Nevada Memoir

The lives of Nevadans are recorded in many places, including letters, diaries, transcripts, and the volumes and manuscripts produced by the University of Nevada Oral History Program. Nevada memoirs, although somewhat rarer than these other kinds of life stories, are nevertheless plentiful enough to provide a fascinating variety of subject matter and writing styles.

A memoir is a book of autobiographical writing—it may be a long "cradle-to-today" chronological life history or a brief collection of essays about the author's life, thoughts, and encounters. It may be written down by the person who lived the life or produced in collaboration with someone else. For example, in her preface, former Member of Congress Barbara Vucanovich explains how she collaborated with her daughter, Patricia Cafferata, to turn her verbal memories into written memoir. In contrast, former Senator Paul Laxalt describes writing his autobiography himself, aided by administrative assistants who typed, researched, and organized. By quickly glancing at the preface of any memoir, readers can gain valuable information about how and why it was produced.

For many years a sparsely populated state, Nevada has thrived on the stories of itinerants and newcomers. One of these was Mary McNair Mathews, a New Yorker whose Ten Years in Nevada details her experiences as a resourceful, hardworking widowed mother in 1870's Virginia City. Another indomitable woman, Sarah Olds traveled from Iowa to the California gold country, and then, after her miner husband's health failed, moved her family to a homestead west of Pyramid Lake. Her memoir is Twenty Miles from a Match: Homesteading in Western Nevada. Born in Switzerland, Mary Ann Hafen, author of Recollections of a Handcart Pioneer of 1860, immigrated with her newly converted Mormon family to Utah, became one of four wives of a bishop, and raised seven children on her own in Bunkerville, Nevada.

In more recent times, Moya and Bill Lear moved to Reno in 1969 in mid-life, after the inventor-entrepreneur had sold Learjet and decided to begin a new project. Moya, who became an influential business and community leader in Reno, recounts her entire life in Bill and Moya Lear: An Unforgettable Flight. Charles V. McAvoy, whose military service and work as a utilities executive took him all over the world, spent his childhood and part of his young adulthood in Sparks and Reno. McAvoy's Journey: An Autobiography contains memories of those communities at mid-twentieth century.

While all these count as Nevada memoirs, we should take special note of lives written by natives with deep roots in the state. One of the most remarkable memoirs to come out of this or any state is Life Among the Piutes. In the late nineteenth century, Sarah Winnemucca was one of few women, and even fewer Native Americans, to write an autobiography. She recorded her childhood experiences in the days when wagon trains were just beginning to traverse Nevada on the way to the gold fields. A translator, guide, and well-known public speaker, she also wrote to defend her own activities and to advocate for the Paiutes. A hundred years later, Sally Springmeyer Zanjani, a second-generation Nevadan born in San Francisco, and raised in the Carson Valley, wrote The Unspiked Rail: Memoir of a Nevada Rebel not primarily about herself but about her father, George Springmeyer, a prominent figure in Nevada law and politics.

A Nevada Memoir is the subtitle of How I Got Cultured, a coming-of-age memoir by Nevada-born Phyllis Barber, who grew up in Boulder City and Las Vegas. Although Barber's Nevada family roots reach back to 1860, her subtitle indicates something more than a pedigree: it suggests something quintessentially Nevadan (and sometimes humorous) about Barber's adolescent restlessness. She expresses her longing for something she thinks of as "culture," and her ambivalence about the lifestyles available to a girl growing up in the 1950's and 60's—pop culture, "Vegas" culture, and Mormon religious culture. Looking through the lens of Barber's life story (she now lives in Utah) reminds us that even the deep-rooted Nevada authors are itinerants of sorts.

