Our first national Wallace Stegner conversation

Tim Egan’s column in the New York Times on Stegner’s birthday last week triggered an astonishing outpouring of responses.  The 313 comments about Egan’s piece (as of this afternoon) range from expressions of love for Stegner’s work to anecdotes from acquaintances and students and critical appraisals from scholars.  The print-out runs sixty-five pages. 

Tim Egan’s centennial commentary and the power of the Internet have sparked our first national conversation about Stegner.  In his column, Egan focused on what he called “Stegner’s complaint,” the inadequate attention paid to Stegner by the East Coast elite.  And then, in the comments that follow, we plunge into irony with this amazing discussion of Stegner, both critical and laudatory, right there in the Grey Lady herself, a parade of individual statements on the man and his writing generated by a worldwide web-based readership.

Wallace Stegner would be amused by the irony, flabbergasted by the technology, and gratified by the personal tributes.

The range is astonishing.  These earnest notes to the Times speak of being born in Lake Mills, Iowa—and lamenting that the town does nothing to celebrate its identity as Stegner’s birthplace.  They speak of having tea with Mary Stegner.  Of mowing the Stegners’ lawn as a teen.  One man remembered that Mary shared an apartment with his father’s secretary in Iowa City before the Stegners even met.

Another shared a dinner with the Stegners just days after the Kennedy assassination when he was a young boy living in Greece, his mother, the ever-cheery hostess, insisted on shifting Wally from his musings on the meaning of the death of the president to less tragic table conversation, and so Wally spoke to the 11-year-old author about deforestation in ancient Greek watersheds.  It was his “first lesson in environmentalism.” 

 “Marshall” writes: “I am sorry to hear that Stegner felt dissed by the East Coast media establishment, but sorrier still that he isn’t here to read these gorgeous comments–which are far more of an homage and a belief in his great writing than any critic of a big city newspaper.  When I read Stegner, I smell the sweet-sharp scent of sage from the high mountain desert and feel the comforting heat from sun-baked stones from my home state of Utah. No other author has that power for me.”

From Rob Dayley: “If you don’t crave mountainous solitude, love shades of brown, or have never been spiritually born from spending days by an alpine lake, how could you understand?  If you never had a childhood friend who was a Mormon, Native American, or Japanese-American you probably can’t relate to the Western experience. Every Western family has a member (or two) just like Bo Mason. If you think Shasta is a soda, Stanley makes tools, and magpies are made with magberries why should I expect you to understand or appreciate my experience.”

Amy Gibson remembered her suitor wooing her with Crossing to Safety—successfully.  Wolf Willow still resonated for “Larry” decades after reading: “Not much else I read 40 or 50 years ago still is as fresh as this morning.”  Sarah D. finished Big Rock Candy Mountain, overcome with emotion, only to learn that same morning of Stegner’s death.  Another reader wrote that Stegner’s description of the song of the Western Meadowlark connected experience with “a kind of poetry” for the first time, freeing him to “apprehend” the rest of the literary world—including Faulkner!

“The foundational writer of the American West.”  “Stegner is god!” “I think WS goes for the heart in a way that literary academe can’t find a way into.  So he foregoes a certain type of reader, while winning the undying love of others.”  “I revel in his lyrical grumpiness, his passionate love of the land.”

Angle of Repose comes up over and over again.

Angle of Repose was the most sensitive and sophisticated treatment of displacement, of longing and the search for home, of the cultural and physical differences between east and west.”  Angle of Repose changed who I was as a reader.”  Angle of Repose taught me how to live my life.  Not my life as a westerner (which I was for many years), but just my life.” 

“We wear the titles we have read like scout’s badges proudly emblazoned on our minds and hearts. Angle of Repose is one of those novels once read, stays ironed on.”

“The West is, to Stegner’s writing, what France is to Proust’s, Ireland is to Frank O’Connor’s, and The South, to Faulkner’s.”  “I’m often asked ‘who’s your favorite author?’ to which I usually reply, ‘20th century: Stegner, Updike, Bellow, Coetzee, McEwan…’ (in that order).”  “It is the women who always linger in my mind when I finish one of his novels.  I learn from them.”  (written by a man)

They are not all gushing love letters.

“There are few better writers, but many more engaging novelists.”  “His writing is orotund—in the negative sense of the word.”  “I found his writing to be overly sentimental.”  “Has anyone else noticed a subtle anti-Semitism that runs through his books?”  “There is something hard and unreal about his Western fiction that doesn’t ring true.”  “I found his books overworked examples of an okay writer trying too hard.”

“Did Stegner do a magnificent job of fostering and retelling the Western myth?  Absolutely!  Did he complicate that myth?  Yes, he did, but not enough.”

From a woman who took a writing class at Stanford taught by “a Stegner clone,” who told her “that women had and would never be “good” or successful writers.”  She went on: “I’m afraid I find it hard to have much sympathy for these fine, many-times-published, Harvard/Stanford-teaching, male writers of the West, who were winning Pulitzer prizes, poor babies.”

Critique and tribute, the comments just keep building.  I wonder what the response will be when we reach the moment anticipated by “J.R.,” who wrote:

“I have little doubt that his bicentennial will also be celebrated!” 

–Stephen Trimble

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One response to “Our first national Wallace Stegner conversation

  1. S.D. Williams

    My addition to the NYTimes “national conversation” this weekend after attending the Stegner symposium:

    Stephen Trimble recited parts of Egan’s tribute and several of your comments at the Stegner Symposium here in Salt Lake City yesterday. Wendell Berry read from his own work to open and close the two day event, serving as bookends that embraced a collection of second and third generation classics- presentations on the life and work of the Dean of Western Writers by valedictorians whose own work is partly Stegner’s reflected light.

    Trimble concluded his remarks with a post here by JR predicting that Stegner will continue to be celebrated a hundred years hence. After two days of peeking through many of the windows in the house Stegner built, we were also left with the renewed conviction that, despite a few cracks due to settling, it is a sturdy homestead, well-situated, and will endure. It remains to be seen however, whether Stegner’s house will be a place to celebrate or mourn the sufficiency of our response to his warnings against turning either landscapes or writing into mere commodities.

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