Sweet Promised Land by Robert Laxalt
Its 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007
Terese Alpetche (1891-1978) was born near Baigorry, France, in the Basque province of Basse-Navarre. She graduated from the Cordon Bleu in Paris and traveled to Nevada after World War I, planning to assist her brother, who was recuperating from war injuries, back home to the Basque region. After her brother's death in Reno in 1920, Terese decided to remain in the USA. In 1921, she married Dominique Laxalt in Reno and never returned to her homeland in the French Pyrenees.
Dominique and Terese Laxalt had six children, four boys and two girls. Robert Laxalt (1923-2001) was born in Alturas, California, and grew up in Carson City, Nevada. His mother ran the French Hotel boarding house in Carson City while his father spent much of his working life in the mountains at sheep camps. In 1932, the Laxalts bought the original Ormsby House hotel in Carson City. The Laxalt family built a new Ormsby House casino-hotel in 1972 and sold it in 1975.
Three of Dominique's and Terese's sons, John, Paul and Peter, became lawyers. Paul Laxalt eventually served as Nevada's Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and one of its U. S. Senators. One daughter, Suzanne (Sue), became Sister Mary Robert in the Society of the Holy Family. Marie Laxalt Bini became a school teacher.
During World War II, Robert Laxalt served in the U. S. Consular Service in the Belgian Congo, Africa (1943-1945). He was a professional newspaper reporter in Northern Nevada before his graduation from the University of Nevada [Reno] in 1947.
By the late 1940s, Laxalt had launched his career as a freelance writer for regional and national magazines. His early non-fiction articles and short stories were published in a wide range of publications, including: The American Weekly, Blue Book Magazine, Everybody's Digest, Nevada Magazine, and the Saturday Evening Post.
Laxalt grew up listening to his father's stories about his childhood in the French Pyrenees, his emigration to the United States as a teenager, and his experiences as a shepherd in Nevada.
In his later years, Dominique Laxalt wanted to return to the Basque country to see his relatives and friends before he died. The family decided that Robert should accompany his father on the European trip (ca. 1952).
The Robert Laxalt Papers manuscript collection (85-09) in the Special Collections Department of the University Libraries includes the small notebooks Laxalt used during the trip with his father.
Laxalt realized his father's impressions about his return visit to his birthplace might make a good magazine story.
When he discussed the idea with the editors of the Saturday Evening Post, however, they suggested that he consider writing a book instead.
The Writing Process
Phase I: From book idea to book contract (August 1953-January 1956)
Laxalt pitched his book idea to Harper & Brothers publishing company in 1953 and provided them with some of his published short stories as samples of his writing style.
Editor Elizabeth Lawrence of Harper & Brothers thought Laxalt's book idea was promising and sent his material to Naomi Burton, a literary agent with Curtis Brown, Ltd.'s, Book Department, for preliminary follow-up. In Laxalt's August 31, 1953, letter to Burton, he elaborated on his thoughts about the book's scope. The Curtis Brown literary agency decided to work with Laxalt in the process of transforming his ideas into a manuscript that could be submitted to book publishing companies for consideration.
In January 1954, Laxalt advised Burton that he was sending her a draft of the beginning chapters of the book, but his writing would have to be part-time, at night. He had ended his correspondent work for UPI and accepted the full-time position of Director of Publications and News at the University of Nevada in Reno.
Laxalt often doodled on his draft papers while working on a writing project. These horse sketches were found with the Sweet Promised Land manuscript.
When Naomi Burton received a new draft of the book's early chapters in August 1955, Laxalt explained in his cover letter that he had thrown away all of his earlier versions and was finally happy with the book's beginning. The August 1955 version is the earliest draft available in the Robert Laxalt Papers manuscript collection in the Special Collections Dept.
Laxalt's use of Basque words and phrases in the text enhanced conveying both the sense of place and his father's perspective as a non-native English speaker.
In September 1955, Laxalt promised delivery of five more draft chapters to editor Martha Winston, who was filling in for Burton. He also explained that his idea for the book's title, Sweet Promised Land, came from a ballad.
Curtis Brown, Ltd., sent the incomplete Sweet Promised Land manuscript to Harper & Brothers for first consideration in the fall of 1955.
On January 6, 1956, Laxalt received a special delivery letter from Naomi Burton advising him that Harper & Brothers had accepted Sweet Promised Land for publication. She provided the financial details of their contract and advised him that Elizabeth Lawrence of Harper & Brothers would be his editor for the final phase of the manuscript's preparation.
"I still can't believe it's true," Laxalt wrote to literary agent Naomi Brown upon learning that Sweet Promised Land would be published. His January 10, 1956, letter included a summary of the book's later chapters.
Phase II: From edited manuscript to final galleys (July-December 1956)
Laxalt mailed the draft of the final chapters to Naomi Burton on July 18, 1956. He then began his own review of the manuscript to catch errors and to make minor revisions.
In her response letter of July 25th, Burton advised Laxalt that the book's ending needed revision for greater impact. Also, Curtis Brown wanted a carbon copy of the manuscript for use in finding a publisher for a British edition.
The Curtis Brown editors returned the manuscript to Laxalt in September 1956 with a list of corrections and stylistic revisions for his completion.
By October 3, 1956, Laxalt had delivered the corrected manuscript to Elizabeth Lawrence at Harper & Brothers. She advised him that it was ready for type composition at the press.
Harper & Brothers editor Elizabeth Lawrence advised Laxalt in a November 19 letter that the galley proofs would be shipped to him soon for his final review.
Sweet Success - September 1957
"To wish Sweet Promised Land all good fortune. Our hopes are high." — Editor Elizabeth Lawrence sent Laxalt a telegram in September 1957, on the eve of Sweet Promised Land's release.
Sweet Promised Land, Laxalt's first published book, became an influential contribution to the emerging American immigrant literature genre and was instrumental in generating interest in honoring the culture of Basque Americans. Laxalt went on to help establish the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Robert Laxalt continued to write about Basque Americans' experiences in the United States for the rest of his
He was one of the first two Nevadans to be inducted into the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame in 1988.
In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Robert Laxalt's nonfiction masterpiece, Sweet Promised Land, the Special Collections Department has created an exhibit featuring Laxalt's process in writing Sweet Promised Land, its various editions, his other writings, and Laxalt's multifaceted career at the University, as well as his career as a newspaper journalist and freelance writer.
The exhibit was available for viewing throughout 2007.
In 2007, the University of Nevada, Reno's Summer Scholars Project selected Sweet Promised Land for the incoming freshmen of the Class of 2011, as a shared reading and discussion experience.
[Photo of Dominique Laxalt courtesy of the Henderson Home News. All other illustrations are from the Robert Laxalt Papers, Manuscript Collection #85-09 and Photograph Collection P1999-10, Special Collections Department, University Libraries, University of Nevada, Reno.]