While Odysseus is lost and wandering home from Troy, he is always being accused of being “one of those thieving beggars who will tell any kind of lying tale in order to get a cloak, and a hot meal.” Odysseus usually assures them that he is no such man, and then goes on to spin the most outrageous yarns about the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the Sirens, etc. Enthralled, his guests then give him whatever he wants. The Greeks appreciated this ironic nod to toward the realm of truthfulness, and then allowed the poet to get down to the business of spinning his tale unencumbered by restraints of the real and possible, only what was plausible and interesting. They did not share our literal Information Age mindset when it comes to stories and tales; our word “poet” comers from their word poein which means “to make,” because they expected their poet to make fiction. And that’s why despite some minor differences, Odysseus would have fit right into a story about a poker game in Billings in 1846, riding the Yellowstone ferry, or just sitting outside the boot store in Belt in his old age talking to the WPA workers who were nosing around for stories and were themselves just happy not to be working at the Fort Peck dam.
In defense of lies and liars, Charlie Russell said, “A man in the states might have been a liar in a small way, but when he comes out West he soon takes lessons from the prairies, where ranges a hundred miles away seem within touchin’ distance, streams run uphill and Nature appears to lie some herself.”
Reading the stories collected by The WPA Montana Writers’ Project, I can’t wait until the next Great Depression. It is a great thing that this country was once so poor that it actually paid writers, poets, and academics to go out in the field and use their skills to harvest the wealth of tales that were disappearing as the wildness in the West did. These sustainable resources have been in a disorganized pile over at MSU since World War II pulled us out of the Depression, and so these stories are seeing the light of day for the first time.
Thinking about what these pioneers encountered in Montana, you get the feeling that information alone would not suffice to explain to a city boy, easterner, or Texan what it was like out here, and that alone seems instructive. To say, for example, that the thermometer registered 30 below zero is one way to put it, but quite another is to say that it was cold enough to freeze your shadow to the ground. Not that the book is filled with Bunyanesque yarns, but you do need to decide early on just how truthful you like your truth—there are plenty true and medium-true stories, too.
But sometimes the universal truth is disguised as a particular. For example, you could say that most journalists are drunks and leave it at that, or you could relate the story about how the boys in the pressroom of the Butte Intermountain tapped into the keg lines of the bar next door, and set up their own spigot. And tell about how everything was going swimmingly until someone neglected to plug up the dutchman tight enough and it drained the saloon’s keg dry while the editorial staff was laid out cold. Which do you prefer? The bland, but bald and possibly libelous generalization, or the cleverly told tale? Take your pick.