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A Sweet Proposition

50th Anniversary of Robert Laxalt's
Sweet Promised Land

“‘My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills.’”  Thus begins Robert Laxalt’s book Sweet Promised Land, the best known book by the best known Basque-American author.  This year is the 50th anniversary of this book.  In order to welcome the Class of 2011 to campus, the University of Nevada, Reno will be embarking on a special project by asking incoming freshmen to read this book over the summer to discuss together when the term begins this Fall. 

Summer Scholars program to welcome the Class of 2011
By John Trent
(a senior editor in University Communications
[Source:  Reproduced here in case it is moved, but the original was posted online at http://www.unr.edu/features/sweet_promise/ ]

It only takes Warren Lerude a matter of seconds — a couple of carefully crafted thoughts — to explain the impact of the words. They are words that are more than a half-century old. Yet they are words that still resonate today.

He recites them from memory.

“‘My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills,’” Lerude says, his eyes closing for a moment as he remembers the Nevada writer Robert Laxalt’s opening sentence to the 1957 book, Sweet Promised Land. Lerude, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and University professor of journalism, was friends with Laxalt for more than four decades.

“Those are radiant, eloquent words," Lerude says. "You would be hard-pressed to find an opening line to any book over the past half century written with such economy, or with such feeling.”

Laxalt, known as Nevada’s greatest writer, passed away in 2001 at age 77. But his 17 books — and in particular, Sweet Promised Land, considered to be his finest work — continue to live on.

Summer Scholars

In order to welcome the Class of 2011 to campus, the University will be embarking on a special project this fall. The Class of 2011 Summer Scholar Project will ask all freshmen to read Sweet Promised Land over the summer. When they come to orientation in August, faculty, staff and administrators will lead study groups to discuss the book, which also is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“This will be our entering freshmen’s first opportunity to participate with faculty, staff and administrators in an academic setting as they begin their college career, and I can’t think of a better book to serve as the centerpiece,” Nevada President Milt Glick said. “Our mission to enliven curiosity, cultivate critical judgment and encourage our students to make an informed contribution to the development of American society is well-served through the reading and discussion of Sweet Promised Land.

Robert Laxalt

Robert Laxalt

“Robert Laxalt and his family will always have a special place on our campus. What better way to honor a great writer, and a great Nevadan, than to have Nevada students reading, discussing and learning from his greatest work?”

Praise for Sweet Promised Land has been universal. The New York Times said the book “deserves universal regard as a classic of Americana.”  The Washington Post called the book an “example of the art of writing.”

“Bob Laxalt was Nevada's Ernest Hemingway,” state Archivist Guy Rocha said. From his early days as a member of the University of Nevada’s boxing team to his later years, roaming the hills of the Carson Range behind his home in Washoe Valley while on horseback, or in the muted 4 a.m. air of the morning, writing stories on his trusted Royal typewriter, hours before his family would awake, Laxalt clearly appreciated the important intersection between the man of the West and his environment.

As the son of an immigrant sheepherder from the Pyrenees Mountains in France, Laxalt also understood what it meant to seek the sweet promise of a better life in America.

“Bob was a terrific writer, and his wonderful books spoke not just to Basques but to all the sons and daughters of immigrants … to those who love the American West and indeed all readers who enjoy simple but eloquent writing,” said Paul Laxalt, Robert Laxalt’s older brother and former United States senator and governor of Nevada.

Laxalt’s connections to the campus were strong. He was a 1947 graduate of the University with a degree in English. He joined Nevada’s faculty in 1954 as director of news and publications. He founded the University Press in 1961, and served as a journalism and writing instructor — influencing an entire generation of the state’s writers — and for the final two decades of his life was the University’s writer-in-residence.

His advice to his students?

“Take your writing seriously,” Laxalt would tell his students, “but never take yourself too seriously.”

Sweet Promised Land is the story of the journey of the Laxalt family’s father, Dominique, who came to America from the French Pyrenees at 16 years old to start a new life as a sheepherder in Nevada, as well as Dominique’s journey home 47 years later to the village of his birth.

Summer Scholars Program BookplateWhat follows is a story of great clarity. It deals with the strong pull of conflicted emotion, where a father realizes his home is no longer in the mountains of the Pyrenees but in the sheep camps of the Sierra. By book’s end, Dominique’s heart song has truly become American. “I can't go back,” he says at one point. “It ain't my country anymore. I've lived too much in America ever to go back.”

Sweet Promised Land is a story of assimilation and appreciation for old ways and new ways, where the story of immigrants is emblematic of a new America, an America of dreams and stark realities, a difficult yet promising America.

