T.H. Watkins, Fan

T.H. WATKINS was rejected for a Stanford University writing fellowship in 1958. The program he was trying to get into was run by Wallace Stegner, but Watkins is a forgiving guy. In June of '87, he nominated Stegner for the Nobel Prize in Literature. The process is both more complicated and vaguer than that used by, say, the National Book Critics Circle, which two weeks ago announced that both Stegner (for his Collected Stories) and Watkins (for his biography of FDR's secretary of the interior, Harold Ickes) were among its 1990 award nominees.

It began a few years ago when Watkins, a vice president of the Wilderness Society here, bought a coffee table book titled The Nobel Prize. Written in English and published in Stockholm, the book said that you could nominate anyone for the literature prize by sending the proper authorities in Sweden copies of the complete works. At least, that's what Watkins thought the book said; and that's what he did.

Twenty-seven pounds of books were sent off with a letter describing Stegner, now 81 and the author of a half-dozen major novels and an equal number of significant non-fiction works, as "a reliquary of American letters, a compendium of the national literature, himself a major contributor to what he once called 'the great community of recorded human experience.' "

Eventually, Watkins received a postal notice, confirming his material had arrived. In the meantime, he circulated photocopies of his letter to such Stegner admirers as N. Scott Momaday and Robert Stone, encouraging them to add their voices.

It turns out, though, Watkins misread The Nobel Prize, which says: "Every year approximately two to three thousand individuals, per prize group, are invited to suggest candidates for the Nobel Prize. These range from Universities in Africa to Pen Clubs in the U.S.S.R, from scientists in Malaysia to Egyptian professors."

Says Watkins cheerfully: "I guess I misread it -- or read it to my own convenience. I was assuming that the virtues of my cause would overcome the structural difficulties." Anyway, he says: "They didn't send any of my books back."

Not only that, the virtues of his cause are becoming more and more apparent, as the NBCC nomination attested. In November, Stegner did a lecture in Portland, Ore., which 3,000 people attended. One attendee reports he saw four or five ticketless couples out front, holding signs offering scalpers as much as $100.

In addition, the writer's boyhood home in Eastend, Saskatchewan, has recently been restored by the local arts council. The house figures in his memoir Wolf Willow, a rich meditation on a border country "notable primarily for its weather, which is violent and prolonged; its emptiness, which is almost frighteningly total; and its wind, which blows all the time in a way to stiffen your hair and rattle the eyes in your head."

Meanwhile, an estimable Lewiston, Idaho, outfit, Confluence Press, has produced Wallace Stegner: A Descriptive Bibliography. Nancy Colberg's work is occasionally frustrating in that it sometimes fails to adequately distinguish between editions of a particular work, but it is still a work that Stegner devotees (or at least the bibliographically minded among them) will want to see.

As for Watkins, he approached the Stegner nomination with the same industriousness he brings to his own projects, most of which concern western history and conservation. Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes is his 19th book, a number that approaches Stegner's total even if Watkins started decades later. No wonder his friends call him "Watkins the writing fool."

Righteous Pilgrim arose out of a study Watkins was planning of Ickes and James Watt back when the latter was secretary of the interior during the first Reagan term. "The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to do a comparative article, because Ickes was infinitely more important -- one of the giants of our time. He was central to two of the most important political movements of our time, the Progressive under Teddy Roosevelt and the New Deal under FDR, and was the first interior secretary to understand the dimensions of the stewardship in taking care of the public lands."A Publisher Honored ANOTHER NBCC fiction nomination, that of Tim O'Brien for The Things They Carried, carries this distinction: It's the only one of the 25 nominees in five categories that comes from an imprint, in this case Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence. What this means is that Houghton Mifflin arranges for things like printing the books, shipping and publicizing them; Lawrence is the one who decides what is published in the first place.

He's been operating independently like this for 25 years. The anniversary was celebrated last fall with, among other things, a small privately published book. In the back there's a list of the fiction Lawrence has published, an eminently honorable roll-call that includes O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, J.P. Donleavy's The Ginger Man, Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Jim Harrison's Legends of the Fall.

Lawrence has specialized in sticking with his writers, committing himself to their careers but leaving them alone to do what they would do best: write. "Discovery of new talent is the greatest satisfaction. Best sellers come next. And sex comes after that," he writes in his book's introduction, a passage which gives something of the flavor of the man.

Most of the text is taken up with tributes. O'Brien writes about the negotiations over his first book. First he and Lawrence had an extravagant, soused, three-hour lunch. Only one thing was not mentioned: money. "I informed him that I had an agent. Outside, I remember, it was raining, a condition that had not existed two syllables earlier. 'Agent,' Sam said. There was some stiffness in his tone. 'What's he done for you?' 'Nothing,' I said. The rain ceased. 'This man,' Sam said earnestly, 'should be fired.' " Mark Helprin remembers the time Lawrence crashed his car into a telephone pole "and was thrown 400 feet in a hail of textbooks, and woke up in the distant blaze of his erupting gas tank, wondering where he could find a good restaurant."Too Close for Comfort RAYMOND CARVER's reputation was already high when he died in August of 1988, but since then he has ascended to the status of a modern master, considered by his many admirers to be one of the half-dozen finest post-war story writers. Thus the appearance of Carver Country (Scribner's), a memorial volume of the type usually reserved for long-hallowed types like Hemingway, is no surprise.

Tess Gallagher, the poet who became Carver's companion and then wife in his last decade, contributes a lengthy and affecting introduction in which she notes that she initially mistrusted the title Carver Country because of "its seeming assumption that we might be able to locate the qualities of Raymond Carver's world by simply pointing to physical landscapes out of his past or to the kinds of people who had appeared in his stories." She changed her mind, but her first instinct may have been right.

Photographer Bob Adelman began work while Carver was alive, and the project had the writer's enthusiastic support. But even with the best of intentions by all concerned, this book produces a slightly creepy feeling. That's especially true of the photo of a distraught Gallagher at Carver's grave; grief should be more private than this.

Likewise with the poem "To My Daughter," which includes lines like "You're a beautiful drunk, daughter./ But you're a drunk." On the facing page: a picture of his daughter. The relationship between art and life may be intimate, but this close verges on the embarrassing.Book Tours From Hell IN You Can't Be Serious: Writing and Living American Humor (St. Martin's), Ralph Schoenstein describes an event that would have driven a lesser man to drink. The author of numerous books under his own name, Schoenstein was tapped to convert some of Bill Cosby's monologues into Fatherhood. "In just one city in just one week in the summer of 1986," the writer reports, "this book not bearing my name sold more copies than the sales of all the books I had written."

Schoenstein never specifies the name of the burg; for his sake, one hopes it was at least a large metropolitan area and not a village somewhere. In any case, You Can't Be Serious examines in amusing fashion the life of an underappreciated writer, only occasionally lapsing into self-pity.

On his first book tour, in 1960: "The fact that Random House had not yet shipped any copies of The Block to Chicago gave {my} interviews a purity that transcended the demeaning vulgarity of a writer hawking his own book; and after I had left the city, it would be two weeks before one copy of my book arrived to sully the belles-lettres tone I had set."

Or there was the time he was invited to speak at a school in Oklahoma, and found only 40 people waiting for him in an auditorium that seated 1,200. Schoenstein's escort said that a lot of the students had exams.

" 'Oh, that's okay; studying comes first,' I said. For a writer, even more important than knowing English is knowing how to take humiliation. 'Maybe I could just take everyone out for coffee.'

" 'You wanna wait till a few more come?'

" 'Well, I have to be home by Friday. . .' " In the Margin LITERARY OUTTAKES (Fawcett) is described on its back cover as offering "ardent bibliophiles" an inside look at what 101 writers choose not to publish. Does this sound like a dubious premise for an anthology? Editor Larry Dark comes close to admitting that in the first line of his introduction: "This is not a necessary book." For long stretches, it's not a particularly interesting one, either. Only graduate students of John Updike will want to read, for instance, his original ending for Self-Consciousness. More appealing are the selections from Edward Hoagland's notebooks, which considers matters as basic as "the soft sigh with which a panful of steamer clams open their shells and surrender their souls" . . .

Theater trivia buffs will know the significance of the following: "I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal -- you sockdologizing old man-trap." It was the last line spoken in Ford's Theatre before Booth shot Lincoln, a line the audience was chuckling at when they heard the gun. To mark the 125th anniversary of the assassination, the local firm Beacham Publishing has issued a new edition of Tom Taylor's Our American Cousin, subtitling it "The Play That Changed History." The introduction sets that tragic evening in historical context, noting that "the president who was best known and loved for his wit, who balanced America's darkest hour with optimism and humor, met his death in a moment of laughter; a moment that began the tragedy of Reconstruction and suffering that would persist for a century to come."