Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Montana Face ...

I don't mean to be uncharitable, but I think it's fair to say that these days Montana's university system is probably no better than average. There was a time, though, when the Missoula campus, at least, had a real reputation for intellectualism and academic endeavor, and the school was home to a series of nationally regarded scholars, particularly in the arts and letters.

One of those men was a literary critic and essayist named Leslie Fielder, who taught at Missoula for nearly two decades after World War II. Though a number of his works received broad national attention, here in Montana Fielder is best remembered for a little essay titled "Montana; or The End of Jean-Jacques Rousseau." First published in the December, 1949 issue of the Partisan Review, the piece has been reprinted several times since, sometimes under the simpler title, "The Montana Face." It's a scathing essay, guaranteed to offend a great many Montanans then and now. Here's a sample paragraph, in which he describes his thoughts after moving to Missoula to teach, resolutely prepared "to face down any student who came to argue about his grades armed with a six-shooter":
I was met unexpectedly by the Montana Face. What I had been expecting I do not clearly know; zest, I suppose, naivete', a ruddy and straightforward kind of vigor - perhaps even honest brutality. What I found seemed, at first glance, reticent, sullen, weary - full of self-sufficient stupidity; a little later it appeared simply inarticulate, with all the dumb pathos of what cannot declare itself: a face developed not for sociability or feeling, but for facing into the weather. It said friendly things to be sure, and meant them; but it had no adequate physical expressions even for friendliness, and the muscles around the mouth and eyes were obviously unprepared to cope with the demands of any more complicated emotion.
There's more to the essay than that, though, something that makes it a very important read for anyone who either lives in Montana or loves the place. His key point is this: we as Montanans cling to myths about ourselves and our past, about our status as a last frontier ... and that doing so intellectually and emotionally holds us back. He sums it up in the his essay's final words, which I think still ring true: "[W]hen he has learned that his state is where the myth comes to die, the Montanan may find the possibilities of tragedy and poetry for which so far he has searched his life in vain."


  1. I'll bite my tounge on the issue of Montana's state universities... suffice to say, I think they've fallen to unremarkable status.

    But, I have to agree with Fielder's last comment; clinging to the past doesn't really allow us to move forward. Now I'm a historian and a preservationist, but to me its more important to consider the past in moving forward, not be bound by the past.

    It reminds me of the political will in Montana; if you and your family haven't been here for more than 3 generations, don't even bother filling out the application for governor, you aren't qualified in the minds of many. But that kind of thinking holds us back! New blood is never a bad thing.

  2. Yeah, I was a little nervous about posting this entry ... but I think it's all very true, and needs to be said. And your comments ring equally true, as well.

    The whole history of the state university system in Montana is pretty fascinating ... both academically and politically. And it certainly hasn't turned out too well, on a whole variety of levels.

    One thing about the university towns, though -- the two main ones, at least -- is that they seem a little less encumbered by this whole "mythic past" thing. It makes them far better places to live, I think, than anywhere else in the state.

    And though I probably shouldn't bring up Butte again, this is clearly one of that city's biggest problems. It really needs to let go of that old mythic mindset once and for all, and start looking ahead into the 21st century.

  3. Well, it's certainly not all the Republicans on university campuses that are causing the decline... ;)

  4. ... and of course I would argue that part of the decline was caused by excessive fiscal conservatism, and a long-time pattern in the state of the Right trying to muzzle academic free speech. :-p