Union Institute and University Graduate College





May 2006

John Tallmadge, Mentor: Yale University


Switchbacks: Ascending the Catskill Mountain High Peaks is a work of Literary Nonfiction encompassing the genres of nature writing, memoir, and essay. It clarifies a contribution to: 1) theory and practice of Literary Nonfiction, especially in the genres of nature writing, memoir, essay, and narrative journalism and 2) Catskills literary regionalism. The work is organized in two parts: 1) a critical discussion of the scholarly and artistic context and creation of the Catskill essays; and 2) the Switchbacks Introduction and seven essays.

This theory of Literary Nonfiction examines the works of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Ayn Rand, Barry Lopez, Steven Pinker, and the following literary, scientific, and philosophic movements: mimesis, Objectivism, natural selection, realism, and naturalism. Established is a basis for the accuracy of a work of Literary Nonfiction. Three specific claims support the accuracy of Literary Nonfiction: 1) Nonfiction evolves in a metaphorical process similar to Darwin’s theory of evolution; 2) Facts in the landscape are represented as facts in a narrative by the act of a rational mind; and 3) When the pattern of thought reflects the pattern of the landscape, mind and reality are integrated in an accurate narrative.

This creative work makes a contribution to Catskills literary regionalism. The works of John Burroughs, the artistic works of Thomas Cole, and ecological work of Michael Kudish are examined. The architectural narrative of this work of Literary Nonfiction is what is called “switchbacks,” for the narrative structure is the same as the trail structure in the Catskills. These are climbing narratives on three levels: 1. evolution; 2. adaptation; 3. integration. The work is comprised of a an Introduction that examines the Kaaterskill Falls area and seven chapters. The seven chapters chronicle Catskill high peak climbs of 1. Blackhead Range; 2. Windham; 3. Plateau; 4. Hunter; 5. Slide; 6. Balsam Lake; 7. Graham. The structure of the work as a whole is a dragon’s back in that each peak contains a subplot with rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution, plus the whole work has a main climax of the same pattern.



Chapter One


Theoretical Strategy


My theoretical work in Literary Nonfiction makes three specific claims which I have hypothesized in my new learning, tested in the field, and modeled creatively. These are the following:

1. A narrative and a writer evolve in a way analogous to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and adaptation (Origin of the Species 1859). The evolution and adaptation that individual organisms in species—flora, fauna, and humans—undergo enhances survival through fitness for the environment and for reproduction. This process occurs at the level of individual organisms in a family as proven in Jonathan Weiner’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Beak of the Finch. The creative process is analogously a reproductive act and the creative products evolve and adapt to fit the environmental reality so that the narrative survives. I call this ecocreativity. It produces fitness in Literary Nonfiction in the form of accurate creations. The writer evolves as she climbs to new levels of fitness and reaches her maximum level of adaptation (a form of recovery) and ultimately integrates into a community system analogous to an ecosystem.

2. The human organism is an end in itself. Ayn Rand’s Objectivist theory is based upon a system of metaphysics (objective reality), epistemology (reason); ethics (self-interest); and politics (capitalism); that reality exists independently of human life and is knowable by the rational mind. Human survival is the only ethical conduct, the highest virtue, to live to your highest individual potential, which she called individualism. This is a capitalist and an aesthetic ideal—that to flourish an individual must not be restrained by others or by government—in industry, art, or survival. The individual evolves and adapts to an environment cooperatively through the actions of a rational mind.

3. Accuracy is achieved by an act of what Barry Lopez calls a narrative ordering of reality (mind) with external reality (landscape). It is a parataxis in that a gap may exist between the narrative and the landscape, the mind and reality. A similar gap may exist in the narrative structure, the prose construction, and the interdisciplinary genres. Only a connection between mind and reality can lead to a mental recovery that factually reorders memories and stories with objects and events that actually occurred, rather than with a narrative reality distorted by mental illness, by disease, by ignorance, or by lies. The writer moves back and forth between internal states and external landscapes. This movement parallels trail topography in the Catskills and is what I call SWITCHBACKS. The writer discovers that a creative act of the imagination, actually a form of neurological energy, is the connection between mind and reality, narrative and landscape. The congruence of this relationship determines the accuracy of the narrative.

Narrative and reality actually factually correspond when the narrative, a reproduction of observed events, is accurately and representatively applied to the nonfiction. The plot is the pattern of reality that is discerned by a rational mind and translated into a narrative that can be verified in the way a map can be laid over its site. This process is conditioned by the writer’s fitness (individuated adaptation) to the environment which she hopes to reproduce in a Literary Nonfiction. When all of these criteria are met, the literary protagonist is fit for integration. What is integrated, of course, is the writer’s mimesis of reality and narrative, which in turn integrates the parataxis between the genres. The genres are integrated to form the plotted essay. I rely on a synthesis of demonstrative Literary Nonfiction theory based primarily on the works of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Ayn Rand, Barry Lopez, Steven Pinker, and the following literary, scientific, and philosophic movements: Mimesis, Objectivism, Natural Selection, realism, and naturalism.

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