Traditional autobiographies are often long "success stories," detailing the author's career or entrepreneurial activities, discussing the opportunities and personal decisions that made a difference, and telling about the people he met on the way to the top. Some Nevada memoirists can discuss, in addition to the usual occupations, more specialized fields. Harold Smith in I Want to Quit Winners tells how he built Harolds Club and discusses matter-of-factly his experiences with gambling. In A Passion for Gold, Ralph J. Roberts, whose research led to the discovery of large, rich ("Carlin-type") gold deposits, describes a stimulating life in the field of geology. Jessi Winchester's From Bordello to Ballot Box is less a success story than an exposé—not of legal prostitution but of the Nevada political scene as she sees it.

As a career for a future memoirist, journalism has an advantage over other occupations: it involves the gathering of stories. Mark Twain crammed his Roughing It full of lively tales—some of them "stretchers"—based on several years at the Territorial Enterprise during the heyday of the Comstock. A decade after Twain's departure, Wells Drury arrived on the Comstock; he spent twelve years there, working with Dan DeQuille and Alf Doten, serving as editor of the Gold Hill News, and entering Nevada politics. His papers were assembled into An Editor on the Comstock Lode. Nevada's rich tradition of journalist memoirs also includes Ralph Pearl's joke-and-celebrity-filled Las Vegas Is My Beat and Robert Laxalt's deft Travels with My Royal.

Some memoirists write not to record or defend their own deeds, but rather to memorialize a place and a distinctive way of life that seems to have vanished. Mrs. Hugh Brown's Lady in Boomtown portrays the boom and bust of Tonopah and Goldfield in the first two decades of the twentieth century: "the sunset rays of the old romantic West [when] we were the pioneers." Molly Flagg Knudtsen, who began ranching in the Austin area after her marriage, devotes most of Under the Mountain to stories about the people of central Nevada, past and present. Gandydancer's Children: A Railroad Memoir, by Frank Wendell Call, is one of many firsthand accounts of childhood and coming-of-age in rugged rural Nevada of the twenties and thirties. Gregory Martin's Mountain City is a tough and touching description of a remote former mining town with only a handful of inhabitants—home of his grandparents, a place he visits but that he "can't keep from disappearing."

But all is not nostalgia in rural Nevada. In some lively recent memoirs, important Nevada artists tell about rich, resourceful lives, interesting neighbors and friends, and challenging and inspiring surroundings. After more than thirty years in Tuscarora, Dennis Parks recalls the story of his family's arrival, survival, and pleasure in the place: he calls it Living in the Country Growing Weird: A Deep Rural Adventure. In Sharing Fencelines: Three Friends Write from Nevada's Sagebrush Corner, Linda Hussa, Sophie Sheppard, and Carolyn Dufurrena have compiled their personal essays about the vitality and importance of life in rural Nevada communities.

Some readers of memoirs assume that because memoirs are first-person eyewitness accounts, they are also inevitably accurate and authentic. But in Nevada memoir, as in all autobiography, it's unwise to expect "the whole truth," even about the author. This is not to say that memoirists lie, only that they, like all of us, rely primarily on memory—and memory is complicated. They also have a sense of personal identity, family ties, and a version of events to which they are committed. So, although some reporters and scholars write memoirs, memoir is neither journalism nor history: we read it for other reasons.

Nevada memoirs are interesting perspectives—some literary, some gossipy, some overloaded with detail, some memorably worded—about people, places, and events that might spark our curiosity: experiences of a kid on the Comstock or a young Mormon girl growing up in Las Vegas; the challenges of representing Nevada in Congress or of reporting the entertainment scene on the Strip; a divorce-seeker's first impressions of Reno; an artist's reflections on the joys and challenges of rural life; a Las Vegas lawyer's tales of unusual lawsuits and divorces; a native Nevadan's travels in the Basque country of his ancestors; a harrowing account of poverty, child abuse, and drugs in the 1950's; Nevadans' outcries against exploitation that threatens their way of life; the show-business memories of a former vaudeville dancer who invested in Las Vegas; and many, many reminiscences of boomtown and frontier life, written for children, grandchildren, and others who clamor for stories.

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