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reed magazine logoWinter 2008

Dell Hymes at Warm Springs, 1955. Letter to Kay French, November 8, 1951.

In 1945 he turned 18 and was sent to Korea. From his army experience three things stand out—all pertinent to his later interests. First, he was assigned to work for a storytelling lieutenant-colonel. “Part of the job was to listen to him talk about his life,” Hymes recalled. From Korea, Hymes traveled to Japan for R-and-R. “On the train we went past where Hiroshima had been. Nothing left. And that just stayed with me all my life.” Third was writing a poem after a visit to the ancient Japanese city of Nara: “It was a lovely place—lots of old Buddhist things and so forth. I wrote a poem to the guy who was in charge. He was very pleased with that.”

In 1947, Hymes returned to Reed on the G.I. Bill. Men and women who had seen a bit of the world (and in many cases, a bit of its destruction) were returning to college, taking up their studies with maturity and intensity. And at Reed, poetry was in the air. “There were people who knew that [writing poetry] was what they wanted,” Hymes remembered. “Gary Snyder [’51] was there, and we were friends. And Bill Dickey [’51].”

Snyder’s memory of Hymes at Reed is vivid and endearing. “He was tall, gangly, and very shy,” Snyder said in a recent interview from his home in Northern California. “He was articulate, but kind of stumblingly articulate sometimes…He was so learned already, engaged in thinking about ideas. It was hard for him to make small talk. He was also compassionate and very left-wing—somewhat of a socialist, as everyone seemed to be then.”

Hymes and Snyder both took anthropology classes with professor French, who advised each of their theses. French, who was not much older than his illustrious students, later wrote the following about their crowd, in an essay for the book Gary Snyder: Dimensions of a Life: “The link between anthropology and literature (especially poetry) was particularly strong at Reed in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Among those involved were Gary Snyder, Dell Hymes, Lew Welch, and Philip Whalen. They were party-sharers, friends, and intellectual colleagues; there were others associated with them and the critical mass resulted in aesthetic and scholarly activity extending spontaneously beyond classrooms.”

Hymes, in his own essay on Snyder, situates their first crossing of paths firmly in the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, calling it “the country where we met, and where our imaginations were first at home.” He continues:

In 1950 and 1951, Gary and I were successively the first (the only?) graduates from Reed with degrees jointly in anthropology and literature. The combination seems familiar now. Then it was odd. A tribute to an accommodating college. I went on to Indiana University in Bloomington, for no clear reason other than I was interested in Indians, and it offered folklore and linguistics along with anthropology. The summer of 1951, I returned to the Northwest to try to use a wire recorder and learn something about Wasco at Warm Springs Reservation. Gary was also working there, in the woods. I remember . . . finding kittens abandoned at the edge of the Deschutes…Gary took one, I another. He called his Io Zagreus [for the poem by Ezra Pound]; I called mine Sapir [for the pioneering anthropologist and linguist].

There has sometimes been a bit of tension in my relationship with Gary. For a short time, he took a path on which I stayed (Sapir), then he left it behind to take a path (Io Zagreus) a part of me would envy.

Which path to choose was a frequent topic of discussion between Hymes and Snyder when they shared a flat in Bloomington, Indiana, where Snyder had followed Hymes to pursue graduate studies in anthropology. For Snyder, the anthropology didn’t stick, and he soon left, returning to San Francisco, settling into a series of Bay Area houses frequented by a rotating menagerie of Beat poets and nascent Buddhists (many of them, like Philip Whalen ’51, Reedies).

Yet, Hymes and Snyder continued to meet, correspond, and explore common interests, including ethnopoetics and myth. In an interview from the 1970s, Snyder reflected on the academic road Hymes had traveled: “Dell of course was more of a poet then [in 1952] than an anthropologist, he was a very romantic, revolutionary poet, a good poet.”

In the summer of 1951, though, they were both on the Warm Springs Reservation on the high plateau east of Mount Hood. David and Kay French introduced Hymes around. This was the beginning of his lifelong linguistic study of the Wasco tribe. He returned to the reservation for the summer of 1954 and completed his doctoral dissertation in 1955. His Ph.D. thesis, The Language of Kathlamet Chinook, was a grammar, compiled from scratch on the basis of texts published in 1901 by the German-born anthropologist Franz Boas, often called the father of American anthropology. The technical work was intensely challenging: Hymes was charting a language that had never been mapped before. But perhaps more significant was what the words of the texts were saying. “That’s when I read the Sun’s myth,” he later recalled, “which I can’t think about without thinking of Hiroshima. A whole people destroyed. And in the Sun’s myth, it’s the fault of the person who overreaches.”


reed magazine logoWinter 2008