Monday, May 28, 2012

Wallace Stegner

I want to talk to you this morning about one of the truly great American writers of the 20th century, Wallace Stegner. His biographer, as well as many admirers and even Stegner himself, insist that he has been marginalized by the Eastern intellectual press, treated as ‘merely’ a western writer—a historian and environmentalist who also writes fiction. While it is true that much of his environmental and conservationist writing focuses on what he calls the rape of the west, some of his finest novels have the action taking place in New England. Indeed, one of his finest novels, The Spectator Bird, has for its location Denmark. Anyone who reads him carefully will realize that he is a writer whose subject is the world and the beings who inhabit it, and he writes with an honesty and compassion matched by few.

Many writers find it difficult to combine writing and teaching; indeed, some writers find it difficult even to combine journal or essay writing with fiction. Stegner did it all. He was a gifted teacher whose students included Wendall Berry, Ken Kesey, Raymond Carver, Tillie Olsen, Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry and many more. He wrote short stories, novels, essays on nature and conservation, literary criticism, and biography. And he wrote at a pace that I find staggering. He published his first novel when he was twenty-eight, and one of his very best, Crossing to Safety, when he was seventy-nine. In my opinion, his later novels were among his very best.

I returned to Stegner after not having read him for about twenty years when I discovered that I had not read his 1976 novel, The Spectator Bird. That excellent novel reignited my interest in Stegner, and I have since re-read Crossing to Safety, and am now reading his biography of Bernard DeVoto (another great conservationist) along with Jackson Benson’s excellent biography of Stegner.

Although very much a male author, Stegner wrote with a sensitivity and emotional intelligence rare among men. He does not write adventure novels, and his lead characters are not angry young men nor existentially tortured loners. Often enough, it is the female characters who nudge the males towards tolerance and understanding, and who urge compassion for all the little live things (the title of one of his novels), but he is not an essentialist who forgives men their brutality because of some inborn, inescapable nature. Stegner was small as a child, especially compared to his powerful father and athletic older brother, and as his biographer says:
Both the nonfictional and the fictional accounts of his growing up…make it clear that a dichotomy developed early in his consciousness between the proud, tough, intolerant rugged individualism represented by his father and the friendly, tolerant, neighborly tendencies toward caring and cooperation represented by his mother—and it was his mother whom he learned to admire.
He was married to the same woman all of his life, and it is obvious that several of his women characters are modeled on his wife, Mary.

I grew up as a Mormon in Salt Lake City, Utah, and have spent a good part of my adult life on the run from what I see as the silly doctrines and dangerous elitism of religious fundamentalists of any ilk. Stegner also grew up among Mormons and attended the University of Utah in the thirties when it was (even more that it is today) very heavily influenced by the church. However, he is so much more tolerant of Mormonism than I, and indeed wrote two sympathetic accounts of the westward movement of the Mormons. He admired the sense of cooperation and collectivism in the church, so unlike the individualism and gold-rush mentality of so much of western expansion. He remained friendly to Mormons and Mormonism all his life, and while he found the doctrines preposterous and distrusted the authoritarian structure of the church, his sympathetic treatment has caused me to take another look at my own past and my unmitigated criticism of the church.

So far I have talked mainly of Stegner’s fiction, and it is his fiction that most interests me and which sparked my interest in him as a writer. However, his environmentalism and his push for conservation are manifest not only in his essays (e.g., Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs) but in his fiction as well. I’ve spoken above about Stegner’s suspicion of the rugged individualism and get-rich-quick mentality of his father. That suspicion and distrust may well have triggered his later interest in and passion for nature and conservation. Again quoting from Benson’s biography of Stegner:
Stegner found the American Dream far more damaging than does Dreiser in An American Tragedy or Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby. Almost alone among major writers of our time, he realized that the dream has not only twisted our lives and corroded our values, it has despoiled the very land that has given us such hope. And that hope, as represented by the frontier, is what has given the West such a symbolic role in representing the dream, has made the perpetuation of the mythic West possible. What motivates Bo Mason in The Big Rock Candy Mountain is what motivates poor people, dreaming the impossible dream of sudden riches, to hate unions and vote Republican. Like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, they wait for Uncle Ben to pass on the secret of wealth, while at the same time, the land and air are so polluted they cannot plant seeds that will grow in their own backyards. For Stegner, who was concerned with cooperation, empathy, and mutual support in basic relationships, the American Dream very often spelled disaster, not only for individuals, but for our society and our land.
When Stegner depicts in his writings someone who is successful, it is not for his material possessions or status due to wealth or fame, but for what he has made of himself morally and spiritually and what he has accomplished.
There is a conversational style to Stegner’s fiction that makes it easy to read and utterly believable, and renders the moralizing which is always there (at least under the surface) much more palatable than it would be otherwise. I think his novels get better as he ages, both in simplicity of style and in moral-political content, but I believe readers could start anywhere in his work and find it rewarding. I have not even mentioned yet his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose, but that may be a good starting point, and whatever order you then pursue, be sure to include Crossing to Safety, The Spectator Bird, and Recapitulation.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Torch by Cheryl Strayed

