88. Midnight on the Arizona Desert: J.B. Priestley’s Writing Hut (and the Grand Canyon)

Yorkshire inspired J.B. Priestley’s best writing, but he also loved Arizona.  This week we visit his writing hut at the Remuda Ranch in Wickenburg.  The hut was less than 12 feet by 10, made of unpainted boards, and contained very little: a table with his typewriter, some books and tobacco things on shelves, and a small tin stove.

Detail from front cover of J.B. Priestley, Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

J.B. Priestley’s writing hut in Arizona, amongst cacti, hills and stars. Detail from front of dustjacket Midnight on the Desert, Heinemann, 1937.

Priestley first saw Arizona in 1934, when he was sent by Ealing Studios to investigate the possibilities of a film for Gracie Fields.  He fell in love with the landscape, “the clear bright winter mornings and the blaze of stars at midnight, the glittering desert floor with its promise of precious stones, the hillside of giant saguaros, the amethyst peaks and the red-gold fortresses of rock, and, not least, the air so pure, it seems magical”.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

J.B. Priestley in a rocking chair, Wickenburg, Arizona, about 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/7.

Priestley, his wife Jane and their children spent two winters at the Ranch during the late 1930s, the dry climate being better for Jane’s health.   The family remembered these as times of fun and freedom, though Priestley himself continued to write, to work on US productions of his plays, and to give lectures.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

The Priestley family dressed as cowboys, Arizona, 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/5.

Priestley wrote most memorably about Arizona in Midnight on the Desert (1937).  In this, and its 1939 companion Rain upon Godshill, Priestley created a kind of descriptive autobiography, “packing reminiscence and discourse into a long reverie”.   This format suited his ability to write engagingly about his own experiences, whether being comically grumpy about the inconveniences of travel, sharing profound emotions, or exploring ideas.

He gave the two narratives shape by beginning and ending “at a certain time in a definite place” and concentrating on the “events, opinions, thoughts” of the previous year or so. In Midnight Priestley is writing in London on a dark, wet Monday, but his mind is back in Arizona, one late night in the hut towards the end of his stay.  He was having a clear-out, burning in the little stove an “accumulated litter of letters and odd papers” and chapters of writing that he felt had failed.

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936.  Photographer unknown.  Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

J.B. Priestley with his children Rachel and Tom, Coronado, California, Spring 1936. Photographer unknown. Archive ref: PRI 21/5/10

He reflects on this visit to the United States, and, with frequent returns to his sorting in the hut, tells us about his travels and his thoughts, sharing his views on the state of publishing, his experience of journalists in the USA, memories of his father Jonathan, Hollywood, giving lectures, American railways and much more.  Above all, he ponders the great mysteries of human consciousness and of time.  As we have already seen, he had just discovered and been thrilled by the possibilities of the writings of Dunne and Ouspensky and they were much on his mind that year.

The climax of the book is Priestley’s famous description of a visit to the Grand Canyon, a sight which astounded him no matter how many times he saw it.  Priestley walks out of his overheated hotel in a snowstorm; the Canyon is hidden by mist.  Then, suddenly the fog clears …

Priestley shares his sense of wonder and revelation as he looks at the Canyon – the changing weathers, the sheer scale, the colours.  Above all he feels it gave a view of deep time, a fourth dimension to the landscape.   Priestley realises that he dreamed of the Canyon long ago: maybe that dreaming self had made some Ouspenskian connection with the self now seeing the Canyon.

Midnight ends with Priestley finishing his work in the hut to go out into the cold starlit winter night.  He is sorry to leave Arizona but he knows he can always recapture a place through his imagination, be in London in Arizona or Arizona in London: “I must try to put some of this in a book …”.  Which he did!

Note on sources.  The long quotation in the second paragraph is from an article, “Arizona Revisited” (archive ref PRI 5/7/7: we think it was published in Travel & Leisure Magazine 1974).  Other quotations are from Midnight itself, Margin Released, and Instead of the Trees.   The latter, published in 1977, was a very belated finale to the trilogy of descriptive autobiographies.   The Priestley Companion includes several key pieces from Midnight, including the first part of The Grand Canyon, and is probably easier to get hold of through libraries.

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