VIDEO: Conference celebrates life of Robert Laxalt
During a closing address for a conference celebrating the life and work of Basque-Nevadan author Robert Laxalt, his grandson Gabriel Urza brought out a leather satchel containing notes from his grandfather’s reporting for National Geographic as well as an early manuscript of his book The Governor’s Mansion.
Urza found the satchel in the back of his grandfather’s old International Scout truck a decade or so after he died, and took it. It wasn’t until a week before the conference that he finally read what was inside.
“I've kept these pages for the past 10 years and, as I've carried them, I've come to feel kind of guilty about it,” said Urza. “I feel like they probably don't belong to me, but I also feel like I've been carrying a part of my grandfather with me.”
The conference, called “A Basque American Literary Pioneer: Robert Laxalt,” was held over two days in March at the Knowledge Center at UNR, home to Center for Basque Studies as well as the Jon Bilbao Basque Library.
David Río, a professor of American Literature at the University of the Basque Country, helped organize the event. He said he fell in love with Laxalt’s writing growing up in the Basque Country.
“I was impressed by the way in which he approached issues such as being Basque American,” Río said. “So in a way, they are ambassadors to the Basque history, Basque culture and Basque society.”
Río hopes that conferences like this will help promote a “transatlantic connection” between Basque immigrants and those still living in their homeland.
Laxalt’s most famous work, Sweet Promised Land, tells the story of his father Dominique’s pilgrimage back to the Basque Country after 40 years in the United States. The way he describes his father’s sense of estrangement is something immigrants from various countries at the conference related to.
Sweet Promised Land was published by the University of Nevada Press, which Laxalt founded.
In his keynote address, William A. Douglass — a world-renowned scholar of Basque studies and the founder of the Center for Basque Studies at UNR — talked about how important the press was to his friend, who made numerous trips to Carson City to lobby for subsidies to keep it running.
“I think that he gave the press a home here at UNR, but also that the press gave him a home,” said Urza. “It probably allowed him freedom and a sense of continuity that let him write in ways that he might not if he was writing for traditional commercial presses.”
When Laxalt retired from the press he planned to return home and focus on writing books, but Warren Lerude — his longtime friend and colleague who taught First Amendment and Media Law courses in a Reynolds School of Journalism career spanning 28 years following a 20-year reporting, editing, publishing and management career with The Associated Press and Speidel/Gannett newspapers — convinced him to teach journalism at UNR.
“I said, ‘Bob, you’re an independent guy but you’re also a people person,” said Lerude. “‘If you just go sit in your little cabin in the woods and write books, you’re going to start talking to yourself.’”
Laxalt ended up teaching at the university for 18 years. His daughter Monique Laxalt told the Reno Gazette Journal, “it made his life complete.”
The manuscript Urza found in that leather satchel would eventually be published as The Governor’s Mansion, the final book in Laxalt’s semi-autobiographical Basque trilogy. It tells the story of Leon, the son of Basque immigrants and successful lawyer who eventually becomes governor of Nevada.
Robert Laxalt’s brother Paul Laxalt was elected governor of Nevada 1967. In reading his grandfather’s handwritten notes, Urza said he could see him struggling with the implications of his brother’s political victory and how many of the complicated feelings he had should ultimately be published.
Urza decided to give the stack of papers to the Robert Laxalt Papers collection at the university, with the people who are dedicated to keeping his grandfather’s legacy alive.
“Nothing would make my grandfather happier than to have these papers that were in the back of his truck here with you all,” said Urza.