As a book reviewer for National Public Radio for more than a quarter-century, Alan Cheuse has been called “The Voice of Books on National Public Radio.” Cheuse is also the author of several novels, a memoir, two short story collections, and a collection of essays on reading and writing. He last joined the Literary Seminar in 2003, and will return this January as a panelist and writers’ workshop instructor when we explore Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth. Cheuse’s forthcoming book, To Catch the Lightning, is a historical novel about photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis (1868-1952) and his struggle to complete “The North American Indian,” his epic project of photographing all of the native tribes of the western United States. I had a chance to talk with Cheuse recently, about NPR, Curtis, and the role novelists have in the writing of history.
Littoral: Why did you choose to write about Curtis? And why did you write it as a novel?
Alan Cheuse: I first encountered Curtis’s photographs of the American Indian while I was in college. In fact I remember the first time I saw them. The Brattle Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a great old rerun house, mounted an exhibition of them in the lobby in the late nineteen fifties. That was the first time I saw Curtis’s work. I have long forgotten what movie I saw that evening in Cambridge, but I never forgot the faces and tones and settings of those portraits.
My research led me to Curtis the historical figure– photographer, self-made ethnographer, naive entrepreneur, difficult husband, and, through it all, devoted father. My novel, I hope, knits this all together in an inventive, forward-moving, uniquely presented way, giving especially the feel of his life, which narrative by historians doesn’t usually do. Which is to say, historians usually work from the outside in, and novelists move in the other direction. I don’t mean to pick a fight with historians here, but this is the way I see it. I suppose some of them might see a novelist waltzing through the field, picking up forget-me-nots and knotting them into a necklace and calling it history. But I’m not calling my novel history. I’m calling it a novel. I’ve written a novel about American journalist John Reed, and about an American woman painter based mostly on the life of Georgia O’Keeffe. The Curtis novel forms, at least in my own mind, the third in a kind of triptych about American artists, larger than life, but, I hope, still alive in our imaginations.
L: As I understand it, Curtis’ photographic negatives were awarded to his ex-wife Clara in the divorce settlement. Rather than see this transaction through, he destroyed them. Was the relationship between Curtis’ professional and personal lives always so fraught?
AC: There’s a scene in the novel in which Curtis and his daughter Beth (she took Curtis’s side in the quarrel) and a few friends have a destroy the negatives party. Like most artists he found it difficult to draw a line between his professional life and personal life. He gave thirty years of his adult life to the project, but he was in spite of everything devoted to his family. Early on it was easier than later, when he became the Curtis history knows (who was the Curtis who knew history and its effects). He tried heartily to keep his family intact, but he couldn’t. He tried to be a good man– as his oldest child and only son said toward the end of the photographer’s life, “he was the best man I knew.”
L: What challenges did you face in re-creating Curtis?
AC: The challenges I faced were the same any novel or short story presents, heightened by having so much historical and personal material to work with. The research delivers so much, and as a fiction writer you have to shape and form that material for the needs of your fiction, unlike the biographer who gives the impression of including everything he or she discovers. In the making of historical fiction, sometimes more can be more than you need.
L: Why do you choose to work in radio?
AC: I’ve loved radio ever since I was a kid growing up in North Jersey listening to the great music shows, mostly jazz, coming out of New York City, and the wonderful comedy of Bob and Ray, so I associate my radio work with pure childhood pleasure. I worked in college radio at Rutgers, and when the opportunity came up in the early 1980s to work as an NPR book commentator I didn’t deliberate much before trying out the work. The work paradoxically still remains one of my greatest pleasures, and the people I work with are truly the best and the brightest.
L: Has NPR been changed by the internet? Has it changed your work there?
AC: The NPR Website has become one of the most important aspects of the network after the shows themselves, as important as the kinescope and now the DVD has become to television and the movies. Because it makes a record of what has gone out onto the air and preserves it in an intelligent and attractive fashion, with visuals as well as the sound itself. It also allows me to expand on pieces, such as the holiday reading piece I do each winter, and the summer reading piece, because I can write a webpage essay that goes along with the recommendations for reading, and the sound of the writers we choose reading from their work is only a mouse-click away.L: That’s the best part, for me, hearing writers read their own work. As a professor, do you make use of such recordings?
AC: I’ll sometimes ask students to listen to Hemingway reading his funny doggerel, or T.S. Eliot reading on the old Caedmon label, or Frost.
L: Have there been any efforts to digitize the wax-cylinder recordings Curtis made of Native American language and songs?
AC: I haven’t kept up with this aspect of the research materials, but I do know there is a scholar at Rutgers University who is currently working on a project to restore Curtis’s film “Land of the Headhunters,” about the Pacific Northwest tribes.
L: Curtis presented his work as a documentation of the conditions of the American Indian, but he’s been accused of manipulating what he found on the reservations. Did Curtis draw a line between artistry and documentation? Do you see Curtis as a historian, or rather as the creator of a sort of historical fiction?
AC: I’m neither defending him nor unmasking him–I’ve tried to dramatize what he did. Curtis saw the present as made up in part out of the past, and saw the future as made up in part out of the present. We want a world with both historians and novelists, don’t we? Not with one or the other. Every fiction writer crosses the line that divides artistry and documentation—or erases it. Every historian has to employ his or her imagination in inventive ways in order to make bones live.
Images from Edward Sheriff Curtis’s collection The American Indian. According to the Library of Congress, they are in the public domain. You can see more of Curtis’s photographs at his entry on Wikimedia Commons.