John L. Smith. A young Sam Clemens, smart-alecky younger brother of the secretary of Nevada Territory, spent a formative but brief stint in Virginia City as an inventive cub reporter for the Territorial Enterprise. He added the pen name Mark Twain and moved on to great acclaim as, “the Lincoln of our literature.” Twain enjoyed his Nevada sojourn so much that he set foot in the state just twice more.
Walter Van Tilburg Clark, son of a University of Nevada president, burned hot with his first novel, The Oxbow Incident, which pitched the cliché-riddled Western genre on its Stetson and was embraced by Hollywood. Although Clark’s short stories won awards and were anthologized, he published just four books — and nothing in the last two decades of his life. (Students of Nevada history and journalism rightly hold a special place on their bookshelves for Clark out of respect for the decade he toiled editing the enormous journals of frontier publisher Alf Doten.)
Twain spent a glorified shot-and-beer in Nevada and wrote prolifically elsewhere. Clark struck early literary gold in Reno, but saw his writing production narrow like a played-out vein.
Then there’s Laxalt, the quiet and steady hand. The son of an immigrant Basque sheepherder, his parents left their sheep camp just long enough for him to be born on Sept. 25, 1923 in Alturas, California. Although it might be said that his father Dominique never really left the hills, the family later opened a boarding house filled with colorful characters in bustling Carson City.
Dominique’s poignant immigrant story was celebrated in Laxalt’s slender, perfect 1957 book Sweet Promised Land. Using the skills that he honed as a deadline journalist, he introduced Americans to a rich but neglected and often maligned Basque culture and its place in the nation’s immigrant mosaic.
Laxalt was just getting started. In a career that spanned nearly 60 years and produced 17 books and hundreds of articles, including many for The Saturday Evening Post and National Geographic, Laxalt gained a loyal following with much of his work imbued with Basque and immigrant themes. He never stopped writing, even long after his older brother Paul gained fame in Nevada politics.
Much of his work was celebrated and shared. Some of his impressive output was more respected than read. Through the ups and downs, Laxalt kept working at his Royal typewriter, tapping out a staccato style that “was the background music as we played in our house,” daughter Monique Laxalt wrote in her gem of a novel The Deep Blue Memory.
With all that, the enduring part of Bob Laxalt’s legacy is that he was so much more than a dedicated Nevada writer. I don’t think I fully appreciated that until I attended “A Basque American Literary Pioneer: Robert Laxalt” at UNR celebrating the centennial of his birth.
More than an acknowledgment of a writing life well-lived, it was a reminder that Laxalt also was largely responsible for first portraying the Basque immigrant experience in its proper light. The conference drew admiring academics from the University of the Basque Country and Mondragon University in Spain. Laxalt was nothing less than the dean of Basque American writing.
He also played a major role in developing UNR’s Basque Studies Program, taught and mentored a generation of aspiring writers and journalists at the Reynolds School of Journalism, and founded the University of Nevada Press. The Robert Laxalt Distinguished Writer Program is named in his honor.
Laxalt, a humble soul, generously shared his experiences and insights. And always, he kept on writing.
Speaking for her mother Monique, Alexandra Urza communicated a sense of what it was like to grow up in the storyteller’s house: “His most important gift, the gift that so often sets apart the true writers, was the ability to write modestly and straightforwardly, but also poetically from the heart.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning Reno journalist and academic Warren Lerude explained how his close friend and colleague managed to make the difficult leap from deadline reporting to literature, and how he struggled to find the proper form for the story of his father’s journey to the place of his birth and the realization that it was no longer his home, that his home was in “the America he had found in Carson City and the Sierra Nevada.”
“He put paper in his Royal typewriter, which his mother had bought him years before, and tried to write repeatedly, but the words didn’t work,” Lerude said. “They weren’t good enough. He tossed the paper into a wastebasket again and again. Finally he wrote what you all know. ‘My father was a sheepherder, and his home was the hills.’”
Sweet Promised Land only put Laxalt and the Basque immigrant experience in the spotlight, but struck a universal chord with many readers. As a Miami Herald reviewer observed, “Laxalt speaks not only for the Basques, but for the Italians and the Yugoslavs, the Swedes, and the Irish, the Portuguese and the Greeks … rarely have they had a more eloquent spokesman.”
A century after his birth, Robert Laxalt’s work throws a long and lasting shadow. Nevada’s unlikely literary lion was a shepherd in word and deed.
John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.