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Éric Athenot
Arnaud Regnauld

Rewriting the West (again): Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers. A Season at the Edge of America

Thomas Pughe


Winter Brothers : A Season at the Edge of America, de Ivan Doig, est consacré aux journaux intimes de James Gilchrist Swan, colon entre le milieu du 19e et le début du 20e siècle dans l'extrême nord-ouest des Etats-Unis. Bien plus qu'une simple édition de documents historiques, le texte de Doig se présente comme le journal de la lecture des journaux de Swan pendant tout un hiver, d'où l'intitulé Winter Brothers. Doig souligne en effet sa fraternité avec le pionnier, car comme lui il habite ce territoire des marges de l'Amérique et, plus important, comme lui il est un explorateur du territoire rêvé de la frontière. Ainsi s'instaure à travers un siècle un dialogue sur le mythe de l'Ouest américain et sur l'inéluctable disparition des territoires sauvages. C'est cette structure dialogique et inter-textuelle de Winter Brothers que le présent article se propose d'analyser

Texte intégral

  • 1 Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America. New York: Harcourt, 1980. page references in the (...)

1This paper addresses the question of rewriting in contemporary American nature writing. I will study as a representative example of this phenomenon Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers. A Season at the Edge of America (1980).1 By rewriting I refer to the sense of déjà vu or déjà lu that takes hold of many readers of texts, fiction or nonfiction, evoking the natural environment, especially when, as in Winter Brothers, the subject is the American West. Jane Tompkins (1992, 74), analysing the rhetoric of wilderness in Western novels, seems to have the same effect in mind when she points out that, “[t]he harshness of the Western landscape is so rhetorically persuasive that an entire code of values is in place, rock solid, from the outset, without anyone’s ever saying a word.” In nature writing the double process of referentiality and intertextuality is particularly striking, perhaps more so than in other genres. Nature writing, after all, purports to be “about” nature. Yet for a European reader like myself, who have had little real-life experience of the natural environment being represented, the horizon of expectation is circumscribed less by what I may have seen than by what I have read. Nature thus falls into significant patterns through a process of association with earlier texts about the same subject.

2By imitation or opposition American nature texts evoke a (hypo-)textual universe organized by a substructure of ideology and myth whose nodal points are such concepts as the West, the frontier, the wilderness and of course nature itself. When, for instance, Gary Snyder (1992) gives a collection of his poems the title No Nature, in open refutation of one of the founding texts of American literary culture, he seems to be suggesting that the notion of nature with its burden of tradition and value creates an artificial distance between the world and the word, a distance his poetry promises to overcome. Writing about nature is inextricably embroiled in the complicated relations between nature and culture and between phenomenology and epistemology that characterize the tradition of American naturism (Lawrence Buell’s term, 1995, 31). Needless to develop the observation that naturism is a most ambiguous tradition, having served sometimes to “activate] green consciousness, sometimes [to] euphemize land appropriation. It may direct us toward the realm of physical nature, or it may abstract us from it.” These, Buell observes, are the basic issues of ideology and representation posed by naturism. For example, national parks and wilderness areas preserving the “pristine” state of the natural environment were conceived by and for whites and not indigenous Americans. In that particular case, preservation and land appropriation sometimes amounted to the same thing. The ambiguities that dog American naturism have been studied in great detail by a host of literary and cultural historians – thus Lawrence Buell (1995) or Leo Marx (1964) have investigated the complex influence of pastoralism, Roderick Nash or Max Oelschlaeger that of the wilderness ideal, to mention only some of the most obvious names – and hence there is no need to expatiate on the subject here. But by way of an example and of a transition to the main part of my paper I would like to quote a brief passage from an essay by Aldo Leopold, one of the founding fathers of modern American ecology and a canonical figure of nature writing. Published in 1925, it is entitled “Wilderness as a Form of Land Use” and, seeking to promote “green consciousness”, argues in favour of wilderness preservation, as follows:

  • 2 Reprinted in J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, ed., 1998. The Great New Wilderness Debate.(...)

