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W&L's Warren Receives Grant for Research on Alaskan Author

James Warren, the S. Blount Mason, Jr. Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, has received a $5,000 grant from the Alaska Humanities Forum to research and write about the poetry and prose of John Haines, the first great literary writer to emerge from Alaska after World War II.

Warren will spend five months at the Alaska and Polar Regions Archive in the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks Rasmuson Library researching the contents of “The Haines Papers.” According to Warren, the library’s materials are the most significant collection by and about Haines, and include essays, poems and photos from Haines’ career, as well as his correspondence with important writers and editors.

“These materials illuminate the shape of Haines’ career and how a writer changes through a lifetime of writing,” said Warren, who specializes in bringing out the literary significance of manuscript materials. “Haines died in in 2011, and this would seem like a great moment to pursue this research and write the first book dedicated to his life and career,” he said.

“I was first drawn to John Haines’s work about 15 years ago and read some of his poems and a bit of his memoir, ‘The Sky, the Stars, the Fire,’ about 25 years of homesteading in Alaska,” said Warren, who is himself an outdoorsman, amateur botanist and hunter. “I thought that Haines wrote particularly well about wild animals in the Far North.”

Warren read Haines’ work more regularly and studied his work more deeply during the past few years.  “He writes with great passion about finding his way to the woods 68 miles southeast of Fairbanks in 1947 and making a homestead there,” said Warren. “He built a cabin and outbuildings, grew vegetables in a greenhouse and learned to be an accomplished salmon fisher, hunter and trapper.  He learned to live and work through the long, sub-zero darkness of subarctic winters. While doing all that, he became an accomplished poet and essayist. His work celebrates the earth and our vital connection to it, but it is never sentimental about how we belong to the natural world.”

Warren noted that the country Haines lived in from 1947 to the early 1970s has changed due to modern developments such as paved roads, the petroleum industry and the Alaska pipeline, the trucking industry, industrial logging and cheap electricity. “Haines was critical of most of these developments, but he also had a strong faith in the resilience of the earth,” he said.

“It occurs to me that Haines resembles Thoreau in his independence of mind and in his willingness to follow his own dreams. Like Thoreau, Haines did not dwell apart from other people; both writers are able to find a connecting link to others. In Haines’ work, you learn a lot about the older hunters and trappers who were his neighbors. You learn how stories can deepen your appreciation for a place and how a long-term knowledge of a place can deepen your appreciation for stories. Haines is best at showing how he journeys into the landscape of the wooded hills above the Tanana River in order to find a way of seeing the world and listening to his own voice.”

In addition to researching the book, Warren plans to present his research in public lectures to academic and general audiences in Alaska.

Warren is the author of numerous critical articles and books, including “John Burroughs and the Place of Nature” (University of Georgia Press, 2006), “The Culture of Eloquence” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999) and “Walt Whitman’s Language Experiment” (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1990). He received his B.A. from Auburn University and his Ph.D. from Yale University.

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