For each blank look I see when I tell an acquaintance that I’m spending the year as a Stegner Fellow, that I’m teaching a class on “Wallace Stegner & Western Lands,” and that the University of Utah is celebrating the Stegner centennial this spring in a big way, I come upon a counterbalance—a writer choosing Stegner as touchstone as he or she ventures into the realms Wally knew best.
For every time that I have to explain how Stegner was a mentor to three generations of American writers, that he won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, I encounter a writer who is using Wally’s work as bedrock to build upon.
Two recent examples: from two distinct layers in the stratigraphy of Stegner’s West.
My friend Jana Richman’s memoir, Riding in the Shadows of Saints: A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail, is an emotional and witty exploration of faith, history, family, and geography. Jana rides her BMW from St. Louis to Utah, following the Mormon Trail pioneered by seven of her eight great-great grandmothers. She seamlessly moves from strand to strand: the story of her road trip, her yearning to understand her own rejection of the faith held dear by her mother, and sufficient historical background about the Trail and the Mormon Church to make sense of her journey. It sounds like a lot to pull off, but she does so with verve.
More novelist than historian, Jana nonetheless has done her research. She quotes from the journals of three of those great-great-grandmothers. She retells the history of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young as she traces the line of that history across the continent. And every time she needs a pithy quote to sum up the experience of those who walked the trail, of the greater historical meaning of the Mormon Exodus, she finds that quote in Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion.
Wally would smile. Here is a smart Mormon woman, writing her way into her past and her very identity, and she finds her best guide in this non-Mormon historian and his book from four decades ago.
I know how this works from my own writing. You choose a story and begin work, circling around ideas, reading widely, doing your best. And then you find one writer who has nourished parallel ideas to full flower, whose perfectly chosen words inspire you to go farther, to see deeper.
Thus Jana uses Stegner. She quotes him on the Mormon handcart companies, in Wally’s words the “marathon walk” that was “the true climax of the Gathering, and the harshest testing of both people and organization.” Her very next line: “Maybe I’m looking for the twenty-first-century version of ‘the harshest testing.’”
This conversation with another writer, this dialogue we writers construct with a text, can save us from circling in futility and can propel us into the true heft of our narrative in ways we can’t manage on our own. It’s a cheat, perhaps, but it’s a widely used and useful structural technique. Stegner’s work, coursing with historical insight and rich language, lends itself to this writerly exchange.
In a fine piece in the Winter 2009 issue of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s OnEarth, David Gessner circles back to Stegner in this way as he investigates the 2lst Century “amenity economy” of Utah and Colorado in “Loving the West to Death: A Story of Drill Rigs, Mountain Bikes, and the Fight to Save our Last Wild Lands.” Where else would he start but with the “Wilderness Letter” and “the geography of hope?”
Gessner gets the piece exactly right. He talks to the most thoughtful citizens (including the Grand Canyon Trust’s Bill Hedden, river-runner hero Ken Sleight, the editors of High Country News, New West economist Thomas Power, and regional environmental leaders and land trust directors). In Moab, he grapples with his own complicity as a mountain biker and hiker through the lens of Ed Abbey and Jim Stiles. He updates us on the latest waves of change, and he details the threats from Bush and Cheney’s last cynical efforts to open up every acre of public land to their rapacious cronies in the energy industry.
Every few paragraphs, he holds up today’s New West to the mirror of a classic observation by Stegner and peers at the reflection. It’s always edifying. “Boomers and stickers.” The ineffable value of the wilderness, beyond “exploitation or ‘usefulness’ or even recreation.” The dangers of becoming “scenery sellers.” The “true commons” of the public lands.
We 21st Century writers parse Stegner like Talmudic scholars debating the meaning of an ancient rabbi’s cryptic teaching. We riff on the “geography of hope.” I write in Bargaining for Eden: “The geography of hope seems to be evolving into a geography of hostility.” Gessner quotes Bill Hedden on “the geography of hopelessness,” but counters, for himself, “While Stegner’s hopeful geography may be damaged, I still see strands of hope.”
Stegner remains a crucial voice for writers, and he will for a long time. We just need to make sure the sturdy stone in that touchstone, the outcrops of Stegnerian literary bedrock, don’t disappear from the larger population of potential readers, his books overgrown and forgotten.