Howard Frank Mosher and the Classics, Echoes in the Vermont Writer’s Works, by James Robert Saunders. 208 pages. Softcover. Published by McFarland. $45.
Reviewed by Tena Starr
Four years ago, in June of 2010, Purdue University professor James Robert Saunders went to hear Howard Mosher of Irasburg give a talk on his latest book, Walking to Gatlinburg.
“I had already read that particular work as well as the other ten books that he had written up to that point, books that I would see, off and on, when I visited the independent booksellers that are a mainstay of Vermont’s literary enterprise,” Mr. Saunders writes in his introduction to his own book, Howard Frank Mosher and the Classics, Echoes in the Vermont Writer’s Works. “Wanting to learn more about this author, who always seemed to have a little section at those stores reserved for him, I got on my computer and checked with the online MLA Bibliography, but found precious little that had been written about his works, in terms of interpretation.”
Mr. Saunders has set out to remedy that. His new book is a scholarly analysis of Mr. Mosher’s extensive work, one I’m not so sure that Mr. Mosher, himself, would entirely agree with. But Mr. Saunders’ main point is that we have a master storyteller in our midst, one who deserves far more recognition than he’s received.
In a 2013 interview, he asked the Irasburg writer why he hasn’t been “discovered.”
“I’ve been hiding out,” Mr. Mosher replied.
“By then, though, I was already aware of how much the author values humor, and so I did not bother to question him any further on the matter, sensing that there was indeed some truth to his statement at the same time I knew that, even when some of our greatest literary works are right in front of us in plain sight, we literary critics are often prone to overlook them,” Mr. Saunders writes.
“Hiding out,” in Howard Mosher’s case, could be both physical and metaphorical. Irasburg, Vermont, isn’t the likeliest place for an author to get rich and famous. But Mr. Mosher would undoubtedly rather be fishing the Willoughby than promoting books in New York City.
And then there’s the fact that he’s Howard Mosher, an unassuming man with a vast sense of humor.
Take his cross-country trip, the subject of the book The Great Northern Express. Traveling in the struggling Chevy he calls “the Loser Cruiser,” he was mistaken for all sorts of things he wasn’t, or partly wasn’t, at least for the purposes of that particular trip, a rare book tour.
Wearing his Red Sox cap and sweatshirt and driving his rust bucket car, he was often mistaken for an interloper, horning in on the prestigious author who was supposed to arrive. He was warned away from parking spaces reserved for himself and from a prestigious hotel where he’d been booked for the night by his hosts on the book tour. Alarmed doormen sent him off saying that he didn’t have a reservation.
Mr. Mosher announced to the doormen that he did, indeed, have a reservation but was canceling it. He got himself a room in a motel that was happy to take his 20 bucks. There, he had a ridiculous encounter with a neighboring occupant, who answered his door buck naked, except for cowboy boots and a tall boy, when Mr. Mosher politely knocked and asked if he could maybe pound on a wall other than the one separating their two rooms.
My personal favorite case of Mr. Mosher’s refusal to act like a “writer” comes when he was mistaken for a homeless man and simply accepted the broom a restaurant owner handed him with the words, “First you sweep, then you eat.”
What Mr. Saunders asserts here is that Howard Frank Mosher may well be personally modest, but his stories aren’t modest at all. They explore the major themes of classic literature, which Mr. Mosher is entirely familiar with.
“During my interview with him, during the summer of 2013, I told him that one of the conclusions I had drawn about him is that he is an expert on the classics,” Mr. Saunders writes.
“I don’t know about expert, but I have a great appreciation for the classics,” Mr. Mosher replied.
Once a teacher in Orleans, although he claims he was inept at that job, he can easily quote the very literature that Mr. Saunders suggests he’s related his own writing to. So maybe he’s not an expert, or maybe he is.
Mr. Saunders repeatedly compares the writer’s novels to Moby Dick, to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to William Faulkner’s great novels of the South, and to Pilgrim’s Progress, classics that have earned their place in the pantheon of American literature. He even compares Mr. Mosher’s work to the great themes of Shakespeare.
And, inevitably, with The Great Northern Express, he likens Mr. Mosher to John Steinbeck and his book Travels With Charley, another road trip inspired by ill health.
Mr. Mosher decided to hit the road after learning that he had prostate cancer. While some people decide to take it easy in the face of such a verdict, others conclude they’d better be doing what they’d always wanted to before time runs out.
Mr. Saunders’ book is a literary analysis. It isn’t a biography, although there is some of that. It isn’t a story. It’s a scholarly work that any advanced college student or literary critic would be familiar with.
It’s also, however, an expression of respect and admiration for one of Vermont’s great writers.
“The themes that I undertake to investigate over the course of my various chapters are ones that have existed since the beginning of humankind,” Mr. Saunders writes. “They are the age-old themes of war and love, the environment, discrimination, and the matter of who we really are beyond the limitations of our physical bodies. Mosher, over the course of his literary career, has drawn upon those same issues as he has placed them into the framework of a Vermont that has held on to its rural independent roots perhaps longer than most other places in America.”
It could be true, as Mr. Saunders asserts, that Howard Mosher was looking at Pilgrim’s Progress when he wrote Walking to Gatlinburg, the story of a young Vermont man’s extraordinary journey to find his brother, who fought in the Civil War battle of Gettysburg, then vanished. It could be true that he was recalling To Kill a Mockingbird when he wrote Stranger in the Kingdom, a fictionalized version of the true story of a black minister driven out of Irasburg.
Personally, I suspect Mr. Mosher was not thinking that hard and simply wanted to write a good story. For that is what he does so very well, and that is how he describes himself, as a storyteller. His writing is firmly rooted in the conviction that character is vital, but also in the old-fashioned belief that readers primarily want to read a good story.
Howard Mosher, though he was not initially from here, has been a chronicler of the Northeast Kingdom that was and is, sadly, vanishing into memory. He writes about the Northeast Kingdom in much the same way that William Faulkner wrote about the South — with empathy, understanding, and with a refreshing desire to look at Vermont’s seamier side, the real Vermont rather than the Vermont Life version.
In fact, venturing my own opinion, a far less scholarly one than Mr. Saunders’, I’d say that Mr. Mosher’s work is most comparable to that of Faulkner in that both men have a strong sense of place and no wish whatsoever to pretty it up.
From my point of view, loving a place is like loving a man. You don’t love him because he’s perfect; you love him in spite of all his imperfections. I suspect Mr. Mosher holds a similar view, one that goes a bit further even than that. Sometimes you love a man, or a place, in part, because of his, or its, idiosyncrasies and imperfections.
The Northeast Kingdom has spawned great characters, and great stories. Mr. Mosher immediately recognized them and has aptly captured some of them.
Mr. Saunders suggests that Mr. Mosher goes beyond being a classic storyteller, however.
“As important as it is to acknowledge that Mosher is an accomplished artist, it is also important to acknowledge that he is, equally, a gifted teacher,” Mr. Saunders writes. “Not the kind of teacher who tells you how to think, but one who offers up a tale of life and then asks what your impressions are, much like Melville’s Bartleby who, when asked to explain his behavior, only answers, ‘I would prefer not to.’”
That’s a talent — to write a powerful story while treading lightly.
Mr. Saunders has written an important and overdue book, one that honors Howard Mosher as a writer and offers a serious, analytical look at his work in relationship to what we consider classics. As a scholar and a fan, he has given Mr. Mosher some of the recognition that he so richly deserves.
The book can be ordered from the publisher’s website at www.mcfarlandpub.com, or by calling (800) 253-2187.
contact Tena Starr at email@example.com