Tag Archives: Wallace 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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Happy Birthday, Wally!

Governor Jon Huntsman got it exactly right:

Whereas, Wallace Stegner, one of Utah’s most prominent citizens, was a legendary voice for Utah and the West as an author, educator, and conservationist;

Whereas, raised and educated in Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, Wallace Stegner possessed a lifelong love of Utah’s landscapes, people, and culture:

Whereas, writing 30 books and countless articles, Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, National Medal for the Arts, and three O’Henry Awards;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner founded the creative writing program at Stanford University and mentored some of America’s leading writers;

Whereas, as one of the founders of the modern conservation movement, Wallace Stegner served on numerous conservation boards and worked tirelessly to preserve the natural beauty of the West;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, considered by many the most inspirational statement written in defense of wilderness and natural area preservation, became the “Magna Carta” of the wilderness movement and helped win passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964;

Whereas, as an early voice for balanced conservation efforts and the sustainable use of natural resources, Wallace Stegner urged Westerners to protect our natural areas;

Whereas, Wallace Stegner often returned to the Utah he called home, and through his family, generously donated his papers to the University of Utah Marriott Library and supported the establishment of the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources, and the Environment at the University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law; and,

Whereas, under the auspices of the Stegner 100 Committee, Utah civic leaders, religious leaders, conservationists, business professionals, writers, and educators have joined together to plan numerous events and tributes to celebrate the spirit of Wallace Stegner’s life and his many contributions to our beloved State;

Now, therefore, I, Jon M. Huntsman, Jr., Governor of the State of Utah, do hereby declare February 18, 2009, as

Wallace Stegner Day.

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

Stegner as literary touchstone

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.

Stephen Trimble

Wallace Stegner and Don Trimble teach their sons

Page Stegner wrote of his father, Wallace: My father could never just look at scenery.” 

            Neither can mine.

Page:  If we happened to be driving across the Colorado Plateau through southern Utah, say from Cisco to Price along the Book Cliffs, he’d offer up an anecdote about Powell being rescued by Bradley in Desolation Canyon, and then explain to his slightly annoyed eight-year-old boy (me), who was trying to concentrate on his Batman comic, who Powell was and why he was important.”

I grew up with the same commentary aimed at me from the driver’s seat.  My father, Don Trimble, worked as a field geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey for more than thirty years.  He was a mapper, working his way across big pieces of the West, ridge by ridge, quadrangle by quadrangle.  He loved history as much as geology.  He knew much of what Stegner knew.  Younger geologists described him to me as “a latter-day John Wesley Powell.”

Wallace never missed a chance to teach Page: “He’d point out the La Sals and Abajos to the south and tell that boy something about laccolithic domes, betting him he couldn’t spell laccolithic.  He’d comment on the immensity of geological time and the number of Permian seas responsible for the deposition of the Moenkopi, Chinle, Wingate and Kayenta formations (he could identify them all) on our left and the Dakota sandstone and Mancos shale on our right.” 

This Thanksgiving week, I drove my father along this same route along the Book Cliffs that Page remembered.  My dad loved the road trip from Denver to our little house near Capitol Reef National Park.  Now 92 years old, his eyesight has deteriorated, but he reveled in watching the parade of rocks roll past the window.  Even if he couldn’t resolve every detail, he knew those formations. 

When we reached the beginning of the Book Cliffs at Grand Junction, Colorado and began following the rampart of sculptured gray badlands that runs for nearly two hundred miles, Dad was thrilled.  Coming upon this grand feature on the Earth’s surface was like running into an old friend in a bar.  He sorted the layers, looking for the sandstones deposited by both the transgressive and regressive encroachment of the Cretaceous sea.  He shook his head, still filled with wonderment: “I know the Colorado Plateau was uplifted intact, but how could this feature possibly be so continuous?   I can’t think of anything else like the Book Cliffs, anywhere.”

 

Don Trimble at the Book Cliffs

Don Trimble at the Book Cliffs

Page: “He’d observe the Fish Lake Plateau far to the west and remember something of his boyhood summers at that lake, though he was never particularly loquacious about his own childhood except in his writing.   Crossing over the Wasatch Plateau and heading south through the Spanish Fork canyon would remind him of the specific dates of the Escalante/Domínguez expedition through the regions (September 23, 1776) and that it was exactly fifty years before Jedediah Smith came through following essentially the same route.  He had a kind of holistic relationship with the land, and he couldn’t look at it without remembering its geological history, its exploration, its social development, its contemporary problems, and its prognosis for the future.”

I hadn’t read aloud this passage by Page to my father, but he spontaneously mused on exactly the same topics as Stegner had, while we drove into the sun sinking behind the San Rafael Swell.  He pondered Powell’s singleminded courage.  He asked if I remembered the details of Father Escalante’s route, and joked that he could always remember the date for their expedition: 1776.

He looked out across all that open space and sighed, fearing that our endless doubling in population would do us in.  Remarkably, he remains an optimist, even with these concerns. He takes the long view of a geologist.  We’re just in another extinction event, like the Cretaceous and Permian extinctions before us.  Humans came, and they will go.  His knowledgeable, forthright realism mirrors Stegner’s. 

I would have loved to make this drive with both of them in the front seat.  

Stephen Trimble

Wallace Stegner as a White guy, circa 1945

At the end of World War II, Look Magazine commissioned Wally to write a series of articles on racism.  He spent a year and a half traveling the nation with Look photographers, visiting minority communities from Boston to Los Angeles, covering Filipinos, Jews, Blacks, American Indians, and a half-dozen other oppressed peoples.  In the end, Look grew too timid to publish what he wrote, and he gathered the essays, with dozens of photographs, in a Family of Manstyle picture book published in 1945 called One Nation.

