Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1982, pp. 106-113.
The future reputation of Mari Sandoz will undoubtedly rest primarily on her nonfiction, especially Crazy Horse, Cheyenne Autumn, and Old Jules. Although Sandoz published a considerable body of fiction, it has not generally received critical acclaim. Moreover, she consistently expressed doubts about the quality of her fiction and thought her own strongest achievement was in nonfiction. As Scott Greenwell has noted, Sandoz "viewed herself primarily as a historian who only aspired to be a literary artist, and was struck again and again by the inadequacy of much of her fiction." When Virginia Faulkner, the editor of Hostiles and Friendlies, proposed collecting the short works that compose that volume, Sandoz questioned the wisdom of the idea, arguing in a letter that "anyone with reasonably good literary standards is going to find these pieces of minor importance." Perhaps this judgment is justified for some of Sandoz's stories, but for others, it is decidedly wide of the mark, especially in the case of "Peachstone Basket."
DEFINING A CULTURAL CHOICE
In the remarkably ambitious "Peachstone Basket," Sandoz uses the career of Justin Gillrood-frontiersman, capitalist, judge, and founder of a town bearing his name-to create a mythic interpretation of American character, an interpretation that has affinities with those suggested by Ralph Waldo Emerson and by Leslie Fiedler. In Emerson's terms, Justin Gillrood is preeminently the man who has chosen "works" over "days," public enterprise over private reflection, the analytic reason of the entrepreneur and man of affairs rather than the spontaneous intuition and emotion of the poet. Gillrood's choice also involves a series of renunciations that Leslie Fiedler finds characteristic of many of the heroes of American fiction. Gillrood's most important renunciation is of sexual passion and its consequences, fatherhood. The centrality of the story's sexual theme is suggested by its title and central symbol, the peachstone basket; the young Gillrood has carved a small basket from a peachstone for Hedi Fessner and also for Connilynne, his wife.
By adopting the basket as a central symbol, Sandoz forces us to recognize that Justin Gillrood's most important choice-the life-determining choice in this typically American storyhas been a choice between two women, Hedi Fessner and Connilynne. As in so many American fictions, the choice is between a dark lady, the exotic and evil temptress, and a fair one, the "Protestant virgin" of America's schizoid mythology of the female. This is not to say, however, that Sandoz perceives women in these bizarre extremes. Instead, "Peachstone Basket" reveals the tragic human cost of the American male's renunciation of passion and fatherhood, of a cultural mythology that too often has stereotyped women as virgins or whores, and of a general American repression of the unconscious. "Works and days were offered us, and we took works," Emerson wrote in 1857, as he sought some central defining choice in American culture. He regretted the choice, and so does Mari Sandoz in "Peachstone Basket."
The mythic intention of "Peachstone Basket" is evident from the setting itself. The story takes place on Gillrood's day of tribute to her deceased founder, Justin Gillrood, whose granite statue is to be revealed at the climax of the day's festivities. Justin Gillrood himself represents two important and closely related American myths: the myth of the frontier and the American dream. He had first come to the West from New York City, ultimately pushing into untamed territory as far as "the new mining camp of Deadwood, deep in the Indian country" (p. 229). There he accumulated enough capital by defending "holdups and murderers" (p. 229) to buy substantial holdings of land in the area that became Gillrood. Much of this land he later sold to homesteaders "looking for a new start" (p. 229). Having founded a town, the public-spirited Gillrood began a "long fight against rustlers, horsethieves, and murderers" that "carried him through the office of county judge to the district court and got him called Justice Gillrood long before he reached the state bench" (pp. 231-32). In the meantime Gillrood added status to the fortune he had acquired by marrying an eastern girl, the daughter of a railroad president and a "Saratoga Springs mother" (p. 230). Unlike Jay Gatsby, whom he resembles in many ways, Justin Gillrood marries his Daisy Buchanan-Connilynne Carleton.