Fifty years later, as the Class of 2011 embarks this summer on reading Laxalt’s carefully crafted words, the story has lost none of its currency or relevance.

“We were among the last whose names would tell our blood to know another language in our homes, to suffer youthful shame because of that language and refuse to speak it,” Laxalt writers. “And the irony of it was that our mothers and fathers were truer Americans than we, because they had forsaken home and family, and gone into the unknown.”

Robert Laxalt’s Sweet Promised Land: A Place to Come To
by David Río Raigadas Universidad del País Vasco

Source:  Reproduced here in case it is moved, but the original appeared as Basque Studies Program Newsletter · Issue 54, 1996 and it was posted online at http://basque.unr.edu/09/9.3/9.3.54t/

This article was originally presented by the author as a paper at the II International Conference on Regional Literatures (Space and Place: The Geographies of Literature), Liverpool John Moores University, April 11-13, 1996.

Sweet Promised Land (1957)(1), the first and possibly best-known of Robert Laxalt’s books, appears to be a personal and rather simple story about the journey of the author’s father, Dominique, to his Basque homeland after forty-seven years as an immigrant sheepherder in the American West. In fact, the book has been often described as an intimate biography or as an affectionate memoir of a son to his father. Even Laxalt himself has emphasized to me the personal quality of this story:

“I couldn’t write it as a novel because something was missing. I thought that the poignancy of this trip moved me very much. It was a story of discovery for me, too. [..] It was a book written from the heart.”(2)

The intimate approach taken by Laxalt to portray his father’s life pervades the whole book and contributes to its success. Readers feel attracted by Laxalt’s personal and direct statements on his father and the fact that it is the true story of a man viewed through the eyes of his son, though some incidents in the book may have been a little fictionalized. Laxalt himself felt that the work meant an invasion of his family’s privacy and was particularly apprehensive of his father’s reaction toward it:

“When I told him about it, I thought I was running a risk of getting shot, but he accepted it well and even a little detachedly.”(3)

However, Sweet Promised Land must be read as the story not only of Dominique Laxalt, but of many Basque immigrants in the American West. The book goes beyond its personal level to embody the experience of Basque immigrants in the United States and even becomes a metaphor for American immigration in general.

Laxalt wrote this story about his Basque father at a time in which Basques were neither well-known nor popular in America. As William A. Douglass has pointed out,

“...the Basque-Americans were few in number, scattered lightly over the vastness of the American West and [...] their ethnic success as sheepherders par excellence identified them closely with the region’s most denigrated occupation.” (1986:xiii)

Set against this particular background, Sweet Promised Land constituted a vindication of the role of the immigrant Basque sheepherder in America, represented by the figure of Dominique Laxalt and his capacity to endure hardship in the New World. Basques in America identified themselves with Dominique’s story and felt encouraged to show their ethnic pride. At the same time, the wider public in the United States discovered Basques, “they discovered this romantic sheepherder thing,” in Douglass’ words.(4)

Although the book deals mainly with the way of life of Basque sheepmen in the American West, their experiences can be regarded as a symbol of the struggle of American immigrants in general. In fact, Laxalt himself agrees with this point and he even, in all modesty, refers to his lack of a deep knowledge about the Basques to support this idea:

Sweet Promised Land became an immigrant book, not particularly a Basque book, because I didn’t know so much about the Basques.”(5)

The truth is that the story works as a classic tale of immigration, where the immigrant’s experience is portrayed by Laxalt as a process divided into three basic stages: the immigrant’s decision to abandon his homeland, his fight for acceptance in the new country and his impossible return to his native land once the assimilation process is over. Throughout these different stages Laxalt shows his deeply felt concern with the modern individual’s need for meaning, for a sense of place and identity.

Although Sweet Promised Land emphasizes primarily the challenges that immigrants must face in America and their often fruitless attempts to recapture the past, it also explores the main reasons that lie behind their decision to seek their future in America. Thus, immigration is presented as the only way to escape from poverty for many European youths, symbolized by Dominique. He, as most immigrants, regretted leaving his native land, but he was well aware that he had to find an opportunity in life somewhere else:

“What chance was there if I stayed? There was no money for anything. I wanted stock and the land to move in, [...] and we didn’t even own the property where we lived.” (1986: 35)

At first, the journey to America was viewed by people like Dominique just as a temporary experience, as a way to earn enough money to return home. However, most of these immigrants soon realized that their way to success was in America, a raw new land that could provide them with a chance in life if they were ready to suffer and work hard. Thus, America represents for Dominique and many other immigrants the land of opportunity, the place to make their fortune. Nevertheless, Sweet Promised Land also describes the decline of America as a land of opportunity since the mid-century, particularly for new groups of immigrants like the Puerto Ricans, who are shown leaving for Brazil in search of another America.

