Bain, David Haward 1949–

views updated

Bain, David Haward 1949–

PERSONAL: Born February 23, 1949, in Camden, NJ; son of David (in business) and Rosemary (Haward) Bain; married Mary Smyth Duffy (a painter), June 6, 1981; children: one son, one daughter. Education: Boston University, B.S., 1971.

ADDRESSES: Home—Orwell, VT. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Viking Press, 375 Hudson St., New York, NY 10014.

CAREER: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, NY, editorial assistant, 1973–76; Stonehill Publishers, New York, NY, editor, 1976–77; Crown Publishers, New York, NY, editor, 1977–78; freelance writer, 1978–. Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, member of faculty, 1981–88, admissions board, 1987–; Middlebury College, Middlebury, VT, conductor of prose and poetry workshops, 1987–. Has also worked as a piano player in a café and as a professional musician in a blues band. Mount Independence Coalition, VT, member of board of directors.

MEMBER: Authors Guild, Authors League of America, PEN, National Writers Union, Society of American Historians (fellow).

AWARDS, HONORS: Rinehart Foundation grant, 1979, for Aftershocks; Bread Loaf Writers' Conference prose fellowship, 1980; Lebensburger Foundation grant, 1982; New York State Council for the Arts/PEN Center fellowship, 1983, and Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award, both for Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines; Readers' Choice Award, 1997; George W. and Constance M. Hilton Book Award, Railway & Locomotive Historical Society, 2001, New England Historical Association book prize and National Railroad and Locomotic History Society book prize, all for Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad; Wyndam Foundation grant.



Aftershocks: A Tale of Two Victims, Methuen (New York, NY), 1980.

Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1984.

(And editor, with Mary Smyth Duffy) Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, preface by Marvin Bell, Ecco Press (Hopewell, NJ), 1993.

(Editor, with Sydney Landon Plum) At an Elevation: On the Poetry of Robert Pack, Middlebury College Press (Middlebury, VT), 1994.

Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, Viking (New York, NY), 1999.

The College on the Hill: A Browser's History for the Bicentennial, Middlebury College, 1800–2000, designed by Tina Christensen, Middlebury College Press (Middlebury, VT), 1999.

The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go West, Viking (New York, NY), 2004.

Contributor to anthologies, including The Best of Prairie Schooner, edited by Hilda Raz and Kate Flaherty, 2000. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including the Baltimore Sun, Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, New York Times, Smithsonian, American Heritage, Prairie Schooner, Kenyon Review, Columbia Journalism Review, TV Guide, Glamour, Washington Post Book Review, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

ADAPTATIONS: Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad was adapted for a documentary coproduced and with commentary by Bain, and broadcast as part of the series The American Experience, Public Broadcasting Service, 2003.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Best Be Getting Home: Essays on Place, Writers, and Writing, a collection; a book on nineteenth-century naval exploring expeditions.

SIDELIGHTS: David Haward Bain is both an educator of authors and an author himself. He has been involved with Middlebury College's Bread Loaf Writers' Conference since 1980 and has taught writing workshops at the college. Bain has also written a number of nonfiction books, primarily focusing on topics in American history, for which he has won or been nominated for numerous awards. Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, for example, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in History and the Francis Parkman Prize.

Bain's Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines is a study of U.S. Brigadier General Frederick Funston. It covers everything from Funston's childhood on the Kansas prairie to his adventures and misadventures as a government biologist embarking on long, dangerous trips to collect specimens from Death Valley to Alaska's snowbound wilderness and other exotic locales. As Nation contributor Jonathan Kwitny wrote: "Gripped by a sense of national destiny, he conquered all he challenged. For the best and worst reasons, he was a quintessential American hero." Kwitny pointed out that the "treasure-trove of firsthand accounts by Funston and his contemporaries … bring all those adventures to life." However, these same accounts condemn actions taken under Funston's command of what today may be considered war-crime atrocities during his long and bloody campaign against the Filipinos in the Spanish-American war.

In 1982 Bain, accompanied by his brother and four friends skilled in mountaineering, set out to follow the long and tortuous march taken by Funston and his troops as they sought the remote mountain stronghold of Emilio Aguinaldo. Former president of the short-lived Philippine Republic, Aguinaldo had become the guerrilla-leader of the Filipinos. Sitting in Darkness interweaves passages from Funston's era with Bain's current point of view. Kwitny found that the "contemporary stuff sometimes works, but sometimes not, and therein lie the book's flaws, forgivable as they are." Kwitny concluded that the book is "a tale of great people, wonderfully told."

Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference was edited by Bain and his wife, Mary Smyth Duffy. This book outlines the history of the annual Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, a two-week event sponsored by Middlebury College in Vermont. Over the years, it has attracted many of the most prestigious writers in America, both as faculty and as students. Such now-famous authors as Anne Sexton, Joan Didion, and Howard Fast, among numerous others, were nurtured there at the beginnings of their careers. Bain "provides an interesting historical overview of the conference, anecdotal rather than evaluative," according to a Publishers Weekly writer. Booklist critic Greg Burkman noted that the book portrays the conference "at its best: Young writers can actually learn how to make a living writing fiction and poetry, as well as how to improve their craft."

Of Bain's next book, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, Robert M. Utley wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "The building of the Pacific Railroad is an epic story, often recounted, but never so thoroughly, authoritatively and engagingly as in Empire Express." Bain's story follows two trajectories—one in the power centers of the nation, including corporate boardrooms, state and federal political arenas, and the U.S. Congress and judicial system; the other is, in the words of Utley, "in the towering Sierra Nevada, the deserts of Utah and Nevada, the rugged canyons of Utah's Wasatch and the Nebraska plains."

Bain digs deeply into the political corruption that so tainted this epic endeavor. "Even by the loose standards of the 1860s," observed Utley, "every ranking official could be labeled a crook, as most ultimately were. Bain probes the financial, legal and political skullduggery in all its complexity. He nimbly spins the kaleidoscope of stocks, bonds, securities, first and second mortgages, slush funds and piles of cash. He exposes the artifice of the Credit Mobilier and the Contract and Finance Company, by which the railroad directors let padded construction contracts to themselves. Bain's attempt to untangle the tangle is sometimes bewildering but always fascinating." Bain also addresses the pawns in this great contest, such as Chinese laborers, Irish immigrants, and former Civil War soldiers still led by ex-Union Generals Dodge and Casement. Reviewing Empire Express, a critic in Publishers Weekly stated: "Displaying energetic research and enthusiasm for the subject matter, Bain brings the linking of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and the era that produced it, back to life."

Bain followed Empire Express with another book about the railways and other transportation routes titled The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go West. Like Sitting in Darkness, The Old Iron Road is a combination of history and travelogue, this time focusing on the 40th parallel. Bain looks at the routes that emigrants took to travel west, beginning at Kansas City, Missouri, and ending in San Francisco, California. The story begins in 1889 on a personal note: Bain's grandmother was brought into the world in a covered wagon on the old Kansas trail. The author also includes information about an eight-week road trip he took with his family that followed these some routes over seven thousand miles, experiencing the museums, battlegrounds, and people along the way. The author contrasts what he found on his trip with what was there in the nineteenth century, such as towns that were once prosperous but now barely exist. Calling Bain "an intriguing guide," a Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "He uses physical entities … to swerve into historical forays that deftly and palpably engage."

Bain once told CA: "At this stage, if there is a thread that runs through my books on Vietnam, on the Philippines, and on the building of the first transcontinental railroad, and certain short writings (such as an article about the U.S. misadventure in Nicaragua in the late Twenties), it is to probe with questions about the nature of the American civilization. Why the inability to meaningfully remember our own past? Which events get left out of the history books? Why have we been condemned to repeat our own mistakes? What is the source of our cultural disinterest in points of view not of mainstream America? How can we learn from all of this?

"Sitting in Darkness takes its title from a passionate essay of American humorist Mark Twain in which he lambasted the William McKinley-Theodore Roosevelt presidential administration for its misadventures in the Philippines, and the other 'superpowers' of the era for their own colonial misdeeds. Twain was one of my most formidable literary influences: that cantankerous generosity I first came across, at eight years of age, in Huckleberry Finn and his other fictions, later graduating to the iron-backboned essays, most of them too angry or profane to be published in his own lifetime. I happened upon either Europe and Elsewhere or the collection edited by American writer Bernard DeVoto, Letters from the Earth, some time in my mid-teens, and Twain's thoughts on social justice, disorganized and splenetic as they were, made a tremendous impression."

"Around the same time as I located Twain and some twentieth-century Christian philosophers (not so much an impossible confluence as one might immediately think), I heard another literary voice that, in my mid-teens, helped shape my direction. In that era of atomic drills in the public schools, an English class assignment was American author and journalist John Hersey's Hiroshima, still a classic of penetrating, sensitive reportage. It must have been my first sampling of the best sort of New Yorker journalism, though the magazine was always present on family coffee tables and must have previously made some sort of impression. The book whetted my appetite for nonfiction artfully written, and instilled in me a curiosity about how other cultures perceived events in which the United States had a hand.