In the “Stegner & Western Lands” class I’m co-teaching at the University of Utah, this week we read excerpts from One Nation, along with historian Patty Limerick’s tribute to Stegner as a man ahead of his time, “Precedents to Wisdom.” 

It’s just about impossible to imagine America in 1945, for me as well as for most of the twenty-something college students in my class.   Stegner wrote this book 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, 20 years before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts.  The one Latina student, however,  told us that this was the first time all semester that she felt fully engaged with the reading.  

She wondered why it took us so long to get to these readings.  We responded sheepishly with explanations about juggling guest speakers and their appearances in the syllabus.  Truth be told, it never occurred to me or to my co-professor that we needed to address issues of gender and race up front.  We knew we would get to them, but we saw them as one piece of a mosaic, not a pivotal prologue. 

The students were ready to believe in Stegner as a man ahead of his time until they came to the phrases where he wasn’t.  On the one hand, his prescience was astonishing: “without our minority groups and the diverse strains of our culture, American society is a pale imitation of Europe.  With them, it is something newer and stronger.”  On the other, he speaks of “primitive and backward” reservation life in Indian Country.

And yet he also recognizes “the Indian’s right to personal dignity as an Indian.”

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn will have none of it.  In her summary judgment on Stegner, “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner,” the Dakotah scholar dismisses Stegner’s search for roots, his analysis of his childhood home in the essays in Wolf Willow.  She dismisses any White writer looking to become native of his or her home landscape.  She defends indigenousness as the exclusive territory of Indian people.  

Our class didn’t buy her fierceness, but we didn’t really buy Jackson Benson’s defensive response, “Why I Can’t Read Elizabeth Cook-Lynn,” either.  It’s apples and oranges, one student said.  Cook-Lynn has a perfect right to her ferocity as an American Indian woman, for all kinds of reasons.  But Stegner is not a member of the Wannabe Indian tribe.  In One Nation, he acknowledges the  failures of forced assimilation.  In his own writing, he seeks to learn enough about the land and history of his own lands to become “native.”  It is a good thing, I believe, for all of us to ponder this identification with our home.

It’s a tricky word, “native,” almost as tricky as “race” and “class.”  Stegner understood just how tricky, in these words from One Nation written more than sixty years ago, but applicable to every cultural clash in 21st Century America, from the conflict between the rural and urban West to the conflict between Sarah Palin and Barack Obama supporters:

“Underlying all our prejudices, racial or religious or cultural, is fear–the fear of being swamped, overrun, changed or converted or diluted, done out of our jobs or our social position.  It is only as a defense, often unscrupulous, of our particular status quo, our particular ‘pure’ race, our particular ‘right’ faith, that we can justify our prejudices to ourselves.”

Stephen Trimble

Mormon Trees, Wallace Stegner & Barack Obama

Last night, the Sons of Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City hosted the first community conversation for my Fellowship project.  Eighty people (whose average age was probably around 80, as well!) graciously listened to me tell stories about Stegner and of my own connection to “Uncle Wally.”  (I’ve been bringing so many anecdotes and stories to the dinner table that my wife has joked that it feels like Uncle Wally has moved into the back bedroom). 

In addition to short quotes from Stegner’s books, I read three excerpts.  The Gathering of Zion (pages 152-154) was an easy pick, since SUP focuses on Mormon history.  We rode over South Pass with the refugees from persecution, as they bumped into mountain men Black Harris and Jim Bridger and took full advantage of their chance to quiz the men who knew the most about the Saints’ destination.  Stegner notes: “The day was June 27, 1847.”  Exactly three years before, Joseph Smith had been killed.  “Now the Lord, who had started the pioneers west on the anniversary of Joseph’s founding of the Church, took them over South Pass into the country of sanctuary on the anniversary of the martyrdom.”

Stegner, a non-Mormon, tells the panoramic story of the Mormon Trail with respect.  He felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s LDS Ward Houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the Church.  He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation.  I’ve been thinking this week that he shared a suite of values with our new president-elect, Barack Obama, a stunning combination of civic engagement and citizenship, of scholarship and thoughtfulness.

John Wesley Powell and the little band of men that made up his 1869 expedition floated into Glen Canyon in the selection I chose from Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (pages 88-90).  There was no other canyon like Glen Canyon, and the Major knew it.  “Through most of its course the canyoned Green and Colorado, though impressive beyond description, awesome and colorful and bizarre, is scenically disturbing, a trouble to the mind.  It works on the nerves, there is no repose in it, nothing that is soft.  …But Glen Canyon, into which they now floated…is almost absolutely serene, an interlude for a pastoral flute.”

“Mormon Trees” (pages 21-24) from Mormon Country triggered the most poignant memories.  In his paean to Lombardy poplars, Stegner chose to “judge a people by its trees” and found both worthy. “Wherever they went the Mormons planted them.  …They give a quality to the land so definite that it is almost possible to mark the limits of the Mormon Country by the trees.” Older women held my hand and told me of climbing the Lombardys in their backyards as children; the trees served as their refuge, their place of solitude.  Their eyes sparkled. Together, we lamented their diminishing numbers.

When my family moved into our home in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, three Lombardy poplars towered along the fenceline in our tiny backyard.  Over the past twenty years, all three have died and we had to take them down.

Like those wives of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, I miss them.

Stephen Trimble