The legacy of Jim Houston

The Santa Cruz literary community is numb this morning with the news of the death of the great novelist and essayist James D. Houston.

We should all take a moment to remember this great man, and think of his wife, the author Jeanne Wataksuki Houston, and family.

Here’s a tribute I’ve written for Jim to be published Sunday:

I tried to tell him. Honest, I did.
I tried to articulate to Jim Houston that he was hero to me. Not a hero like, say, Nelson Mandela or Jackie Robinson, some iconic cultural figure that hangs in the sky like the sun. But someone whose presence in my life made me reach for my better self, to want to be a fuller and more expressive person. He made me want to earn the honor of being his friend.
I tried to tell him, sitting there in the cool, dark living room of his magnificent old Santa Cruz home. But we were both men of Southern blood, possessed of a nature – a kind of emotional reserve the generous might call gentility – that made such declarations difficult. It would have embarrassed me, but I didn’t really care about that. I just didn’t want to embarrass Jim.
I would like to say that we were both writers, that we had that in common as well. But such a thing would be an act of laughable hubris on my part. He was the writer, an author of eight novels and numerous essays, a nimble and engaging narrative voice, a teacher of towering repute, an insightful interpreter of the California experience who had no use for the lazy mythology of the “California Dream.” Next to Jim, I’m a kid drawing in the dirt.
I tried to tell him all that, but now I can’t. Because he’s gone.
Jim died on Thursday at 75, in a house that had become a continuing source of creativity for him. Yes, all writers, it seems, have a strange, sometimes supernatural relationship with their houses, or the places where they write. But Jim had the best house story ever. The man who wrote the penetrating and lyrical fictional account of the Donner Party in “Snow Mountain Passage,” lived in the same house once owned by the most prominent (and youngest) survivor of the Donner Party, Patty Reed.
He wrote Patty Reed’s story in Patty Reed’s attic. How cool is that?
I asked him once if he ever felt the presence of Patty Reed – who died only a decade before Jim was born – in the gorgeous old creaky house near Twin Lakes beach made of heart redwood and cherrywood. Jim laughed in response, scoffing at the notion of a man his age believing in ghosts. But his eyes danced in mischief too, as if to say, “Well, maybe, you never know.”
Jim was a tall, sinewy man who looked every bit like a man of the West, without the silly cowboy accoutrements to underscore the fact. An affable grin was his default expression. His laugh would rumble low in his throat and sounded like it was coming out of his shirt.
He wrote upstairs where the house’s small cupola looked out over the ocean. He often worked standing, with pages and notes on bulletin boards to remind himself of timeline and plot elements. I always thought how much like a painter that approach was, as if he felt that this was how art was supposed to be created, not flat on your back with a laptop on your belly.
Jim had many blessings, perhaps the most central of which was his luminous Japanese-American wife of 50-plus years, Jeanne Wataksuki Houston, with whom he collaborated on “Farewell to Manzanar,” based on Jeanne’s experience in the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. Many in Santa Cruz literary circles had come to think of the Houstons almost as one unit: Jim the courtly gentleman alongside the vivacious, radiant Jeanne who exuded that elusive spirit known in the islands as “aloha” like roses exude fragrance.
But also among Jim’s blessings were deep and abiding interests of which he never grew bored, from writing to music. To hear Jim talk about Hawaiian music was to tap a deeper reservoir of passion than he showed normally. He and Jeanne were constantly traveling to Hawaii, a place that always resonated with Jim’s wavelength. A couple of years ago, I was on Oahu at the same time the Houstons were, but did not make the effort to drop in on them, and to see Jim in a place whose seductions he was never able to resist. Today, that’s a sharp regret on my part.
Now that the man is gone, however, the writing remains behind. We have that comfort at least. It’s always the writer’s secret agenda, I suppose, to keep his words alive after his voice is stilled, to whistle down the drafty corridors of time, never knowing how far the sound will carry.
And the writing almost radiates from the page. Jim’s collection of essays, “Where Light Takes Its Colors From the Sea,” pokes around that thorny question of what it means to be a Californian, an American. And it does so with the quiet sense of watchfulness of a man who still regarded his native state as a terrain of valleys and ranges, a place both of nature and mind.
His fiction was often as wide open and immediate as the landscapes that greeted the Donner Party on their trek to California in 1846 as recounted in “Snow Mountain Passage.” In that and other novels, Jim Houston treated history as it should be treated, as the forces still shaping the present, stories that deliver us to the future.
On this day, I find it heartbreaking that a man so entranced by history is now part of it. To me, a hero is gone. And by the example of his rich life and legacy, he goads me to stop drawing in the dirt and, in his absence, take up the arduous, long climb to becoming a writer.

One thought on “The legacy of Jim Houston

  1. I too am heartbroken to have the news of Jim’s passing. Like WB, I considered him a hero. What I loved best about him was his down to earth friendliness and that little glint of joy in his eyes. My condolences to Jeannie and the family.

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