Words do things. We all know this. It’s why we pick up books, magazines, and Kindles as often as we do – waiting for that one sentence, that one perfectly articulated idea to shift the way we look at ourselves, at each other, at language itself.
Whatever words do, Larry Woiwode is attempting to do that in the recently published Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature & Culture. Culled from a literary career that is reaching into its fifth decade, the volume is ripe with reflections on place, family, literary history, overlooked masterpieces, and Bob Dylan’s news reporting. Each bite-size chapter invites the reader to consider a new (or old) subject from a fresh angle, and each imaginative approach reveals much about the stuff of life that you thought you had already gotten your head around. So, though I ought to save this conclusion for the end of the review, I’m going to tell you upfront: Words Made Fresh is a downright enjoyable read.
It is so, at least in part, because Woiwode is a care-full reader. Many of Words essays are about other words penned by other people who care a great deal about words. Emerging as one of the best essays in the bunch is “Updike’s Sheltered Self: On America’s Maestro,” in which Woiwode shows an immense knowledge of and sensitivity to the prolific novelist’s body of work, personal life, and influence. He both appreciates and prods at Updike’s stories, wondering if the author understood the moral nature of the act of writing, and letting Updike speak for himself about the detailed portrayals of betrayal and infidelity in novels that were written from a self-professed Christian perspective. (I realize that that is a loaded sentence, see Woiwode’s essay for more). Never taking the easy way out, Woiwode wrestles with texts and ideas until their complexities emerge, thus opening them up to the possibility of redemption. Chapters on Shakespeare, John Gardner, and Wendell Berry do the same with varying degrees of success.
Words delightfulness also emerges from Woiwode’s carefulness and precision as a writer. Just as we find him interacting with skilled penmen throughout, he proves himself to have a way with words. A discussion of the aforementioned John Gardner yields an example of a fruitful sentence: “At other times he was a musing or amused listener, moving his pipe around in his mouth as he sat back dreamily silent” (52). Such turns of phrase and evocative imagery pepper the book yet somehow manage to avoid the cloyingness that accompanies similar attempts made by many unseasoned writers, myself included. One suspects that this is a result of Woiwode’s incarnational approach to language, which, as he sees it, through metaphors, has the potential to “contain the lineaments and inner workings of a human being” (13). (This concept appears in the introduction, and provides much fuel for imagination throughout).
Above all, however, Words is captivating because its author is a distinctly Christian reader and writer. Now, hear me rightly, I am not saying that Woiwode’s reading/writing is on another level simply because he is a Christian. What I am saying, however, is that he is unique in that his already well-honed craft is filtered through an approach to life in this world that is significantly shaped by a deep Christian faith. I know of few other essayists about whom this could be said (Alan Jacobs being another).
The impact of Woiwode’s faith upon his writing is harrowingly depicted in the transition between the first and second essay of the book. The first, “Guns & Peace,” which was originally titled “Guns” when it appeared in Esquire back in 1975, is a frightfully compelling autobiographical account of nascent violence and the dissolution of family, written by a pre-Christian Woiwode. The afterword to this chapter recounts his embrace of the Christian faith, the reuniting of his family, and sets the tone for the redemptive use of language that is to follow in the second essay and beyond, all of which were written by Woiwode after his conversion.
Though one might quibble with him on a few ideological points, the book leaves one with the feeling of having spent an evening chatting with a thoughtful older brother. What does Larry Woiwode do with words? He makes you want to read. He makes you want to write. And he makes you want to do both of these things in full view of the Gospel, radically shaped by its many-faceted implications. We would all do well to look closely at, and temporarily get stuck in the web of redemptive words that our friend has here spun.
For a taste of Woiwode, check out this brief interview with Jon Wilson of Books & Culture from the Crossway Blog: