Howard Mosher’s Imagination of Vermont
Vermont writer Howard Mosher died on January 29th. Filmmaker Jay Craven worked closely with Mosher since 1985 when he optioned the story rights to his book “Where the Rivers Flow North.” Craven has made five films based on Mosher’s stories. This is his tribute.
Like thousands of Vermonters who have been touched by Howard Mosher and his writing, I feel a deep sense of loss at the realization of life without him. No one has produced a larger body of work exploring the distinctive character and culture of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. No one has been more generous to fellow writers, taking time to chat, read their work, and help them. No one was more tirelessly committed to his readers, through his cross-country sojourns in his 20 year-old Chevy Celebrity (named the “loser cruiser”) and his frequent signings at independent bookstores throughout New England.
In reflecting on what it is that Howard has contributed to my life, I’m awash in a stream of feelings. I never thought about Howard not being close at hand, to share a story, grab a quick laugh, or imagine how defiant old logger (and “Where the Rivers Flow North” protagonist), Noel Lord, might react to the work-related obstructions we both routinely endured. Then, I received a note from writer Craig Nova, within minutes of his learning of Howard’s death: “When you are with someone you care about,” Nova wrote, “you get to be a certain way that you can only be when you are with them, and when they die, you can’t be that way anymore, which means of course that they take some of you with them when they go. And I think that is what is so difficult with Howard, in that he seems to have taken some of me with him.”
But I also remember a realization I had while making a film based on Howard’s novel “Disappearances” – how we live for as long as the person who last remembers us. Both ideas feel right to me. Howard will endure in our memories and imaginations.
Soon after arriving with his cool wife, Phillis, in 1964, Howard set out to find characters still rooted in rural Vermont’s late 19th and early 20th century. He struck a rich vein that yielded log drivers, whiskey runners, farmers, con men, cock fighters, strippers, live-in housekeepers, suspected bank robbers, and an assortment of indomitable rebels who populated dusty back roads, resisting change and needing plenty of elbow room. With his keen eye, fly-trap ears, and vivid imagination, Howard captured their essences before these people vanished forever.
Howard trusted me to render these richly detailed characters on film. And literally thousands of Vermonters pitched in to help me fund and produce these pictures, inspired by Howard’s singular vision. Yes, his characters were flawed and often dark but they were deeply human. They could be simultaneously heroic and their own worst enemy. And, quite significantly, they attracted a slew of gifted actors, including Rip Torn, Tantoo Cardinal, Genevieve Bujold, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Dern, Ernie Hudson, Henry Gibson, Martin Sheen, Tom Aldredge, Jessica Hecht, Rusty Dewees, and many others. I’ll always remember getting my first call from Kris Kristofferson who was cracking up on the other side of the phone, reciting lines from ever-optimistic Quebec Bill to his son, as their world was falling apart around them. “Ain’t this greatest trip you ever imagined, Wild Bill?”
In reading Howard’s stories I saw elements from Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” and “King Lear” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” But I also found something in them that resembled the western. After all, isn’t Reverend Walter Andrews in “A Stranger in the Kingdom” a bit like Shane, striding into town to stand his ground and rid the place of outlaws? And don’t “Where the Rivers Flow North” and “Disappearances” explore themes similar to John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” where John Wayne’s aging gunslinger Tom Doniphon, faces the extinction of his way of life?
Still, while Mosher’s frontier tales resembled westerns they were unique. Westerns were set in places where white settlers were staking their claims for the first time. They were places without law, community, transmitted culture, or any real past. On Howard’s Vermont frontier, family, community, and culture loomed large and, to quote his favorite writer, William Faulkner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Think of the unresolved murder of the black school teacher, Pliny Templeton, in “A Stranger in the Kingdom” and Elijah Kinneson’s closely-held secret about what drove his father to madness. Or Quebec Bill Bonhomme’s decades-long search for his abandoning father in “Disappearances” and schoolteacher Cordelia’s recitations of Shakespeare, Milton, and that great New England transcendental poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who trusted intuition and imagination over “rational” thought. Howard imbued his worlds with rich and resonant textures that distinguished his frontier from the old west.
Howard’s stories provided an uncommon but abundantly cinematic connection to the nature. I’ve strangely found urban critics who consider a story that treats the natural world as inherently nostalgic — as if nature were inert or already past. But in “Where the Rivers Flow North,” Noel Lord cannot let go of this spectacular Eden that has both tortured and rewarded him. But neither can he tame it. In “Disappearances,” this same raw setting was a place of magic, mystery, even ghosts.
Howard was funny. Think of the steady flow of ironic quips from Bangor, in “Where the Rivers Flow North” — in her floppy hat and ill-fitting clothes. Or scoundrel Resolved Kinneson in “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” with his insatiable appetites drawn the side streets of old Italy when commedia del-arte reigned. An actor I didn’t mention earlier, leathery old Oscar-winner Jack Palance, agreed to play Resolved. “They’ll never forget a son of a bitch like Resolved,” said Palance. “He’s damn funny. Of course, I’ll play him.” After we made our deal, according to his agent, Mr. Palance then vanished on a drinking spree into British Columbia. Just like Resolved would do.
Writer Jeffrey Lent said it best during a conversation. “Howard Mosher is simply the funniest writer – then he paused and completed his sentence. “Anywhere.” But Howard also summoned the courage to reveal the Kingdom’s shadowy corners, as he did in “A Stranger in the Kingdom,” based on Vermont’s most notorious racial incident. He took plenty of heat for it.
I love women — and I love Howard’s distinctive, powerful, and dimensional women. Again, I think about Cordelia in “Disappearances,” Athena Allen in “Stranger,” and Abiah Kittredge in “Northern Borders.” And, of course, Bangor in “Where the Rivers Flow North,” a character that even picky New York Times film critic Caryn James praised for, “a freshness rarely seen on screen. She is so tough and blunt,” wrote James, “that when she begins to cry about the children she never had it becomes clear that emotion has been a luxury in her hardscrabble life.”
Even with his many accolades, Howard occasionally got bad reviews. And even though he said he secretly thought the negative reviews were probably right and he was suspicious of the outright raves, Howard reserved a special place for his bad reviews and rejection notices — on his Irasburg garage door, where he blasted them to smithereens with his shotgun.
The twenty-nine years I spent working with Howard Mosher have been the most challenging and satisfying period of my professional and creative life. Indeed, it has been the core of it. I couldn’t be more grateful to this remarkable man, toiling each day in longhand over his yellow legal pads, breathing life into stories that have become so much a part of us.
We love you, Howard. We’ll miss you. But you’ll remain with us.
Top left photo by Lu Zhang