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.

No comments:

Post a Comment