The fact is that as organic beings, we are situated towards death. Martin Heidegger announces that one of the universal and necessary conditions of being human is being-towards-death; he calls these universal and necessary conditions existentialia. So many authors have written about this experience of living in the shadow of death, but few have written as honestly and insightfully as Cheryl Strayed on experiencing the death of a loved one. In her 2005 novel, Torch, Strayed lays out the confusion of emotions that surround the death and dying of a thirty-eight year old woman, Teresa, and skillfully changes voices to describe the reactions of a college age daughter, Claire, a high school senior son, Josh, and a loving husband and step-father, Bruce. While it is Claire’s voice that is both the most convincing and complete, I was very impressed by Strayed’s ability to speak for the son and husband as well.

Strayed now lives in Portland, and since the debut of this sad and lovely little novel, she has published a memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail (2012), and has identified herself as the voice behind the advice column, Dear Sugar. So many excellent novels (especially first novels) are thinly veiled autobiographical sketches, and this is certainly true of Torch. Like Claire, Strayed lost her mother to cancer at an early age, and she experienced first-hand her own wild grief and the different, though no less profound, reactions of a brother and stepfather.

I won’t be giving away much of the story by telling you that about the first third of the novel describes the illness and death of Teresa, and the last two thirds focuses on the attempts of her family to deal with her death.

The mother, Teresa, in addition to working hard as a waitress, is also well known locally via her radio talk show, Modern Pioneers. Teresa’s children are alternately proud of their mother’s local fame and ashamed of the homespun stories and advice she delivers on her show and strives to live out in her daily life. At the end of each show, she invokes her listeners to “Work hard. Do good. Be incredible!”

Claire is called home from college when her mother gets the shocking diagnosis that she has only a short time to live—maybe weeks, maybe months, at most a year. For a little while, she and others in the family try to carry on with their normal routines, but as the disease rapidly progresses, each has to face the fact that there will be no return to normalcy—not now, not ever.
Claire stared at her mother as she slept or tried to sleep. The longer she watched her, the more foreign Teresa seemed to her, as if she hadn’t known her all her life. She’d felt the same peculiar dislocation years before, when it had been explained to how babies were made. It wasn’t the facts that had confused her, or the mystery of sex or birth or creation, but the question of why. Why should there be people at all? Or fish or lions or rats? Now she felt a new wonder washing over her. If there were to be people and fish and lions and rats, then why should they die? And why, most of all, should her mother die?
Bruce, the loving husband who has become a devoted father to Claire and Joshua, attempts first simply to deny that his wife is dying; her death seems inconceivable. It is she who is the glue of the family, the wise mother and pioneer. And when her death becomes inevitable, when she in fact dies, his second attempt at denial is to suppose that when she dies, so will he. He can see no other solution, though he worries about how his children will respond to this second death.

Joshua, still a senior in high school, also attempts first simply to deny. He refuses to visit his mother in the hospital, not only because he hates to see her so changed, hates to see her and hear her suffering, but because in some confused way he supposes his refusal will prevent her death. Even before she becomes so ill that she has to be in the hospital, Joshua has taken to staying away, not attending school, secreting himself in a storeroom above the restaurant where he worked before his mother became ill.
On occasion he made an appearance, showing up at home a couple of times a week for Bruce or Claire so they wouldn’t worry, and at least once a day he saw Lisa Bourdeaux {his girlfriend}. But mostly he liked to be alone, in silence, or listening to his music as he lay on the unfurled rug in the apartment or sat by the river on the rock, not remembering where the world was. Remembering it, but willing himself not to. Often this meant that he could not allow a single thought into his mind, and he got good at it, forcing his mind to go separate and blank, imagining himself not human, but rather an animal that hibernated or went into torpor.
Strayed is incredibly good at dissecting the grief of each member of the family, showing how their very different reactions sometimes drive them further apart when they so desperately need to be closer together. When Joshua asks his stepfather what he is going to do now that Teresa is dead, Bruce wants to reach out, wants to comfort his son.
And he almost reached out and put his hand on Joshua’s shoulder and said, ‘Suffer for a while, but then we’re going to be okay.'
But he said none of those things. He wasn’t that man. Not in this instant. He was so alone that he could not speak. He remained silent for so long that the silence seemed to absorb the question entirely, so that it would have been stranger to answer than to leave it be.
It would be a big mistake to suppose that Strayed is simply noting that boys and men attempt to deny or flee death and grief, while girls and women have to deal with it. In fact, she is both perceptive and exceedingly kind in her descriptions of the varied responses. Each character deals with the death and dying as she/he must, and while this is not a happy book, neither is it simply bleak and tragic. I would say that in the end she is hardest on Claire, perhaps because she expects the most from her, from herself. But in truth the author shows great empathy towards and understanding of each of her characters, and if there is no final summing up and redemption, there is acceptance and understanding of this universal and necessary condition of what it is to be human. This is a fine book, and I expect more from this wonderful writer.