Late Gore Vidal's first novel, 'Williwaw,' was set in Alaska

August 4, 2012 

Movie star Ella Raines is pictured in conversation with up-and-coming author and veteran of the Aleutian Campaign Gore Vidal at the Stork Club in New York City, April, 1950. Vidal wrote his first novel, "Williwaw," while serving as the mate on a U.S. Army troop ship.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Author Gore Vidal, who died July 31 at the age of 86, is best known as a stylish, urbane wordsmith who generally wrote about people and places most Alaskans would consider sophisticated if not downright luxurious.

But it should also be remembered that he spend time as a crusty old sailor on ships in the Aleutians. Well, not that old. He was a teenager when he enlisted in the Army during World War II and was assigned as the mate on a troop transport working in the Aleutians. While on that ship, he began writing what would be his first novel, "Williwaw."

The story -- completed, we're told, after he suffered frostbite and was shipped back to the states -- is set on a troop ship and involves a possible murder in an Alaska port. This week's New York Times obituary characterized the book, published in 1946, as "Written in a pared-down, Hemingway-like style, 'Williwaw' (the title is a meteorological term for a sudden wind out of the mountains) won some admiring reviews but gave little clue to the kind of writer Mr. Vidal would become."

Or maybe it did. Another New York Times writer, Orville Prescott, reviewing the book hot off the press, had a different opinion. He called it "a good novel" and praised it as "a sound, craftsmanlike work that would do credit to a practiced novelist twice its author's age. Mr. Vidal is 20, and he wrote his book when he was only 19.

" 'Williwaw' moves along at a brisk pace from beginning to end," Prescott wrote. "It is occasionally humorous and continuously interesting. It does not attempt to reach any dramatic or emotional heights. Its chief merit, it seems to me, is its skill in conveying a sense of atmosphere. The Aleutian climate and scenery, the Army talk and Army thought are all palpable and real. One doesn't know much about any of these men, but what one does know seems absolutely authentic.

"Mr. Vidal has done well what he set out to do. It is a good start toward more substantial accomplishments. He is a canny observer of his fellow-men. He can write. With such a good beginning there is no reason why he should not go far indeed."

Indeed.

Vidal revisited "Williwaw" later in life, telling readers that the revisions were few and mostly technical. The book remains available, along with most of the author's later writings.

Prescott's observations on Alaska's westernmost stretch (we're not sure whether he was ever there or not) included in the review deserve re-reading.

"Among the many places heartily disliked by American soldiers few were more disliked than the Aleutian Islands. Cold and damp and barren, dreary and generally nasty, they seemed to many to be worthless and dismally depressing. There liquor was expensive and hard to get, women were scarce and also expensive. ... For a generation to come the Aleutians probably will be America's most unpopular insular possession."

Gospels in Alutiiq

Speaking of literature from Alaska's extremes, Kodiak public radio's Brianna Gibbs reports that Daria Safronova, an archivist and faculty member of St. Herman Russian Orthodox Seminary, is examining in detail a handwritten book containing Biblical passages in Alutiiq.

Safronova is quoted as saying that the document is particularly important given the current attempt to revive the Alutiiq language. "This is basically a Rosetta stone," she said.

Safronova also found dozens of teaching texts from church schools, "classroom records, Alutiiq ABC books and even lesson plans written in Alutiiq."

The fact that book is written in Alutiiq cursive, a script similar to the Russian cursive alphabet, is also important. Safronova and clergy at the seminary are meeting with Alutiiq elders to review the text in a collaborative process.

Legislative speeches go digital

Another project to preserve communication from Alaska's past is under way in Juneau, where the Alaska State Archives and the Legislative Affairs Agency have begun digitizing the State Legislature's House/Senate Floor and Special/Standing Committee audio recordings going back into the 1960s.

Hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes and more than 20,000 audio cassettes have been turned over to Legislative Information Services, where three staff members are copying the content into MP3s. The most recent are from 2004. Some are "quite fragile and in need of preservation," according to the press release.

The digital re-recordings will be posted online as they are completed. State archivist Dean Dawson said they would give Alaskans "instant access to valuable information that previously could take several days to obtain."

Concert at St. Mary's

The Affetti Music Festival is taking place in Anchorage this month, with two faculty concerts planned for the following week, both at St. Mary's Episcopal Church at Tudor and Lake Otis. The first will take place at 7:30 p.m. tonight and feature an arrangement of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." The second is planned for 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 10, and will include two movements of Beethoven's rarely heard Septet in E-flat Major. A donation of $10 is suggested for each concert.

Free museum admission

Holders of Bank of America and Merrill Lynch credit cards can get free admission to the Anchorage Museum today as part of the Museums on Us program. The Anchorage Museum is among more than 150 such institutions in 91 cities where the program is in effect.

Back to the crypt

The "Tales in the Cemetery" event at Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery went well last month, but some people told organizers that they physically couldn't walk through the whole graveyard to see all of the performers telling the stories of the interred.

So it will be repeated Aug. 12 in a different format. Starting at 6 p.m. you can enter at gate located at Seventh Avenue and Cordova Street, bringing your own chair, and sit down. The performers will come to you. Once again, the event is free, though donations are accepted.


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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