On to the Future or Return to the Past?

Because my writing supports the values inherent in the American Revolution (and the ideals of Thomas Jefferson in particular), this might leave me open to the charge that I want to return to the past. After all, Jefferson distrusted cities and felt that an agrarian society where all people had a connection to their neighbors and to the land was the best way to fulfill the hopes of our great American experiment. The very fact that I talk about abandoned values and a reintegration with Nature might make it hard for some to see how this is really not about the past but about the future.

Surely if someone is sitting pretty in America, as so many are, reading my work could be discomforting—and how better to make light of its theme than to say it harks back to the past? I have no doubt it’s tempting to say that this Katry Rain character is disillusioned with urban life and wants a return to eighteenth- or nineteenth-century American arcadia. I can only say from the heart and hope that I’m believed that I have no desire to go back to the past. I’ve lived in cities all my life, including New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Sydney, and don’t plan to “return to the farm” any time soon. I’m simply taking a cue from Jefferson like he took one from John Locke and Voltaire, like they took from the Renaissance and beyond, like they took from the Greeks—looking for what’s best in the human spirit and trying to keep it alive and translate it for this generation—so that we might bring the best of what humanity has learned about itself into the future.

At the moment we live in a materialistic age where most of the deepest human values and aspirations have been transformed into a superficial hamster wheel of consumption. So how can I not have my eye on the future and ways we might better realize what’s important—in order to construct a more satisfying tomorrow than we have today? Thus I ask not to be written off as a bucolic dreamer yearning for simpler times. My work is all about the future.

If that’s so, then why does so much of it look askance at the conventions of modern urban life? My “utopian” novel, Three Days at Albemarle, is set in a mountain community in Montana. The protagonist of the follow-up novel lives in New Mexico, rides a bike and marries a Native American. My last book is a dream set in a place resembling Elizabethan England. Why? Where’s this so-called future I’m talking about?

The fact is that I chose simple settings because I felt this was the best way to take complex ideas (as I saw them) and strip them down to the bone. Like a classical Chinese mountain painting where half the lines seem to be missing, I thought that if I could reduce the noise of modern life enough, I had a better chance to show what I was getting at. That’s why I didn’t set my characters in the intricate social and psychological milieu of a London or New York—there’s too much noise. (When my characters do turn up for a time in L.A., New York or Washington, it’s often into the maw of the beast, so to speak.)

The problem with this focus on showing what I mean by often erecting my stage in rather more rural settings rather than creating a utopian urban future, of course, is that I then leave it to others to design that future. Yet this is my intention!

My books are meant primarily to lay out a philosophical groundwork. I don’t want to tell others how they should live. Nor do I presume to determine for so-called experts how they should help the future unfold. The doctor knows medicine, the engineer physics, the mayor local politics. They are the ones who will lead us into the future, and I don’t think it’s a cop-out in the least to say that I didn’t set my books in that future I envision because people of initiative and good will are the ones who should imagine that future. I only want to outline the problem more clearly and suggest an alternate interpretation of the American Dream. I want to give ammunition (as well as succor) to the ones who in their own respective fields and in their own lives will bring the America of tomorrow into being.

In effect, I don’t focus on the future so much as the human being. It’s up to others to do with that what they will. I can only hope I’ve been of some service in keeping some ideas and traditions alive—the useful ones, the good ones—and show how they might apply to us today. I may even have introduced a new take on one or two; I can’t say. And with luck and providence—should it exist—my life and my work will not have been in vain. But that’s out of my hands, really. I did what I could. Maybe that’s a fitting (if trite) epitaph: “He did what he could.” And maybe I should add—though there have been times of disappointment, indignation and not a little frustration—I did it out of love. For this world, and for everyone and everything that’s in it. Whatever else people may think of me, please remember that.

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