional literary publishing.
Since the mid-1960s Howard Norman has spent considerable time in the wilderness of northern Canada visiting with, and learning the traditional stories of, Native American tribes who subsist largely outside of the domain of industrialized, wired western society as we know it. The conditions of life in the northern Canadian wilderness would be unthinkable to most of us. There is a self-reliance required for survival there that is largely obviated by the elaborate infrastructure of our contemporary society: we go to the supermarket; they go hunting. We are largely insulated from the natural world and, by extension, our natural history; life in the northen Canadian wilderness, by contrast, is profoundly sensitive to, and subject to, the relentless and often harsh presence of nature. Howard Norman's writings, whether they be translations of Swampy Cree Naming Stories or his own novels and short stories, attempt to bridge the nearly unfathomable gulf between these widely disparate cultural experiences. They do so by being true to the fundamental notion that the individual's experience, not others' ideas about that experience, is ultimately what defines the world, whether the individual be an Inuit shaman or a bird artist living on the coast of Newfoundland.
Norman's earliest writings were music reviews for an alternative paper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an article on the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence, written in the 1960s. His first publications for a national audience were in Alcheringa, a journal of ethnopoetics started by poets Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock, which grew out of the countercultural notion in the Sixties that so-called "primitive," tribal societies retained some measure of wisdom that had been lost in the western rush to civilization and Progress. The notion of the Noble Savage went back, in America, to the Transcendentalists and, in France, to Rousseau, but in the 60s a new twist was put on it: for the first time the view of civilized man as "fallen" from an earlier state of innocence was seen as remediable. By bringing the art and literature of tribal cultures--in effect, their wisdom--back to western society, it was possible, these poets believed, to redeem some part of that which had been lost. The path to that redemption, though, had to be through direct contact with those tribal peoples--understanding their survival on their own terms, and in their own environment.
Howard Norman's Alcheringa contributions were, first, translations of Ojibwa pictures and song-pictures, and later translations of traditional Ojibwa, Cree and Inuit oral tales. Like Jaime De Angulo in the 1940s and 50s--but unlike the vast majority of anthropologists who had translated traditional tales in the past--Norman attempted to relay the stories he encountered in such a way as to not only respect the literal meanings of the words but, more importantly, to capture and convey some essence of the story. All stories are heard by their listeners with a particular cultural context, which helps bring understanding to the words--shared experiences, shared assumptions, shared myths. What had been lacking in earlier anthropological translations of native tales had been an understanding of--and sometimes even a respect for--that which the listener brought to the tale, which informed it and gave it meaning. Norman attempted to translate in such a way that enough context was conveyed that the tales had meaning, even if it meant foregoing completely accurate word-for-word translation of the story.
All of this is admirable enough, but books of ethnography or translations of tribal tales do not usually end up being sought after by collectors of literary first editions. The difference in Norman's case has been his fiction: Norman has published two novels and one collection of short stories. He has also written a number of children's books, most of them involving the re-telling of traditional Native American tales. Although he has written only two novels, both have been widely praised by readers and critics alike, and both were nominated for the National Book Award--the highest literary honor given in America--which, in effect, placed each of them among the top five novels in America in the year of their publication. The number of authors who can make a similar claim is tiny, and includes such writers as John Updike and Walker Percy, both of them universally considered among the giants of postwar American literature.
The book that is widely considered Norman's first is The Wishing Bone Cycle, published in 1976, a collection of Swampy Cree narrative poems, some of which had appeared in Alcheringa 5, three years earlier. Alcheringa editor Jerome Rothenberg provided an introduction for the volume, in which he discusses Norman's translations in terms that reference Ezra Pound and philosopher Ernst Cassirer, and identifies the Cree story-tellers as "oral poets." The Wishing Bone Cycle was published by a small, literary press in New York called Stonehill Press in simultaneous hardcover and softcover editions. As is typically the case with such simultaneous editions, most bookstores stocked the softcover, leaving the hardcovers for the library market and a few upscale bookstores. Consequently--again, as is usual--while the softcover is moderately scarce, the hardcover is exceptionally so. The Wishing Bone Cycle went on to win the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets, one of the major awards given in this country for translation.
However, despite the conventional wisdom, The Wishing Bone Cycle was not Norman's first published book. Earlier in 1976, Bear Claw Press, a small press in Ann Arbor, Michigan, published a collection of Swampy Cree Naming Stories called Born Tying Knots. These were stories told by tribal historian Samuel Makidemewabe, translated and introduced by Norman. They later comprised the second section of The Wishing Bone Cycle. Born Tying Knots came with a long "blurb" by poet Gary Snyder--himself one of the foremost exponents of the importance of "ethnopoetics," whose own work had helped bring into mainstream American poetry the oral tales of indigenous cultures, and who in the 1970s had embarked on an ambitious project to bring back into print the native tales collected by Jaime de Angulo. A small part of Snyder's statement was reprinted on the dust jacket of The Wishing Bone Cycle, but the full commentary was only printed on Born Tying Knots. It was only issued in wrappers and is an extremely scarce book: we have only seen one copy and had not even heard of it until recently.