"I chose these examples because of their immeasurable importance in locating my world-view and literary direction as a humanist and citizen of the world. But one cannot stress enough the equal importance of my family atmosphere: literate, book-devouring parents who imparted love of the written and spoken word to their four children. From them I developed an all-encompassing insatiability for books, which knew no limitation of subject matter; I remember a complex stew, including English poet and playwright A.A. Milne, English novelist Charles Dickens, All-Abouts and Landmarks, Twenties-era debunkers, American poet Robert Frost (of course!), American author Philip Wylie's overlooked Finley Wren, science fiction visionaries from French writer Jules Verne and English author Herbert George Wells to English author and scientist Arthur Charles Clarke and American author Ray Bradbury, Civil War centennials, The Conquest of Mexico, C.W. Ceram's archaeological Gods, Graves and Scholars, English satirist Jonathan Swift, swashbucklers from The Prisoner of Zenda to American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs. Good heavens, once tapped, this list could go on!

"Jump ahead, again, to my five or six years in publishing—most particularly, the three years put in at Alfred A. Knopf, where I sat literally in Mr. Knopf's shadow (having sold his firm to Random House some years before, and having relinquished editorial control to a gifted trio of enfants terrible from Simon & Schuster, Alfred made ceremonial appearances twice a week, and between dictated letters would venture past the desks of young fools such as myself, showing great patience with my attempts at conversation; on his days off, I would nap lunchtimes in his Barcalounger). The old traditions of careful publishing were still observed at Knopf. I was expected to have a junior-level hand in a good number of Knopf's more serious projects—its histories, mostly (many of which, despite my flailings-about with galley proofs and transmittal forms, survived my meddlings and gained recognition in the outside world). Through my small association with these books, I think I learned more care with regard to both scholarship and the literary process. Three years at Knopf was equal to any number of graduate degrees. (The subsequent three years in book publishing, divided between two full-time jobs and a forgotten number of freelance positions, made an impression only in that I was persuaded that business was not for me.)

"Since I've been proceeding in this Henry Adams-manner, I should mention a process which began back in college, when I was introduced to the historical writings of DeVoto, and has continued over the nearly eight years of my full-time writing. I keenly appreciate DeVoto's notion of synecdochic writing whereby the whole is inferred from a treatment of its part, and find great inspiration in how he moves from theme to theme, producing an enviable panorama of history. Other influences are American historian, educator, and author Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Barbara Tuchman in history; and a number of journalists often identified with New Yorker from Edmund Wilson and Joseph Mitchell to John McPhee, Michael Arlen, and Peter Matthiessen. The last, with his political progressivism and his concerns for the natural world, is probably the most inspirational of this group of journalists.

"A significant part of my meager income while writing my first book was derived from playing piano in a wine and cheese cafe; at one time I was a professional musician (last years of college and for a year or thereabouts after graduation)—played piano in a blues band in Massachusetts, did some unimportant session work, and picked up occasional freelance band jobs when people like John Lee Hooker and T-Bone Walker came to town.

"The most significant travel to date was for my second book, Sitting in Darkness—one-third of the interwoven narrative involved the physical retracing of the turn-of-the-century routes of Brigadier General Frederick Funston and Philippine leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Therefore, in 1982 I put together an expedition for six Americans (myself, my brother, who is a professional photographer, and four of our hometown friends who were skilled in mountaineering and backpacking), assuming the costs myself. Using guides from the aboriginal Agta (or Negrito) tribe, who knew almost no English, wore loincloths, and employed spears or bows and arrows, we hiked a good deal over one-hundred miles through the mountains, jungles, and coastal trails from Baler, Aurora Quezon Province, to Palanan, Isabela Province, having nearly as many adventures as our historical predecessors."



Booklist, October 15, 1993, Greg Burkman, review of Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, p. 411.

Library Journal, October 1, 1999, Randall M. Miller, review of Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, p. 107.

Nation, December 1, 1984, Jonathan Kwitny, review of Sitting in Darkness: Americans in the Philippines, p. 592.

New York Times Book Review, December 12, 1999, Robert M. Utley, "The Spike Wasn't Golden," review of Empire Express, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1993, review of Whose Woods These Are, p. 440; October 4, 1999, review of Empire Express, p. 51; April 5, 2004, review of The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads, and the Urge to Go West, p. 51.


David Haward Bain Home Page, (November 19, 2005).

KUED Web site, (November 19, 2005), Lem Verdoia, interview with David Haward Bain.

About this article

Bain, David Haward 1949–

Updated About content Print Article