Public wilderness areas are essentially a means for allowing the more virile and primitive forms of outdoor recreation to survive the receding economic fact of pioneering. These forms should survive because they are likewise an improvement on pioneering itself. (...) [They], if anything, are the indigenous part of our Americanism, the qualities that set it apart as a new rather than an imitative contribution to civilization. Many observers see these qualities not only bred into our people, but built into our institutions. Is it not a bit beside the point for us to be so solicitous about preserving these institutions without giving so much as a thought to preserving the environment which produced them and which may now be one of our effective means of keeping them alive?2

  • 3 William Cronon. “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Callicott (...)

3These lines epitomize at once the enormous significance and the ambiguity of American naturism. They are remarkable for their amalgam of preservationism and of a cultural chauvinism that shines up in sentences such as “the indigenous part of our Americanism” or “the qualities that set us apart as a new rather than an imitative contribution to civilization”. Leopold’s argument in favour of wilderness preservation (a worthy cause per se) is a representative example of a larger dialectic of culture and nature that William Cronon has described in the following terms: “... wilderness came to embody the national frontier myth, standing for the wild freedom of America’s past and seeming to represent a highly attractive alternative to the ugly artificiality of modem civilization. The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape.”3

4Thus, American nature writing, from Henry David Thoreau to Ivan Doig, is inevitably intertextual, negotiating, or, more appropriately in this context, recycling the manifold and contradictory cultural associations of its subject. Endlessly rewritten and refracted, the wild “other” evoked by the concept of nature seems to recede into invisibility within a wilderness of words. If this disappearance of the real thing behind a screen of myth and ideology is, as Gary Snyder, among many others, points out, the crucial problem of nature writing, what are the strategies of writing, or, rather, re-writing developed by contemporary practitioners of the genre? My argument in the paragraphs that follow will be that in Ivan Doig’s Winter Brothers we can find significant elements of a response to that question.

  • 4 “[Swan] came west in the California gold rush of 1849, from Boston. Ever after, he spent his life (...)
  • 5 Swan’s journals are at the University of Washington archives in Seattle.

5Suspended between biography and autobiography, Doig’s text is based on the journals of one James Gilchrist Swan, a Bostonian who spent a large portion of his life, from the middle of the 19th until his death at the beginning of the 20th century, on the northwesternmost frontier, i. e. on the Olympic Peninsula in what was then Washington Territory.4 The text is a patchwork of quotations from Swan’s journals (printed in italics), biographical narrative, regional history and personal reflections of the author’s provoked by the early settler’s account of his frontier life. Doig has subtitled this hybrid “A Season at the Edge of America”, which may suggest an experiment of living or surviving in some uninhabited area, at the edge of civilisation, inspired perhaps by Walden or by such contemporary disciples of Thoreau as Edward Abbey or Annie Dillard. Yet Doig’s subtitle is more complex than it looks. The verbal phrase that it elides added, it would read something like this: “A season spent reading the journals of James G. Swan, frontiersman at the edge of America.” The temporal indication a season refers to the 90 days, a whole winter, Doig devoted to reading the forty years worth of Swan’s hitherto unedited journals.5 Moreover, it ironically underscores the substitution of the actual experience of the natural environment by that of reading about it. What that substitution seems to suggest, is that such accounts of life at the edge are always to some extent adventures of intertextuality.

6There are indeed two journals in Winter Brothers, Swan the frontiersman’s and Doig’s day by day account of his reading of Swan. Winter Brother’s is literally a “double-voiced” text, a ballad of the Pacific Northwest sung by two different voices. It contains a large number of quotations with the effect that it remains unclear which of the two voices is the principal and which the secondary one. Is Doig’s journal a frame to set off Swan’s, or are the passages from Swan’s journal built into Doig’s a way of anchoring the contemporary writer’s Western sensibility in history? It is Doig’s reading journal that actually structures the text, which is subdivided into ninety days and three overarching periods (December-January, February, March) thereby emphasizing that Doig’s reader’s experience, his discovery of Swan’s world, is an essential element of the text’s intended effect. Indeed, this journal of a journal is meant to bring out the family relation between the two writers, their “brotherhood”. Between them there exists a kind of kinship that is based on their shared fascination with the Western edge of America. Hence Doig has constructed the text as an intimate conversation, natural between members of a family. Such brotherhood also suggests a kind of interdependence: Swan appears as a representative historical figure thanks to Doig’s account of his journals; Doig appears as a representative Westerner thanks to the ties of spiritual kinship that connect him with the frontiersman. More than simply a historical journal embedded within a narrative frame, Winter Brothers is a textual dialogue between the early settler and the contemporary Westerner, juxtaposing then and now, examining over a gap of more than a hundred years the reasons for the hold that this Western frontier has on its inhabitants’minds. Doig’s aim in retracing Swan’s footsteps through the wilderness (of words) is to gain a better understanding of why he himself is attached to the West. Seeing the Puget Sound region through Swan’s eyes is a way of finding out “how it is that some of those coastal paths which for so many years carried [Swan] now hold me.” (90)

  • 6 The title of the autobiographical narrative Doig published in 1978.

