The last book I read before starting The Last Englishman (see below, Small World) was Willa Cather's great and beautiful novel of the opening up of the American prairie, My Antonia. Surely nothing could be farther from the provincial English world of J.L.Carr... could it?
Well, The Last Englishman is a biography full of surprises, and one of them is that, in the late 1930s, Carr found himself teaching in the small prairie town of Huron, South Dakota, a place giving a pretty convincing impression of the Middle of Nowhere. Once there, Carr amazed the locals by taking an interest in their history, and from his researches put together a book of their memories succinctly titled The Old Timers: A Social History of the way of life of the homesteading pioneers in the Prairie States during the first few years of settlement, as shown by a typical community, the 'Old Timers', of Beadle County in South Dakota. Written in Huron, South Dakota, by J.L. Carr of Kettering, the United Kingdom, as a service to the people of the Prairie States and to perpetuate such history from generation to generation. He completed the book on a return visit in the 1950s, and ran off 50 copies on a duplicator. It is now an extreme rarity, with just one known copy, in the Pierrepoint Morgan Library in New York.
'In it,' Rogers writes, 'the pioneers spoke of a time just sixty years before... Some could remember huts built of earth clods and one of them a cave... And some spoke from a time even before this. An old lady remembered the prairie grass in 1882, when this, in an empty land - the Sioux and Dakota having moved, or been hounded, on - was as tall as a man on horseback.' This is, precisely, the world of My Antonia, suddenly opening up into the world of a displaced English schoolteacher.
'Carr... came on three graves beside a dirt road, one to John P. Dixon, 1883-1903, and a second to James Dixon, 1854-1895. On the third grave, that of a child, there was no name. After one great blizzard, he was told, the dead had to be put in water barrels to thaw and lose their rigidity before they could be put in coffins.'
Carr recorded tales of prairie fires and tornadoes, and 'a Scotsman called Nielson, driven mad by lawyers and the loss of a long court case, [who] shot four people dead in 'Section 11 of Valley Two'... then begged his wife to kill him, and when she refused, killed himself. Six men from Huron rode out to his homestead with the intention of hanging his corpse, but were informed by a neighbour that if they so much as laid a finger on him, they would ride back to town at least one man short.'
When Carr left Huron, he found himself developing 'a violent nostalgia for those long miles of faded grass' - but by then he was off on another journey - around the world. That journey, Rogers notes, makes him probably the only late 20th-century English novelist to have circumnavigated the globe without once taking to the air. As I said, this is a book - and a life - full of surprises. I fancy there will be more.