Tag Archives: Stegner centennial

All the Little Live Responses to the Stegner Centennial Symposium

The March Symposium at the University of Utah was stellar.  A lovely potion of respect and warmth and intelligence hovered in that room for two days.

Since then, I’ve received several responses I want to share.

Scott Williams of Salt Lake City sent me this most interesting idea:

“Your comments at the Symposium in particular left me with a recurring image of a statue of Stegner on one of the large median grass islands on 12th or 8th East or perhaps on East 2nd South, maybe even standing on the slope where it climbs the rise from Stegner’s old neighborhood and tennis courts to catch the first view of the University’s Park Building. I’m reminded of the monuments to Jorge Luis Borges I saw when I was in Buenos Aires last spring and how the spirit and words of Borges permeates that city and its culture.
Statues of great citizens are relatively rare in the West but common in eastern and foreign cities where they enrich the sense of place and create a public commons out of what would be simply a park.  Even in those cities they tend to honor founders and war heroes, those who initiate community or defend it against attack, rather than those who allow it to thrive and endure as places of culture and cooperation.  Salt Lake has a few such statutes but I can’t think of one that isn’t connected to the Mormon pioneer experience.  It occurs to me that a statue of Stegner, and perhaps others going back to Chiefs Washakie and Wakara, would contribute to a stronger and more frequent consciousness of the diverse contributions to Salt Lake City beyond and subsequent to the crucial but overdominant story of the Mormon genesis.  It could also be part of an urban experiment in shifting the public’s attention and adulation from founders and warriors to communitarians and peacemakers.
Terry Tempest Williams talked about making objects as a way of changing minds.  The Stegner quote on Library Square is one such marvelous new object.  I’m already wondering how we can create more. “

Michael Antman, a fine book reviewer, wrote to remind us of Stegner’s fine 1967 novel,  All the Little Live Things. He wrote:  “I thought you might enjoy this essay I wrote a couple of years ago on Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things as the first entry in a brief series I did on great neglected books.”  In his essay, he describes the novel as “nearly perfect. From my perspective, books that deserve this designation exhibit a seamless confluence of character and motivation, physical setting, point of view or philosophy, and literary style.”

Finally, Ralph Hafen, a retired lawyer now living in Salt Lake City, gave me copies of a fascinating exchange of letters.  At the time of Stegner’s automobile accident in Santa Fe in 1993, Hafen was taking a lifelong-learning class on Stegner at the University of Utah, taught by Robert Steensma .  Hafen sent Stegner a letter, addressed to St. Vincent Hospital, and received an answer from Marion Stegner, Page’s first wife, assuring him that the family had repeated Hafen’s stories to Wally while he was still conscious.  Even on his deathbed, Stegner loved a good story about Canyon Country.  In his letter, Hafen told the Stegners of floating through Glen Canyon in 1956 with Pearl Baker (who grew up at Robbers Roost Ranch) and finding Wallace Stegner’s name on the register inside a can stashed in a cairn at Music Temple.

Hafen also described one of his first cases after “hanging out his shingle” as a lawyer in Monticello, Utah, in 1955.   The complicated saga had to do with property rights at Marie Ogden’s “Home of Truth,” the religious cult described by Stegner in a chapter of Mormon Country.  Ralph Hafen settled the case, and remembered “driving out to see Mrs. Ogden in my old Lincoln automobile on Sunday afternoons.  She told me her whole history.  She was an old woman, bur her eyes would light up when she told me of all these marvelous events.”

I’m continuously struck by how close we are to these stories that take us back to a lost world.  Ralph Hafen is an elder, telling us the stories he heard from an elder more than fifty years ago, when he was in his twenties.  Shazzam–we listen, and we have just traveled back a hundred years!

Marion Stegner’s response, written after Wally’s death, was incredibly gracious: “If Wally had survived, you surely would have had an answer (response!) to your letter.  He loved stories of the sort you wrote him.  We are still in shock with his death.  The outpouring of love and support from all parts of the world has been extraordinary.  He was a man of enormous integrity and wisdom.  His loss is profound, but he left us all with a rich legacy.

thank you again.  sincerely, Marion Stegner.”
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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

The not-so reluctant environmentalist

Wallace Stegner served on the board of the Sierra Club and on the governing council of The Wilderness Society.  I think he’d feel comfortable with the sentiments I expressed in this Letter to the Editor, published today in the Salt Lake Tribune.  The comments on the letter form a mini-forum on both Stegner’s work and on living as an outsider in Utah.

STEGNER’S LEGACY

Public Forum Letter

What better birthday present for Wallace Stegner — whose centennial we celebrate on Feb. 18 — than to pass the Omnibus Public Land Act of 2009 that includes the Washington County wilderness bill?

Stegner was our model citizen/writer. Not just a novelist living inside his head. Not just an outraged environmentalist ranting from the sidelines of society. But a fully engaged citizen, rooted in place and community. This remarkable sense of connectedness with both land and people is why we still revere the man and return to his writing for guidance.

As a citizen, he would appreciate the years of negotiation and compromise that led to the Washington County bill. He would applaud the dialogue that brought every passion to the table.

Stegner called the West “the geography of hope.” And then, in his 80s, after decades of conservation battles, doubt crept in. He feared “the native home of hope” wasn’t going to deliver, that we are incapable of building “a society to match this scenery.”

Let’s prove him wrong. As a tribute to our great Utah writer on what would have been his 100th birthday, I ask Utah’s congressmen to take the lead in passing this vast — and good — public lands bill.

–Stephen Trimble

Salt Lake City

Blessed are the powers of the universe

I’m on the road this week.  On Tuesday, sixty folks came to join the Stegner centennial conversation at Dixie College in St. George.   On Wednesday, we had forty people in Springdale.  On Friday, I move on to Kanab.