7Swan and Doig, then, are spiritual brothers, born into the great family of American naturism and inhabiting the same “house of sky6”. Such fraternity has the effect of turning the historical author and textual guest in Doig’s diary into a character. Swan, thanks to Doig’s narration of his adventurous life and to liberal quotations from his journals, emerges from Winter Brothers as the type of the rough and ready pioneer, glazed over with a veneer of frontier humour. “The westernmost frontiersman in the continental U. S,” Doig calls him and sums up his frontier career thus:

Sick, robust, drunk, dry, infatuated, thwarted, railroad-hopeful, railroad-undone, off now to Alaska, and now to Utah and now to Boston, perpetually yearning north toward the Haidas, still ambassadoring occasionally among the Makahs and Clalams from his own white tribe, esteemed author at last for his Makah memoir and dabbler as ever among piddling paperwork. (160)

8The first quality to notice about this passage representing Swan – and about many others like it – is that Doig has taken the notion of character almost literally (i. e. as letter or sign). The frontiersman’s adventurous life seems to stimulate Doig’s pen to adventurous prose: to an accretive syntax based on the avoidance of a direct verb, thereby stretching conventional grammar to its limits; to neologisms due to unconventional compounding and changes of word class (“railroad-hopeful, railroad-undone”, “ambassadoring”); and to play with the rhythm of sentences and with assonance and consonance (“dabbler as ever among piddling paperwork”). Doigs prose in fact contrasts, often quite sharply, with Swan’s more conventionally descriptive and narrative way of writing, suggesting, perhaps, that as the frontier recedes further and further into history, the practise of writing about the wilderness becomes more and more stylistically marked, more and more literary. A practice, that is, of rewriting.

9The passage quoted above moreover assembles many elements that we have come to expect from frontier lives, the three essential ones being, 1) the yearning for a West (Northwest in this text) beyond the horizon of one’s place of residence, “west of west”, in Doig’s phrase (73), 2) the exploitation of the wilderness symbolized by the arrival of the railroad, and 3) the encounter with the indigenous inhabitants of the wilderness, the Makah and Haida tribes, among others, in Swan’s case. The latter element is the actual heart of Winter Brothers to which I will return in more detail further down. For the time being, let me remain with Swan’s yearning for a West beyond the horizon, shared, of course, by his “winter brother.”

10That yearning is put into the foreground since, in Doig’s view; it elevates the early settler from a colourful frontier character into a representative Westerner and American:

Swan stands to me now as something of a template, an outlining human gauge (...). [He] literally is a being of our continental edge, rimwalking its landscape and native cultures. If I could put questions to Swan across time I think they would try to reach toward invisible inward lines, those riggings of curiosity and gameness-for-damn-near-anything, hung deeper in him than anyone else I have encountered. (221-22)

11“A being of our continental edge”: in its perhaps involuntary double meaning (dweller on a geographical border line and representative example of a cultural advantage), the phrase may remind us of Aldo Leopold’s amalgamation of the wilderness experience with the formation of America’s civil institutions. Representative Westerner and representative American both, Swan, the rimwalker of the farthest West, also recalls the archetypal image of the westward walker that Thoreau evokes in “Walking” (1972, 603):

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. Thither no business leads me. It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness and freedom behind the eastern horizon. I am not excited by the prospect of a walk thither; but I believe that the forest which I see in the western horizon stretches uninterruptedly toward the setting sun, and there are no towns nor cities in it of enough consequence to disturb me. Let me live where I will, on this side is the city, on that the wilderness, and ever I am leaving the city more and more and withdrawing into the wilderness.

  • 7 Nash, 1982, 8-84.