After the publication of The Wishing Bone Cycle, it becomes more difficult to track down Norman's next few publications, which were done in tiny editions by small presses, and copies of which were unavailable for inspection for this article. In 1977 (or 1978), a fine press edition entitled Arrives Without Dogs was published by a small press in central Vermont. According to the author, it consisted of several dozen small poem-like narratives based on incidents in the North, which were drawn from a larger sequence of stories involving the man responsible for introducing typhus into a Canadian Indian community. The total edition of Arrives Without Dogs was 30 copies and each had a hand-written introduction by the author.
In 1978 (or thereabouts), another small and interesting volume of Norman's writings was published in a tiny edition. Norman had just come back from the Arctic and done a series of readings in the San Francisco Bay Area, and had been in touch with writer Sam Shepard, whose house in Canada he was then going to visit. A small Canadian publisher--the author recalls it being named Paddlewheel Press--assembled a volume comprising ten or so pages of Norman's Nova Scotia journal, and including both a letter from Sam Shepard and some pages from the radio play Shepard was working on at the time--an adaptation of mystery writer Joe Gores' novel, Hammett. Also included in the publication was a photograph of Shepard and Norman together. The edition was reproduced by photocopy and, again, 30 copies were done. The "book," if it can be properly called that, was titled Bay of Fundy Journal. Needless to say, it represents not only an extremely scarce Howard Norman item but also a very scarce Sam Shepard appearance in print. According to the author's recollection, the volume was created as a benefit production, but the cause or event being celebrated has faded from memory.
The next book about which we have clear publication information is Who Met the Lynx, which was also done in 1978, by the publisher of Norman's first book, Bear Claw Press. Like the earlier book, this was done in wrappers only. The edition was stated to be 1000 copies and it was illustrated by Tom Pohrt, who later illustrated Barry Lopez's books, Crow and Weasel and the recently published Lessons From the Wolverine. Who Met the Lynx is a very scarce book but not nearly as scarce as the small editions mentioned above, or even Born Tying Knots.
Over the years, working as a freelance writer, Norman undertook a wide variety of projects--from treatments, scripts and narratives for film projects to a monograph in ethnozoology on porcupines, as viewed through the lens of Algonquin and Arctic folk tales and oral narratives. None of these were published, however, although some of the scripts were reproduced in small quantities while the projects were being considered. He also took classes at McGill University in Toronto in hopes of becoming a "bird artist," and supporting himself, at least in part, through his art. Unlike the protagonist of his novel, however, Norman gave up the effort when he realized how talented his classmates were and concluded that he himself would never be more than mediocre as an artist. He decided to concentrate solely on his writing.
In 1980, Norman's work at translation brought him to a culture far distant from those of the Arctic North he had been working at previously. Penmaen Press, a small, literary publishing house, printed a book of translations by Norman of Caribbean folk tales by the Haitian poet Paulé Bartón, entitled The Woe Shirt. An attractive production, it was done in an edition of 2000 copies, of which one hundred were specially bound and were to have been signed by Howard Norman, Norman Laliberté, the artist, and Michael McCurdy, the book's designer. According to the information that we were able to get, Norman signed all 100 copies but Laliberté only signed 70 of the 100; McCurdy signed the remaining 30 copies, plus 16 of the ones that Laliberté had signed, meaning that all told only 16 copies were signed by all three; 30 copies were signed only by Norman and McCurdy; and 54 were signed by Norman and Laliberté.
Interestingly, because a number of these variously signed copies did not sell at the time and were rediscovered years later, after Norman had begun to be a collected author, the signed edition, despite its small limitation, has been relatively readily available in recent years. The copies signed by all three, of course, are extremely scarce, but those signed by only two of them turn up in dealers' stocks with some regularity these days. Ironically, the trade edition is very scarce, having had enough time between the original publication and Norman's first becoming widely collected for copies to largely disappear from the market. 1900 copies is a small number to be absorbed by the entire United States book market, especially if, as seems likely, a substantial number made it to libraries or institutions. The book was reprinted in softcover in 1982 by Graywolf Press, in an edition that reprints the Peter Matthiessen blurb that appeared on the dust jacket of the trade edition, but which did not appear on the limited edition of the Penmaen book.
1982 also saw the publication of Norman's second collection of Cree tales, Where the Chill Came From, published by San Francisco's North Point Press, which was at the time the premier small literary publishing house in America. Like the earlier collection of Cree tales, this was published simultaneously in hardcover and paperback. The paperback received wide distribution and is still relatively easy to find. The hardcover, however, is quite scarce, although not nearly as scarce as The Wishing Bone Cycle.
In 1986, Norman's children's tale, The Owl Scatterer, was published by Atlantic Monthly Press, which was by far the largest publisher he had worked with to date. The book was illustrated with wood engravings by Michael McCurdy, who had been the designer of the Penmaen edition of Bartón's tales. The Owl Scatterer was chosen as a New York Times Best Illustrated Picture Book for 1986.
