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reed magazine logoAutumn 2008

That Marin-an typescript is now in the special collections library at Kent State University, and is the earliest known version of the finished poem. For scholars of Myths & Texts, Reed’s tape will be essential listening—and, when fully transcribed, essential reading—because it predates the Kent State typescript by two months and shows the poem in its crucial late stages.

Crater Mountain Lookout

Snyder at Crater Mountain Lookout, 1952
Photo by ©Harold Vail

Laden as it is with unattributed literary and anthropological allusions and snippets of shamanic song, Myths & Texts was not—and still isn’t—an easily accessible poem. Nor did Snyder have an easy time getting it published. Edgy Grove and staid Indiana University presses both turned it down, as did poet-publishers James Laughlin at New Directions, and City Lights’ Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who said that he might be interested, but only if Gary took out “a lot of that stuff about animals and Indians.”

Ironically, these quintessentially Northwest poems were eventually published by one of the most East Coast, urban small presses of the time—Amiri Baraka’s (LeRoi Jones) Totem Press, in conjunction with Corinth Books in Greenwich Village. In 1960, Baraka printed the poem in a handsome little staple-bound chapbook, the first edition of which now goes for $100 or more online. The book sold about a thousand copies a year throughout the ’60s and ’70s. Eventually New Directions picked up the rights to Myths & Texts, but only after Snyder won the Pulitzer Prize. It has remained in print with New Directions, selling 30,000 copies over the years.

When Myths & Texts went to press in 1960, Snyder redated the poem’s compositional beginning from “Sourdough Mt. 1953” to “Crater Mt. L.O. 1952” to reflect the inclusion of lines written and inspiration from his first fire lookout job in the North Cascades. But the real genesis of Myths & Texts can be said to go back even farther, to Reed College in late ’50 and early ’51, during the time that Snyder was living on Southeast Lambert Street in Sellwood and working on his senior thesis under professors Lloyd Reynolds and David French ’39. Letters that Snyder wrote to his old Reed friend Dell Hymes, then at Indiana University doing grad work in anthropology, show this to be the case: Myths & Texts not only shares many intellectual sources with Snyder’s senior thesis (Boas, Swanton, Sapir, Zimmer, and more), but the earliest pieces of it were inspired and written concurrently.

Approved by Thanksgiving, Snyder’s thesis proposal was to be “an intense study of one myth-cycle subjected to methods and theories now circulating in the fields of anthropology, literature, and psychology.” His outline didn’t specify a particular myth for analysis—“Probably an American Indian culture-hero,” was all he initially proposed—but his 8-part outline, his cutting-edge (for that time) comparative approach, and an insanely ambitious reading load were all approved. “Lloyd is very excited about it; French thinks it’s possible,” he wrote to Hymes. The thesis would eventually run to 154 pages and be called “The Dimensions of a Myth.”

In early December, Snyder was sifting through Pacific Northwest Indian tales in turn-of-the-century Bureau of American Ethnology field reports, trying to decide on one as the focus of his thesis. He started on Franz Boas’s monster volume of Tsimshian Mythology but soon backed off, finding it “too daunting.” He turned instead to John Swanton’s Haida Texts & Myths. Swanton, Snyder came to feel, “had a much better ear for language and story than Franz.” These were tales that Swanton had collected at Skidegate in Haida Gwaii—the Queen Charlotte islands—in 1900–01, with fantastical titles like “The Man Who Married a Killer Whale Woman” and “He Who Got Supernatural Power from His Little Finger.”

In his thesis outline, Gary had proposed an “intense” study of a single myth. Probably he meant to say “intensive,” but as things turned out, the end of 1950 was indeed an intense time for the 20-year-old Snyder. Alison Gass ’53, his wife of five months, left him in mid-November, and though he and she and everyone else agreed it was best to end their muddled attempts at marriage, the break-up was still sad, the end of “Gareth and Alysoun.” (He watched her walk away down Lambert Street in the rain, wearing Lew Welch’s old black felt mountain hat, his own raincoat, and a rucksack he’d bought her for her birthday that summer.)

Sourdough Mountain Lookout

Sourdough Mountain Lookout
Photo by John Suiter

reed magazine logoAutumn 2008