Although Laxalt stresses the importance of the economic reasons in the immigrant’s decision to abandon his native land, he also refers in the book to the lack of freedom of these people in the Old World. Thus, for instance, one of the characters in Sweet Promised Land, Michel, escapes from France in order not to be imprisoned after running away from the seminary where he was to be ordained. Besides, there are other references to the restrictions imposed by the French authorities on one of the main symbols of the Basque culture: the Basque language. This meant, as Dominique says, “to be made to feel that it was a crime to be born a Basque.” (1986:76). Being unable to display their ethnic identity in their own land, these people feel constricted in the Old World and they set their heart on America, which symbolizes for them not only the land of opportunity, but also of freedom.

The integration experience of the immigrant in American society is described by Laxalt as a gradual process in which the immigrant’s desire for acceptance and his reluctance to lose his ethnic identity often act as opposing forces. He particularly focuses his attention on the challenges that the newcomer must face during his first years in America. Thus, he gives in his book a detailed description of the hardships endured by his father when he first arrived in Nevada. Although Dominique’s struggle for integration presents some specific characteristics related to his condition of Basque sheepherder, the tests he must undergo during this process illustrate the hard lessons the ordinary immigrant usually has to learn in the new land.

One of the first challenges that the immigrant must face in America is the adaptation to a new setting, often completely different from that of the Old World. Laxalt particularly emphasizes the deep impact that the Nevada desert produces on Basque sheepherders like Dominique, who longs for his green land:

“You would have to see the beauty of the Basque country before you knew what I meant, but I remember going out into that cruel desert when I first came, and nights when I cried to sleep in my tent.” (1986: 50)

Thus, on their way to integration, these immigrants will inevitably have to adjust themselves to a harsh landscape, with a devastating climate, and gradually they will have to overcome their nostalgia for the old country, too.

Laxalt also portrays isolation and loneliness as common trials for the immigrant. Besides, in the case of the Basque sheepherders the challenge becomes especially arduous. Their loneliness is not simply the result of their condition of newcomers, their ignorance of the language or the bad reputation of their job, as was often the case with other immigrants. The loneliness of the Basques is also produced by the utter solitude in which they find themselves as sheepherders on the open range. In the most desolate corners of the American West they long for human company, for the sound of a human voice, and the monotony of their lonely life exposes them to potentially severe mental strain. Related to this, it is worth mentioning that, even though the Basques had a special reputation among all nationalities in America for their capacity to endure solitude,(6) Laxalt includes in Sweet Promised Land a Basque sheepherder, Joanes Ergela (or Crazy John), who loses his mind from loneliness in the mountains. This example works as a symbol of the serious nature of the ordeals that the immigrants must undergo in their new country.

Another major challenge that immigrants must face is economic survival, a subject that plays an important role in Sweet Promised Land. Laxalt shows that immigrants, apart from suffering hard working conditions, as in the case of the Basques mentioned above, usually have a difficult start making their living in the New World. America may be the land of opportunity, but working hard is not enough there. The newcomer must be ready to fight competitors, even resorting to violent means. In addition, he must resist the temptation of wasting his money, even if that means staying away from town for a long period. Last but not least, his economic success often depends on a volatile market. All these features are perfectly represented in Sweet Promised Land by the struggle experienced by Dominique and Basque-American sheepherders in general. Thus, these immigrants are shown in open conflict with the cattle ranchers for the feed and the water. Besides, the book describes their obsession with saving and their difficulties in resisiting the temptation of wasting their money in town. Finally, Laxalt also introduces the livestock crisis of the 1920s as an example of the uncertain economic conditions: the sheep market began to go and immediately most of the Basques lost everything for which they had worked so hard.

Apart from the different challenges mentioned throughout this paper, immigrants must sometimes confront hostility, fun-making or contempt from the host community. In some cases this hostile atmosphere is closely related to economic reasons, as we saw in the conflict with the cattlemen described above. However, in many cases this situation is simply due to the cultural and ethnic distinctiveness of the newcomers. They do not fit into the standard patterns of the American society because they are outsiders, who speak a different language and have a different culture. And at that time in America, as Robert Laxalt remembers, “it wasn’t fashionable to be ethnic.“(7)

As a result, the Basques, as other groups of immigrants with special ethnic features, will experience some bullying, fun-making, and rejection. Laxalt does not wish to exaggerate the importance of these incidents and consequently he does not include any episodes of violent discrimination against the Basques in Sweet Promised Land. However, he shows how two young Basques are made fun of just because of their speech and clothes and he also refers to the shame suffered by Basque-American children when they speak Basque in public. These examples illustrate the intolerance of the American society in the first half of the twentieth century toward expressions of cultural or ethnic diversity. As William Douglass has pointed out,

“persons who clung to their native language and who continued to manifest Old World lifeways were suspect.” (1986:x)

So, these immigrants, in spite of their reluctance to lose their original identity, will often have to hide their ethnic heritage or to renounce it in order to become Americans.