12Thoreau goes on to stress that this westering drive is the prevailing tendency of his countrymen: they must walk the Oregon trail rather than take the steamboat to Europe. This passage, then, is the heart of a moral and philosophical attempt to justify the westward expansion. Heading west here implies a quest for intellectual freedom and vigour, symbolized by wildness and pristine nature, a quest which stands in contradistinction to earlier, particularly puritan, attitudes toward wild nature.7

13Western “brotherhood”, then, is as much an experience of reading and writing as of actual exploration. Unsurprisingly, Swan’s ancestry also concerns Doig’s role as a writer (or “penman” as Doig (7) says, ironically echoing “frontiersman”). He was the author of numerous magazine articles and scientific publications on the region and of the history and culture of its indigenous inhabitants as well as of a book entitled The Northwest Coast. Or Three Years’Residence in Washington Territory on which Doig (21) has the following comment: “Harper & Brothers brought out Northwest Coast in 1857, (...) the tome stands as a jaunty grandfather of us all who face west above our typewriters.” Notice that Doig has imitated Swan’s book by giving Winter Brothers a subtitle with a very similar ring to Swan’s. The phrase (in the passage just quoted) all those of us who face west above our typewriters gives rise to the kind of irony that the intertextual quality of Winter Brothers, and, more generally, of nature writing, cannot help but evoke. Doig (116) also mentions “a lineage of frontier ink” that binds his own work to that of the earlier writer. The genre of the journal itself suggests that Doig’s text is a successor, journal of ajournai, to the founding texts of American naturism (inevitably, one thinks of Emerson and Thoreau) among which Swan’s works, rediscovered by Doig, figure as prominent Western examples.

14Yet Swan also incarnates the ambiguity of westward yearning, for he is not only an edge-walking adventurer and an inveterate journal writer like his transcendentalist contemporaries in the East, but a frontier entrepreneur as well, though an unsuccessful one, dreaming up fortunes to be made by selling his land claims to Eastern railroad interests. The entrepreneurial side of Swan elicits uneasy words of protest from his winter brother who, from his writing desk in suburban Seattle, can see where Swan’s money-grabbing impulses will lead and therefore would, in Thoreau’s words, “make him leave the city and withdraw into the wilderness”:

Swan, I would turn you if I could from this railroad courtship. I know its outcome, and you would be better off spending your ink money and postage [i. e. for letters to railroad barons] to bet on fistfights in your favorite waterfront saloon. [...] It is the thing I would change first about the West, or rather, about an ample number of Westerners. Their conviction that in this new land, just because it is new, wealth somehow ought to fall up out of the ground into their open pockets. (136-37)

15Intervening in Swan’s life from his contemporary point of view, Doig in turn becomes a representative character. His yearning for an earlier, original shape of the land and for its non-exploitative use is a typical late 20th century expression of the same ideology that pushed Swan from Boston to the very westernmost edge of the continent. Like so many Easterners’of the 19th century, Swan’s Western adventures were in part motivated by the wish to see the wilderness before it entirely gave way to civilization, motivated, then, by what Leopold in the text quoted in my introduction, calls “the receding economic fact of pioneering.” Over the century that separates the winter brothers the gulf between, on the one hand, the West of the mind, always promising freedom and wildness just “west of west”, and, on the other, the actual settled and civilized landscape has never stopped growing. The comfortable green suburb of Seattle where the contemporary writer lives and works and which he frequently evokes in his journal of ajournai (among other things as an area he wishes to protect from overdevelopment, “one more nick toward changing the Puget Sound region into Los Angeles North,” (139), stands as an ironic symbol of that gulf. Doig’s inter-textual journal, then, is also a means of contemplating the persistant significance and the ideological ambiguities of the values associated with the westerning drive, in particular, perhaps, following in Leopold’s footsteps, when that drive is associated with “green consciousness” (Buell).

  • 8
  • 9 Cf. Raymond Williams (1988) (—1973), Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London, Fontan (...)

