When the pen beats the gun
UI professor provides glimpses into the lives of historic figures and writers

March 14, 2017

If Ron McFarland was not an English professor, he would be a military officer.

The University of Idaho faculty member normally writes essays and books about renowned and local writers alike, including himself, but his latest publication has ties to the life he might have led if he’d taken a different route. His father, uncle and younger brother all joined the military, and the prospect always interested him.

“It’s almost a sort of fatalistic kind of notion, you know, ‘Why didn’t I go into the military?’” he said.

Sierra Zierler | Blot
Ron McFarland is a University of Idaho faculty member.

“Edward J. Steptoe and the Indian Wars: Life on the Frontier, 1815-1865” is a biography about an officer of the United States Army who is best known for his participation in the Battle of Pine Creek near Rosalia, Washington.

McFarland said a sign about the Battle of Pine Creek on U.S. Highway 195 piqued his interest and stimulated his lifelong interest in military matters.

“When I looked at it, I saw his dates were 1815 to 1865 and I thought ‘Ah, maybe he was involved in the Civil War,’” he said.

When he researched Steptoe, he discovered an illness prevented the officer from being involved in the Civil War. However, McFarland’s fascination with the man did not die. Instead, it grew with the discovery of Steptoe’s personal letters, which revealed pieces of his personality.

“At the time, I thought there would be enough just there in the letters to sustain it, and there wasn’t really, I had to go way beyond that,” McFarland said.

McFarland’s normal area of expertise is literary analysis. His other biographical publications, “The World of David Wagoner” (1997), “The Rockies in First Person” (2008) and “Appropriating Hemingway” (2015), are all biographical literary analyses.

“I was naive enough to think that it would be as simple to turn out a biography … of Steptoe as it was to turn out a biographical literary study. Wrong. It was really hard,” he said. “Strict biography is much less self-indulgent, as it turns out.”

He said he researched Steptoe for an unexpected seven years to get the book in the shape publishers wanted it. This involved traveling to archives in Washington D.C. and Seattle to see Steptoe’s official and personal correspondence and visiting areas where the officer stayed.

“The site visits were the most pleasurable,” he said.

The places he visited included West Point in New York, Lynchberg in West Virginia, Fort Pierce in Florida and Fort Walla Walla in Washington. McFarland said he originally wanted to include a travel log that compared the modern sites he visited with how they were in the past, a proposition publishers rejected.

“No, no, no, no, no. The editors of whatever presses I tried to place this thing absolutely were not going to go for that kind of thing,” he said.

McFarland encountered other difficulties while trying to publish. He said historians held him accountable in ways they had not for other books, and convincing publishers Steptoe even deserved a biography also proved difficult.

“In some ways it was hard to disagree with them,” he said. “You sort of hope that he will have a sort of dark or tempestuous inner-life — not so with Steptoe.”

In spite of this, the book was published last January.

All of McFarland’s other biographical works are about a writer or writers. He said while he was refining and rewriting Steptoe’s biography, he wrote “Appropriating Hemingway,” which discusses Ernest Hemingway as he is depicted in literature, movies and plays and which was easier for him to write.

“This was fun to write, because I was dealing with all these crazy novels in which he appears as a character,” he said.

McFarland is considered UI’s “Hemingway Scholar,” representing the university at events for The Hemingway Review.

Other than the book, McFarland has written essays on Hemingway as well as “The Hemingway Poems,” a collection of “fun” poems related to the famous author.

McFarland’s attraction to writing and reading poetry, in part, spurred him to write “The World of David Wagoner.” He said he was also surprised at the lack of secondary comment on the poet’s work.

“Not much had been written about him and I thought, ‘Yeah this guy deserves a book,’” McFarland said.

He said of his biographical works, Wagoner’s was easiest, and the poet himself helped ease the process.

The most fun, he said, was “The Rockies in First Person.” Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes, both featured in the book, were faculty members at UI at the time, and the other memoirists came from around the region.

“I either knew or met practically all of these people,” he said.

McFarland said he organized the book like Plutarch’s “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans,” comparing one writer to another. He said he also wanted the book to distinguish between autobiography and memoir.

“One of the arguments is that autobiography has to play it completely straight, you have to adhere closely to the facts, so forth and so on, whereas in memoir, according to one theory, you can play it loosy-goosy,” he said.

He said many autobiographies, however, are published as memoirs to sound more enticing, and thus sell better.

He said his own memoir, “Confessions of a Night Librarian and Other Embarrassments” (2005) is about 90 percent true with 10 percent “wiggle room”. He said the book accidentally arose from a collection of personal essays amassed over the years.

McFarland continues to write daily.

“Any given moment, I’m either working on a story, a short story, or a creative nonfiction piece, or on poems or on a critical piece, so I never get writer’s block,” he said. “It’s really joyful to me, it’s like, probably the way swimming laps is for a really serious swimmer.”

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