On New Year’s Eve, 1940, Paul Southworth Bliss, a veteran of the Great War in Europe and a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, took his service revolver from its holster in his small apartment at the Kansas City, Missouri, YMCA, put the pistol to his head, and pulled the trigger. He was just 51 years old. He left a note that said in part, “I greatly regret doing this but my nerves have snapped and it is impossible for me to go on.” It was a tragic end to the life of one of America’s great prairie poets and public servants.
U.S. Army Captain Paul Southworth Bliss, 1918 photo.
Those are the first 100 words of Chapter 4 of a biography of a mostly unknown poet who lived in North Dakota through much of the depression years of the 1930s, traveling the state, putting people to work as FDR’s point man here, hiring desperate farmers and out-of-work laborers to build what we know today as WPA Dams, many of which are now part of our state’s National Wildlife Refuge system. We have 63 of those refuges, the most of any state in the U.S., and Paul Southworth Bliss gets credit for many, if not most, of them.
Those 100 words and the other 96,000 in the as-yet-untitled book about him are the reason you haven’t been seeing much in this space or in Lillian’s Wild Dakota Woman blog this winter. We started researching and writing about this fascinating man years ago, and when we returned home in January from our December vacation, we vowed to finish the book by Spring.
We almost made it. Yesterday, just four days into Spring (by the calendar, at least—not by the looks of things outside), we delivered the manuscript to the publisher. We hope it becomes a real book, with covers and photos and tables of contents and indexes, later this year. We hope. Authors are always at the mercy of their publishers.
That’s about as much as I will tell you right now, except this: As the “Government Man,” sent here by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to help North Dakotans get back on their feet in the depths of the drought and Great Depression of the 1930s, drove around the state, more than 40,000 miles on mostly gravel roads and two-track trails (in the mid-1930s, North Dakota had just over 800 miles of what my Grandpa Pete used to call “hard roads”), he stopped often beside the road, took out a pad and pencil, and wrote about what he saw.
His 10 volumes of poetry, published over a period of nearly 10 years, contain several hundred of his best works. We are sure there must be hundreds more unpublished, but while we have his books, his original scribblings on lined paper have been lost forever. We searched and searched. More’s the pity. What a treasure that would be.
But we have the best poems, hundreds of them in fine bound books, most signed by the author himself, although they’re a little worn, now more than 80 years old. But they’re wonderful books. And the most wonderful thing about books is that they LAST more than 80 years—who knows how long today’s computer files, where everything in the world is now stored, it seems, will be around and readable. Tried playing a cassette tape or a beta tape lately? That’s the future of today’s flash drives.
And thanks to Lillian’s research skills we have photos, more than 20 of them, since another of the poet’s hobbies was photography, and thanks to a tip from a recently deceased second cousin, we found his photos in files in archives in his home state, Minnesota.
That relative (Bliss was never married and had no direct descendants), we came to find out just a few weeks ago, was a celebrated fellow himself. His name was Thomas Hughes, the son of Bliss’s lawyer cousin Raymond Hughes, who was called upon to settle the Bliss estate when his cousin died. Thomas Hughes had a distinguished career as a diplomat, aide to presidents and vice presidents, and longtime President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He passed away early this year at age 97 and was important enough to have had his obituary published in The New York Times and The Washington Post, no small feat.
So that’s why we haven’t been very active on our blogs this winter. We’ve been a little busy. We’ll probably be a little busy again now that Spring has arrived and gardening season is about to start (said the optimist), but we’ll surely let you know when you can buy a book about a government poet who helped establish North Dakota as the nation’s Duck Factory, became a North Dakota farmer, and built the state’s first “rammed earth” house on his farm in Adams County. And much, much, more. We hope you find him as fascinating as we did.
Meanwhile, I’ve told you how his story ends. Now enjoy a couple of his Bad Lands poems.
Give me clay
For the building
Of valleys and buttes,
For rock cannot be made over,
And worked with.
Who made the Badlands,
Modeled a clay dream of Heaven,
Then he modeled
A dream of Hell. . .
Then he slept—and dreamed again.
He awoke—and modeled
A dream of Hell-Heaven . . .
And men call it the Badlands.
This morning the Artist
Ordered his model cast;
And Master Workman Sun
Yawned a great yawn,
And stretched himself,
And got up,
And fell to work!
He poured red gold
On the shelves of the buttes,
And the red gold ran down
Into the vales,
And splashed up,
And all around . . .
And some of it fell
On distant peaks
That became icebergs
In a sea of wine.
In my humble way
I commended the Artist
And I said:
January 6, 1935
I came to Roosevelt National Park, where the Little Missouri River is crossed by a silver bridge on Highway No. 85, thirteen miles south of Watford City, N. D. The time was Jan. 3, at sunrise. The temperature was 10° below and the air was so clear that on coming to the EDGE I felt I could hurl a pebble into the CCC Camp more than two miles away, on the bank of the river. I can only say of this sunrise that after seeing the Badlands at this point in all weathers and moods and lights, I knew at last the work was perfect.
A sunset in a prairie sky—
You have not seen one, then? . . .
Where coursing colors flame and die,
And leap up yet again . . .
The sun from out his treasure chest,
Brings heaps of amber gold,
And spreads them out upon the west
With lavishness untold.
He adds flame-red, and tints emerge,
The spectrum never knew;
Like billows in the sky they surge,
And all alone stand you—
Stand you, upon your lips a seal,
Too much a single word;
And what it is within you feel,
Feels every beast and bird.
Then when the color-strife is drawn,
The sun brings out the rose
That he has gathered from the dawn:
And now the whole sky glows.
You hill men! You in cities bound,
You seek the sunset, west;
The prairie men look all around,
Oft eastward see it best . . .
So may the ranking gods be kind,
And bring you ‘ere life’s done,
To see a prairie sunset bind
The east and west in one.
February 14, 1934
The mightiest sunset I have seen in my lifetime occurred on Lincoln’s birthday anniversary, February 12, 1934. On a cold late-afternoon I left Williston in western North Dakota and drove 90 miles on Highway No. 85 over bare prairies to Crosby, near the Canadian boundary. The sunset began as I left and continued for about an hour and one-half; it was dark as I reached Crosby. The beauty and variety of the color pageant, ranging from fire to tints of the most delicate dawn, can be but inadequately suggested. It covered the entire sky; the east view was even more fascinating than the west.
6 thoughts on “Where We’ve Been, What We’ve Been Doing, And Why.”
one word–Excellent; another word–Truth; one more–Freedom–
when all my past mistakes come to haunt me/I will go to the badlands and watch the sun all day long/until night comes and
the real work of healing can be done–
Jim, do not fail to let all of us know the minute your book is available — we will all want a copy! What marvelous poetry. As a girl of the prairie, it certainly speaks to me (even though I grew up in the eastern part of the state, in a valley, no less). I have always identified with the prairie.
Jim, thanks again for a great blog. All of them enjoyable and interesting. Thanks for introducing me the this poet. I look forward to the book you and Lillian have written and reading poems by Bliss. Hope to see you soon in Bismarck. Bill Lardy
I’ll be sure to buy your book! Just let us know when the big thing comes to fruition!
Eager to read it and share it with others, gone from here, but Who understand there ismuch good about this place (despite current politics).