16Doig invents, in the etymological sense of finding, his own ambiguous westernness by tracing it back to Swan’s. He has said of Winter Brothers that it is “about finding a place to invest ones life”8, an investment clearly thought to be spiritual or ecological, in the general sense of that term, i. e. in contradistinction to economic.9 At the end of Winter Brothers, on day 88 of his journal of reading Swan’s, Doig even imagines an entry for the beginning of the new century. Here he dictates to Swan’s pen, which at that point of his life had become inactive due to the pioneer’s advanced old age, a summing up of his frontier life, concluding (239): “For if I have not prospered greatly in my western life yet I am greatly prosperous in what I have done...,” and adding: “Swan did not write those words. I have written them for him, or rather, for both of us, this dusk of winter and of his life.” Thus the two brothers merge in their mutual admiration for the West and Doig concludes his reading of Swan enriched by the intellectual pattern it suggests for his own sense of place, over and above its material value (Swan’s apprentice capitalism, Doig’s comfortable existence in a Seattle suburb).

17In consequence of its significance as a model, Doig also uses Swan’s journal as a foil to help him measure and understand the region’s evolution over the hundred and more years that separates him from the period of the Western frontier. He frequently seeks out sites Swan has described in his journal, following his footsteps in a changed environment and thus contrasting past and contemporary experiences of the same territory. Such passages of textual juxtapositions serve less to evoke nostalgia for the ever receding wilderness — the ubi sunt topos being one of the constants of American naturism — than to propose an act of stock-taking and also, less transparently and, as it were, by default to testify to the undeniable “thereness” of an imposing environment throughout the varied course of human history. Here, for example, is a passage (73) recounting Doig’s visit to Neah Bay, the northwestern-most point of the Olympic Peninsula where Swan lived for several years as a neighbour and U.S. government representative to the local Makah community:

Driving here from Seattle this morning, I stopped at the west end of the highway bridge which sweeps across Hood Canal on barge-size concrete pontoons and looked along the channel to where a military base is being built for nuclear-missile-bearing Trident submarines. [...] Some hours in Neah Bay fitting its geography onto Swan’s era – a breakwater, built in the name of World War II security, now stretches from the West headland of the bay to Waadah Island; the Bureau of Indian Affairs buildings top of the Eastern point...

  • 10 The phrase is Louis L’Amour’s, author of popular westerns, and was borrowed by Jane Tompkins (1992 (...)

18Doig shows little nostalgia about such change. It is sufficient to register the fact that the appearance of the landscape is rendered threatening by the sombre symbols of contemporary technological warfare and US military power. Few places now actually “fit” the territory described by Swan. “I realize that I bring myself back to this bluff,” Doig says about a particular point in the landscape, “because here scenes still fit onto each other despite their distance in time. (...) Resonance of this rare sort, the reliable echo from the eye inward, I think we had better prize like breath.” (132) The phrase the reliable echo from the eye inward refers to the complicated relation between meaning and being that gives Doig’s conversation with Swan its particular poignancy. What was the wilderness in Swan’s time has been largely domesticated and developed. Those parts of the region that have been preserved as wilderness areas have been given the status of natural sanctuaries serving ultimately as contrast and complement to urbanised forms of living. “My West, or Wests,” Doig observes drily (241), “inevitably are going to be smaller and a bit more skewed than Swan’s and the more intensely held, felt, worried over, for that reason.” Only the weather of the Pacific Northwest seems not to have changed over the period separating the two journals. Thus Winter Brothers is punctuated by remarks, by Swan and Doig alike, about the weather which, if not interchangeable, evidently echo each other. The experience of the unpredictable and harsh climatic conditions implies a kind of correspondence between the two journals, that “fit” (mentioned in the passage quoted above) between what Doig reads and what he experiences when he goes out of doors. Inescapable in journals written on this storm-tossed rim of the continent, the continual conversation about the weather between the two Westerners suggests the unfathomable wildness of the natural world over and above the changes, for better or worse, wrought upon the land in the course of history. Perhaps this symbolism of the weather is also the reason for Doig’s choice of winter as the appropriate time to delve into Swan’s journals, as if, ironically, the allusion to the cold season could make up for the scarcity of real encounters with wilderness. The weather, too, is finally a sign of yearning rather than of true continuity. It may be added that, despite the absence of any mention of climatic change, Doig’s reader undoubtedly knows well enough that even the weather is not exempt from civilisation’s influence. Finally, then, what the winter brothers have in common is less their real experience of living in the same place than their culturally transmitted quest for a West lying “west of everything”10, a territory at once of the past and of the future.

