Tag Archives: Wolf Willow

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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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