NONFICTION: Much lauded poet and University of Oregon professor emeritus Ralph Salisbury uses memoir to take readers on an unsentimental journey into American history.
Ralph Salisbury’s memoir, “So Far, So Good,” winner of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize, allows for a glimpse into American history from one who lived it, participated in the creation of it, and lovingly and at times scathingly critiques it. Salisbury, born in 1924 to a singing, storytelling and at times abusive Cherokee father and a tough but ladylike Irish-American mother, guides his readers through a chronological unfolding that includes farm life during the Great Depression, military training during World War II, and racial and political controversy as experienced by a minority dissenting voice on multiple university campuses in the 1950s and beyond.
Like a grandfatherly storyteller, Salisbury takes readers on tangents that are, initially, jarring. It doesn’t take long, though, to fall into the pleasant role of rapt listener. In what some might describe as a Native American storytelling ethos, his memoir is not so much linear as it is web-like, traveling in circles, doubling back, connecting his past to his midlife to his 80-something-year-old present; but more important connecting his lived experiences with a multiplicity of histories.
His comfortable narrative takes sharp turns, often layering a series of disturbingly related images. Early in the memoir he vividly describes his participation in the castration of farm animals, which is then quickly juxtaposed with rumors of World War II prisoner castrations, castrated Tories in the Revolutionary War, middle-class mobs castrating a young and newly married union organizer and finally Salisbury’s own farm work-related injury that threatened but ultimately did not inhibit his own “biological future.”
He uses this technique a number of times for more than just the imagistic aesthetic. In some instances, his palimpsests of strikingly visual descriptions are purposefully political, but not, at least initially, in a way that is prescriptive. Much like many traditional Cherokee tales, rather than having one obvious moralistic message, Salisbury’s stories ask his readers to consider multiple actions and outcomes and to take away the message necessary for the moment.
When he does proselytize, he earns it. Without shying away from sweeping statements meant to urge readers toward the betterment of the whole, he writes about rich “politicos whose greed is destroying the earth,” only after developing his authority by describing his own close-to-the-earth upbringing.
Some memoirs can come across as writerly indulgence (no doubt some readers might be prone to view this one as such), but the end result of Salisbury’s narrative is to intelligently press us into a recognition of the importance of lived experience and urge an active engagement with our collective past, present and as-yet-to-be-created future.
Elizabeth Wilkinson is an assistant professor of English at the University of St. Thomas, where she teaches Native American, Women’s and Sports Literatures.