19At the heart of Doig’s exploration of his family relation with Swan stand the region’s native inhabitants. The role played in Winter Brothers’s dialogic structure by quotations from Swan’s journal describing their lore and customs is indeed crucial. Doig’s text is replete with Swan’s observations on this subject. The principal quality of Swan’s dealings with the Indians, offset by Doig’s selection of quotes and his comments, is the frontiersman’s knowledge that the wish to learn as much as possible about and from them is also a form of acknowledging the ineluctable disappearance of their way of life. Swan is aware of himself contributing to that disappearance when he takes the job as the first teacher in the new school-house erected by the US government in the Makah village at Neah Bay. Doig quotes him on this subject (91): “We have indeed caused the ploughshares of civilization to pass over the graves of their ancestors and open to the light the remains of ancient lodge fires.” Passages in Winter Brothers such as the following (168-69) thus bear witness to a civilization replaced by the hegemonic European model and today contained in the region’s Indian reservations:

Called on Capt John [an Indian acquaintance] He then gave me the words of a wedding song, which originated with the Nimpkish Indians in Alert Bay... When a Nutka man buys a Nimpkish woman and she is brought home, they sing, “Ya ha haie, ya ha haie/Halo hwai kook sa esh/Yaks na artleesh, mamats sna aht/Cha ahk wyee, cha ahk wyee,/Ya ai ho ho ho ho ho hoo hoo” and may be rendered thus. I have a strong house on an island full of presents, and I will toss you there as if you were a bird. The final word is a jingle like row de dow dow in an English song. (168-69)

20The Indian words thus find their way into Winter Brothers as traces of otherness. Such quotations function as constant reminders of the ambiguous ancestry of Doig’s own westerness. Swan of course emblematically incarnates that ambiguity. Doig interrogates him thus (222): “Difficult to phrase, not say answer, but: what is the tidal pull of an earlier way of life, of the timescape of first people such as the Makahs and the vanished Haida villagers? What instruction does their West offer any of ours?”

21Not many of the early settlers were interested, to put it mildly, in the instruction the “first people” had to offer. Swan was one of the few who really were attracted by indigenous civilization and culture. For him the “first people” epitomized the otherness of the West which Thoreau, in the passage from “Walking” quoted earlier, calls wildness. Swan became during the fifty years of his life on the Northwestern frontier one of the foremost authorities on the tribes residing in the Puget Sound region, on Vancouver Island and further North along the coast of British Columbia. He also profited from the gradual devaluation of Indian civilisation and culture by buying stores of Indian artefacts at low prices. He then sent his purchases off to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Nowhere is the amalgamation of anthropological interest and cultural imperialism more noticeable than in Swan’s expeditions to the various coastal tribes in order to enlarge the holdings of the Smithsonian. A typical instance from Swan’s journal (226):

Skedance showed me a fine chest or box elaborately carved, but did not name any price. He showed me some other things, and I bought of him two dancing hats, a bow and arrow made of copper, used as ornaments while dancing and a carving in wood resembling an eagles foot holding a almon.

22Swan collecting Indian artifacts for the archives of the dominant settler culture: this activity is commented on by Doig with a mixture of irony and melancholy. The implacable historical logic of Swan’s activity is demonstrated, much more brutally, in Cormac McCarthy’s contemporary Western novel Blood Meridian (1985) in which one member of the band of Indian slayers who are the principal characters copies into a large book (referred to as a ledger) Indian artifacts and various examples of flora and fauna of the Soutwestern wilderness. Once drawn, artifacts and examples of wildlife are destroyed. Asked by one of his companions to explain his activity, he answers (998): “Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” The McCarthy character systematically destroys all manifestations, natural or cultural; of otherness once they are safely represented and contained in the archives of the dominant culture. Swan is obviously much more humane. But the cultural logic of his journal entries and of his collecting is essentially the same: the act of preservation is at once an act of domination and subjugation. It is that ambiguity which makes Swan’s journal a founding text of Western writing. The West Swan yearns for is always already disappearing precisely because he yearns for it. The “other”, i. e. the indigenous way of existing in a largely undomesticated natural environment, is thereby transformed into a symbol of colonial culture. That is the logic that Doig tries to capture by the very form of his text, by his journal of a journal, the logic according to which otherness is transformed into myths of domination.

  • 11 The study referred to by Doig is Bill Holm and Bill Reid. Indian Art of the Northwest Coast: A Dia (...)

23Admiring some of the Haida artwork the Swan collected and copied into his journal, Doig observes that one of its outstanding qualities is hybridization. His impression is supported by academic studies of Haida art that he quotes approvingly (241): “They [Haidas] weren’t bound by the silly feeling that it’s impossible for two figures to occupy the same space at the same time.”11 If this describes Indian art of the Pacific Northwest, it also could be said to describe important qualities of Doig’s dialogic or inter-textual writing in Winter Brothers, for in his text two figures, in the sense of representative characters, “occupy the same [textual] space at the same time”. Doig confirms this observation when close to the end of Winter Brothers he notes (241): “Scenes of this winter and of Swan’s own westernedged seasons do flow together, in the way that beings mingle in one of those magical carvings of the Haidas.” As I pointed out earlier, the notion of “flowing together” or of blurring boundaries is already implicit in certain aspects of Doig’s style, especially in tropes such as “western-edged seasons” (in the sentence just quoted), neologisms such as “ambassadoring” and formulaic phrases such as “lineage of frontier ink” (both occur in passages quoted earlier). More generally, each of the three parts of Winter Brothers is introduced by a Haida design, copied by Swan for the Smithsonian archives, suggesting that the overall conception of the text is meant as a tribute to the culture and civilization of “first people”. An ironical and melancholy tribute, for the very genre Doig has chosen underscores the absence of the “wilderness” that the Indian artwork symbolizes. The writing and structure of Winter Brothers are indeed suffused with the consciousness of loss that takes hold of Doig as he “faces West above his typewriter”.

24I have tried to show in the preceding pages that Doig’s response to the problem of re-writing in nature texts is the opposite of Gary Snyder’s in No Nature. Rather than rejecting naturism like Snyder, he embraces it, or, rather, one of its emblematic figures, George W. Swan, representative contributor to one of its emblematic genres, the frontier journal. But can Doig’s journal of a journal, doubly intertextual as a journal and as a textual dialogue, still be said to be “about” nature? Or, more to the point, given the connection between “naturism” and “green consciousness” mentioned in the introduction, about the environment? Confronting Winter Brothers with the criteria for recognizing “environmental texts” proposed by Lawrence Buell may help in finding elements of a response. Four general criteria are suggested by the ecocritic (1995, 7-8):

The nonhuman environment is present not merely as a framing device but as a presence that begins to suggest that human history is implicated in natural history. (...) The human interest is not understood to be the only legitimate interest. (...) Human accountability to the environment is part of the text’s ethical orientation. (...) Some sense of the environment as a process rather than as a constant or a given is at least implicit in the text.

25Buell admits (8) that these criteria are so general that “few works fail to qualify at least marginally, but few qualify unequivocally and consistently. Most of the clearest cases are non-fictional works...” According to these remarks, then, Winter Brothers as literary non-fiction has a head-start over fiction towards being consecrated “environmental”.

  • 12 Thus the title of Annie Dillard’s historical novel about the same region. Cf. Bibliography.

26However, it is ultimately less the content of Doig’s text, e. g. his descriptions of landscapes of the Olympic peninsula, than its dialogic form that corresponds to Buell’s criteria. His dialogue with Swan shows that even on this remote Western edge of the continent nature and culture are inextricably intertwined. The West sung in choms by Swan and Doig is a place to invest one’s life in, a place we approach through “the living”12 it shapes. The West in Winter Brothers is not just a framing device but instead a presence in which human life and history are implicated. Certainly, the human interest in the region, both spiritual and material, is foregrounded by the form of Winter Brothers. But Doig’s rewriting of Swan is also a way of representing the land as a space of yearning, always beckoning towards territories “west of west” where the logic of desire and loss that inspires the myth of the West might finally be suspended. Staking out the historical and cultural origins of his existence as a Westerner thus appears to be Doig’s way of expressing his sense of accountability. What Buell calls the text’s “ethical orientation” is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the role given the native inhabitants of the region, for their presence in the text and the signs of their culture that grace it most insistently call the readers’attention to the cultural logic of exploitation and preservation that is Winter Brothers’ main theme. Re-writing the journals of James G. Swan, frontier ambassador to the Indian tribes of the Northwest coast, is Doig’s way of forestalling the denial of civilisation and history in the name of the wilderness myth. Finally, many passages in Doig’s text, especially passages quoted from Swan’s journals, represent the environment as a biological process. But Winter Brothers as a whole is more complex. It represents the region as involved in a process of exchange between nature and culture. We could describe this procedure as a kind of cultural mapping. Nature — the West — thereby appears as culture, but culture — the two winter brothers’ idolization of wildness — is itself inspired by nature.