All these hardships that immigrants must endure to achieve their integration in American society are symbolized in Sweet Promised Land by boxing, a sport whose rules Dominique and other immigrants understand perfectly well. The comparison between boxing and the immigrant experience enables Laxalt to enhance the sacrifice of these newcomers in America:

”Like the men in the ring, they too had stood alone and fought alone, with their only weapons the hands that God gave them, and the fight was everything they had ever done and seen and felt.” (1986:65)

The struggle for acceptance of the immigrants also extends to their descendants, for whom boxing works as a useful model, too. As Laxalt knows from his own experience, second- generation Americans often must fight harder than the rest, just because they “were born of old- country people in a new land.” (1986:66)

Although Laxalt’s interest is mainly focused on the obstacles that the immigrant finds on his way to integration, he also shows how the newcomer gradually becomes familiar with the host country and its people and even identifies himself with them. This process has its origin in the immigrant’s capacity to adapt himself to the new environment without questioning it:

”...afterward it wasn’t suffering, because it was the way things was, and a man couldn’t do anything about it, and maybe that’s why he didn’t spend the time thinking about it, either.” (1986:50)

However, the self-identification of the newcomer with American society is accelerated by a series of elements that represent the progressive acceptance of the immigrant by the host community. As an example of this, Laxalt describes the first time that his father did not feel like a stranger in America. It was an encounter with a group of bandits, where he discovered that even the cruel people who inhabited the harsh land were capable of kindness toward a foreigner like him. This incident shows him that the new country is not only a place of disillusionment and brutality, but also of generosity and love.

In Sweet Promised Land, Laxalt also pays close attention to the last stage of the immigrant experience: the impossible return of the native. The book shows the return to the homeland as an unrealistic idea for most immigrants. Certainly, Laxalt provides the reader with the examples of two Basques (Nazario and the innkeeper) who come back to their native land after a few years in America and decide to remain in their country of birth. However, these two cases can be regarded as exceptions because most of the Basque immigrants in the story fail to return to their homeland. In addition to this, the main character, Dominique, who manages to see the Basque Country again, prefers in the end to go back to America.

Although a lot of immigrants in Sweet Promised Land talk about going home, their return is nearly always postponed and in most cases it never takes place. Two opposite reasons may be argued to account for this situation: the failure of the integration process, and its overwhelming success. Actually, the book describes a group of Basque immigrants who are unable to overcome the challenges of the new land, but have to remain in America because their return has become physically impossible. They have failed to save money or they have been defeated by adversity, age, or loneliness. As one of the characters in the story says,

”...they were lost souls, and they did not even have the good fortune to be lost in their own hell. They were foreigners when they came and they will always be foreigners.” (1986:107)

As a contrast to these immigrants, Laxalt focuses his attention on the figure of his father, who symbolizes the success of the assimilation process. After forty-seven years in the New World, Dominique is so integrated in the American society that his early wishes to return to the Basque Country and settle there have vanished. We can even see how he hesitates when his family encourages him to go back to the old country for a short visit to his sisters. His nostalgic trip to the Basque Country is portrayed by his son, who accompanies him, as a shocking and ambiguous experience. In particular, Robert Laxalt emphasizes the deep impact produced on his father by his sudden return to the old country after forty-seven years of absence. Besides, the return becomes a catalyst for very opposite feelings. On the one hand, it is a moment for joy, reward and fulfillment. Dominique has the opportunity to meet his relatives again and these welcome him as a hero, as “the youth who had gone out into the world in beggar’s garb and come back in shining armor.” (1986:122) On the other hand, the return makes Dominique feel sad and old because he realizes that too much time has gone on and nothing can be the same again. His parents and some of his old friends are dead and, in spite of the joyous reunion with his relatives and the recall of youthful memories, he cannot avoid feeling like a stranger in his own land.

Robert Laxalt ends his tale of immigration by stressing the impossibility of returning to the past. To illustrate this point, he uses the example of his father’s nostalgic trip to the Basque Country. Actually, Dominique’s final decision to leave again for the United States shows that once the assimilation process is over and the old land has become only a dimming memory, the return of the native is nearly always a chimerical idea. As Dominique says at the end of Sweet Promised Land,

“I cannot go back. It ain’t my country anymore. I’ve lived too much in America ever to go back.” (1986:176)