I have a list of people whom I want to emulate in my old age. Author/teacher Oakley Hall is on it. He just died, but he’s still on it. I would love to have emulated his writing career, but that’s not the reason he’s on the list. He’s there because he refused to get what we think of as elderly. In his mid-eighties, he’d had both knees replaced, yet still played tennis. And he continued writing, in his last years turning out a series of detective novels set in late 19th century San Francisco that are among my favorite books ever. He was still active in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, which he founded and nurtured. From one end of his life to the other (he was 87 when he died on Tuesday), he kept moving and kept creating.
Most people probably wouldn’t put Hall down on their top-ten list of 20th century American literary figures, but you could make a pretty good argument that he belongs there somewhere. He turned out some damn good books. Warlock and Downhill Racer became hit movies. Separations is, to me, a seminal historical fiction work chronicling the transition from the old to the new west. He founded the MFA program at UC Irvine. I don’t have much affection for the whole idea of MFA’s, believe they have become an industry with a life of its own quite outside the world of good writing. In some ways, it’s been harmful to good writing. However, when you look at the stellar list that has come out of that little program–Michael Chabon, Alice Sebold, Glenn David Gould off the top of my head, and there are other notables I don’t recall at the moment–you’ve got to give Oakley credit for a significant contribution to American letters on that score alone.
I met Oakley at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. His daughters have been running the nuts and bolts of the operation for quite a while now, but he kept his hand in, participated every summer. When I say I “met” him there, I mean only that. If he recognized me on the street, it would have been as a face he vaguely recalled from somewhere some time, and my name would have meant nothing to him. Yet, my peripheral contact with his energy, wit, and good example, enriched my life both in person and on the printed page. I’m sorry he’s gone, but glad as hell he was here.