27If Buell’s four criteria can thus be applied to Winter Brother’s, it is obvious that I did not apply them quite in the sense that the ecocritic may have wanted them to be. But the experiment of looking at Doig through the lens of Buell’s ecocentrism does, I think, show that in nature writing construction, form and style - dialogic and intertextual in Doig’s case - are no less important means of conveying consciousness of nature than the content. Gary Snyder, despite his different approach, would probably agree; at any rate, the final lines of his poem (1992, 381) “Ripples on the Surface” seem a highly evocative way of closing these reflections on Doig’s Winter Brothers.

No nature
Both together, one big empty house.



Buell Lawrence, 1995, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture, Cambridge (MA), Harvard UP.

Callicott J. Baird and Michael P. Nelson, eds., 1998, The Great New Wilderness Debate, Athens: U of Georgia Press.

Cronon William, 1995, «The Trouble With Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature», In Callicott and Nelson 471-99.

Dillard Annie, 1992, The Living, New York, HarperCollins.

Doig Ivan, 1980, Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America, New York, Harcourt.

Leopold Aldo, 1925, «Wilderness as a Form of Land Use», In Callicott and Nelson 75-84.

McCarthy Cormac, 1985, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West, New York, Vintage.

Marx Leo, 2000 (—1964), The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Nash Roderick, 1982 (—1967), Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, Yale University Press.

Oelschlaeger Max, 1991. The Idea of Wilderness. From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Thoreau Henry David, (1862), «Walking». In Carl Bode (1972), ed. The Portable Thoreau, New York, revised ed. 592-630.

Tompkins Jane, 1992, West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Snyder Gary, (1992), No Nature. New and Selected Poems, New York, Pantheon.


1 Winter Brothers: A Season at the Edge of America. New York: Harcourt, 1980. page references in the text are to this edition. Ivan Doig was born in Montana where he spent his youth. He now lives in Seattle. He is the author of several books, fiction and non-fiction, with Western subjects, among others: This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind (1978, autobiography); English Creek (1984); Dancing at the Rascal Fair (1987), Ride with Me, Mariah Montana (1991), and Bucking the Sun (1996), all fiction.

2 Reprinted in J. Baird Callicott and Michael P. Nelson, ed., 1998. The Great New Wilderness Debate. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 80.

3 William Cronon. “The Trouble with Wilderness, or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” In Callicott and Nelson, op. cit, 471-99 (passage quoted 482).

4 “[Swan] came west in the California gold rush of 1849, from Boston. Ever after, he spent his life in a kaleidoscopic assortment of livelihoods along the Pacific shore, mostly on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. From 1859 until 1898 – he died in 1900, at the age of eighty-one – Swan kept a diary, a truly diligent and sustained record of frontier life.”

5 Swan’s journals are at the University of Washington archives in Seattle.

6 The title of the autobiographical narrative Doig published in 1978.

7 Nash, 1982, 8-84.


9 Cf. Raymond Williams (1988) (—1973), Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, London, Fontana. 110-11.

10 The phrase is Louis L’Amour’s, author of popular westerns, and was borrowed by Jane Tompkins (1992) for her study of westerns.

11 The study referred to by Doig is Bill Holm and Bill Reid. Indian Art of the Northwest Coast: A Dialogue on Craftsmanship and Aesthetics. Title cited by Doig on p. 195 of Winter Brothers.

12 Thus the title of Annie Dillard’s historical novel about the same region. Cf. Bibliography.


Professeur de littérature anglophone à l'Université d'Orléans. Il est titulaire d'un doctorat de l'Université de Bâle (Suisse) sur Shakespeare. Son domaine actuel de recherche porte la littérature américaine contemporaine et plus particulièrement les relations entre littérature et environnement

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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