Then, in 1987, Norman's first novel, The Northern Lights, was published by Summit Books--at the time the "literary" arm of Simon & Schuster, one of the publishing giants in America. Norman's novel came with a simple, understated dust jacket design but adorned with a set of blurbs from the likes of Peter Matthiessen, Louise Erdrich, W. S. Merwin, David Mamet, Ursula LeGuin, Edward Hoagland and Barry Lopez that virtually insisted that the book be taken seriously as a literary effort. It was, indeed, and received a Whiting Writers' Award and a nomination for the National Book Award. A coming-of-age story about a young boy raised in northern Canada whose best friend, a Cree Indian boy, drowns in a tragic accident, the book wove together strands of Norman's experiences with a full-blown fictional imagination in a way that brought a subtle awareness and sensitivity to what might have been, on the face of it, a very simple story. Norman's experiences in the far North infused the book with a sense of wonder and, as Barry Lopez wrote, "the fundamental strangeness of life" that set it apart from most firsrt novels, bringing some of the perspective of an utterly alien environment into his fiction. The New York Times Book Review called The Northern Lights "a striking achievement" and the Los Angeles Times called it "an entirely unforseeable book...[and] an entirely indispensable one." Norman's particular, unique place in contemporary American literature was starting to be recognized, and appreciated.
Later that year, Norman's second children's book--Who-Paddled-Backward-With-Trout--was published by Little Brown. This was a humorous, ironic story based on a Swampy Cree naming tale, akin to those collected in The Wishing Bone Cycle, but not one of the ones from that collection, despite the publisher's assertion to that effect in the jacket copy--the significance here being that this edition therefore represents a true first edition, rather than a "first thus," as the publisher's statement seemed to indicate. Our experience is that this title is considerably scarcer than his earlier children's book from the same publisher, The Owl Scatterer.
Two years later Summit published his second book of fiction, Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad, a collection of stories the settings of which ranged from Venice, California, to the far North of Canada. This coincided with Norman's being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for his fiction. Later in the year, Norman had another children's book published by Little Brown--How Glooskap Outwits the Ice Giants--illustrated, as The Owl-Scatterer had been, by Michael McCurdy. In 1990, Pantheon published Northern Tales, a compilation of stories of the Eskimo and other northern Indian peoples, selected and edited by Norman, who also did many of the translations. The book was published in the Folklore and Fairy Tale Library that Pantheon issues, and foreign editions were done in Japan and Italy, the first translations to be done of Norman's own work.
Then, in 1994, Norman reached a new plateau of both literary accomplishment and critical and commercial recognition. The Bird Artist, his second novel, was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and was an instant critical success. For the first time, one of his books went back to press immediately after publication for a second, and then a third, printing. The Bird Artist was, like The Northern Lights, nominated for the National Book Award, and it also won a host of other prizes and awards: the New England Booksellers Association Prize; a Lannan Foundation Award in Fiction, which includes a $50,000 cash award, one of the largest awards given with a literary prize in this country. It was selected as one of the Five Best Books of 1994 by Time magazine, and as the Best Book of the year by the San Francisco Chronicle. Suddenly, after nearly a quarter century of writing, Norman was an "overnight" success and, at least in the literary world, something of a household name. The Bird Artist was translated into ten languages, and it assured Norman consideration as one of the important writers of our time. A new novel is scheduled for publication by Farrar, Straus later this year, and a memoir and several other children's books are in the works as well.
Norman's most recent book, The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese, a children's book comprising 10 stories derived from Native American tales from the north country, was recently published by Harcourt Brace. A more substantial volume than any of his previous children's books, it is also a more lavish production, having been illustrated by two-time Caldecott Award winners, Leo and Diane Dillon. The book was recently chosen for a New York Times Best Illustrated Book Award. A sensitively written and beautifully illustrated book, it contains an introduction by Norman that sheds light on the nature and purpose of his storytelling and translations. "It is my conviction," he writes, "that Northern tales by turns solace and disturb us, provide indelible images and often unconventional wisdom, make us laugh, cry, and feel all the complicated emotions of being alive. In all these ways, they help us to clarify our world. And they quicken our imagination."
The same can be said of Norman's fiction: for all the gentle warmth and humor that infuse his stories, he also does not shy away from the painful and tragic in life. In a recent issue of the literary journal Ploughshares, which Norman co-edited with his wife, poet Jane Shore, Norman showed his predilection toward writing that is personal, full of risk, and that "ups the ante" for the writer and the reader--for writers who are "writing at the top of their capacity at every given moment" and, in this, are absolutely "uncompromising." That a writer's work should be useful, that it should matter in real and personal ways for reader and writer alike, are paramount. The same measure can be applied to Norman's own work, which is acutely attuned to the high cost of survival--in any culture. He writes--in a phrase Cynthia Ozick once used describing another writer--"as if ink were blood." Howard Norman has said that he is attracted to the environment of the far North because the limitless natural environment provides a metaphor for an entirely different world view than our own--one where "there is no sense of limits as to what a life can be or how far an imagination can stretch." Norman's fiction has provided another gateway to such a landscape, and as readers we can only be grateful for the way his work clarifies and expands our world.
Copyright © 1998 by Ken Lopez