In St. George, I read from “Living Dry.”  We contemplated that central fact of life in the Desert West so eloquently and repeatedly emphasized by Stegner: aridity.

In Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, I found a poignant passage following John Wesley Powell through St. George after his 1869 voyage down the Grand Canyon.  Just a few days before, three of his men had given up on the expedition and left the river at Separation Rapid.  They couldn’t have known that only one last rapid remained.  They made a terrible mistake. 

The rest of the tiny band whirled out through the Grand Wash Cliffs and escaped from what they called their “granite prison.”  In this passage, we left the river with the Major and his brother and headed back through St. George, hoping for word of their three companions.  Halfway back to Salt Lake, news arrived.  A group of Shivwits Paiutes who mistook the three for miners who had killed a Hualapai Indian woman across the river had carried out what they believed to be simple justice and killed them.

I talked the audience through Stegner’s life and career, meandering through the “Wilderness Letter,” Wolf Willow, Recapitulation, and “What I Learned”—Wally’s brief notes for a filmmaker working on a Stegner documentary.   And then came the question that brought me up short, from a middle-aged woman in the audience who talked about how much she loved her favorite trail in the Wasatch Range, at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon.  Her family called this well-worn path Granny’s Trail. 

She went on, “I can never be out in nature without thinking about who created it.  You went on and on about the connections Stegner makes to nature.  But you left something out: the Almighty!  Are you an atheist?”

I have to admit that I’ve never been asked this before by anyone in my audiences.

I answered as best I could.  My family is Jewish—by culture and tradition and ethics.  I have also come to believe in an energetic hum buzzing in the cosmos, a sense that the powers of the universe surround us—an awareness and acceptance on my part influenced by years of listening to American Indian people tell me about their dreams and stories.  But I am not religious in the sense this woman was looking for, and in her eyes that probably makes me an atheist.

Nevertheless, I’ve grown more comfortable than my irreligious geologist father can ever be with a universal connection, a vibration that the best of us can tune into.

What about Stegner?

He respected other people’s faith.  But he doesn’t make much of his own.  Who am I to pontificate on his beliefs?  But he actually tells us quite a bit, quite clearly.  I think he treated the Bible as a text, a fundamental of Western literature.  He reveled in the language.  But he found his solace in the here-and-now, in the threads of history, in the reassuring universals of humanity surrounding him everywhere—what he called “the great community of recorded human experience.” 

Wendell Berry’s description of Stegner’s approach to teaching, I think, illuminates Wally’s approach to life and to faith: “He did not pontificate or indoctrinate or evangelize.  We were not expected to become Stegnerians.”  Instead, Stegner showed a distinct “courtesy toward both past and future: courtesy toward the art of writing…courtesy toward…young writers.” 

Stegner felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s Mormon ward houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the LDS Church.  He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation.       

In his “This I Believe” essay, written for the original “This I Believe” series created by Edward R. Murrow in the Fifties, Stegner talks not of God but of citizenship:

I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do…I believe in conscience. 

… in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency, we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.

I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier that most of the world’s millions, I am more obligated.

Was Stegner an atheist?  Am I an atheist?

You know what?  The answers do not really matter.

Stephen Trimble

A Statewide Conversation about Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner is our wise elder, still.   His writing can guide us in a century he never saw, helping to rebuild both community and relationship.   The centennial celebration of his birth gives us a chance to return to his strong words that mirror our home landscape and community. 

Wallace Stegner wrote about virtually all of Utah’s landscapes and stories in one or another of his books.  His descriptions span the Twentieth Century, and I can think of no other writer whose work traverses so much Utah geography and history. 

I’m a Stegner Fellow at the Tanner Center for the Humanities at the University of Utah during the 2008-2009 academic year. I’ll be taking Stegner’s writing with me on the road across Utah, bringing his words home to the places where they started. 

In school and community programs, I’ll offer those excerpts from Stegner to the people who live in the locations he so insightfully memorialized in print.  And I’ll ask citizens to respond in their own words.   In this way, I’ll reintroduce Wallace Stegner’s work to readers, and I’ll be able to use his ideas to stimulate community dialogue.

I’ll take “Glen Canyon Submersus” to Big Water.  I’ll take his stories of the beloved resident characters of Fruita in American Places to Torrey.  I’ll take his Everett Ruess chapter in Mormon Country to Escalante; his affectionate remembrance of Mormon ward basketball in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord” to an Avenues wardhouse; Beyond the Hundredth Meridian to Vernal and Moab; The Big Rock Candy Mountain to Marysvale; The Uneasy Chair to Ogden, de Voto’s birthplace; and The Gathering of Zion to This is the Place State Park.  The possibilities are nearly endless.

I’ll be responding to these excerpts myself, in words and photographs.  This rich mix of writing and photography—ranging from Stegner himself, to my commentaries, to contemporary riffs on the same subjects by Utah citizens—gives us materials for this ongoing blog, for public programs, for regular presentations at the U, and for a book celebrating not just Stegner but our interaction with his work as a living legacy.  

Wallace Stegner wasn’t just a literary writer.  He was an activist writer.  But his activism is rooted in affection. Stegner was prescient and eloquent and wry, but he could never truly be cynical.  His love for the country and his respect for the people who had constructed lives around their relationship with that country prohibited contempt. 

This warmth that lies at the heart of his work can lead to civil dialogue in rural Utah.  Stegner would love seeing his ideas pondered by county commissioners and waitresses and ranching families.

I’m so looking forward to this conversation.

Stephen Trimble