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Wallace Stegner and the American Westby Philip L. Fradkin
"He was a strange child. Now he clung to her skirts so closely that he hampered her walking, and she laid her hand on his head and kept it there because she knew that somewhere deep down in his prematurely old mind he lived with fear."
—Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain
Wallace Stegners life could be described as a continual search for the angle of repose.
Stegner was a man of many different and seemingly contradictory components. He was a gentleman. His consideration was legendary; his anger was implacable. He lived according to an inflexible code forged on the frontier, tempered during the Depression years, and never bent or broken to fit the changing times. Stegner was a good man, but he was not the perfect man he was eulogized as being.
He came from nowhere culturally and became a writer whose books were translated into numerous foreign languages. He was a barefoot frontier youth who would later consort with the intellectual elite in this and other countries. He worked exceedingly hard and lived a full, rich life. His transgressions were minor. Although he spent a lifetime seeking knowledge of himself on paper, he never felt as secure within himself as he seemed to be on the surface. He was captive to the guilt and anger that had its roots in childhood.
As a student working toward a masters degree in an innovative writing program and as a professor with a doctorate in a recognized academic specialty (both degrees from the University of Iowa); as a teacher in the top writing programs in the country (Iowa, Bread Loaf, Harvard, and Stanford); and as a writer of volumes of commercially published fiction and nonfiction, Stegner not only bridged the gap between professor and professional writer but also constructed by example and teaching the tenuous structure that allowed many others to cross that same chasm.
Wallace Stegner taught writing students whose names have come to constitute a virtual hall of fame of American letters (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Scott Turow, to name just a few); he had a decided impact on national conservation issues (dams, wilderness areas, and national parks); and he was a versatile and prolific writer of novels, histories and biographies, journalism and essays, and short stories.
A nearly complete list of his works—many of which remain in print— includes 13 novels, 9 nonfiction books (one written with his son, Page), 242 nonfiction articles, and 57 short stories in magazines and newspapers. His books and short stories have been translated into French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. Stegner edited seven collections of his own short nonfiction and fiction (his wife, son, and daughter-in-law edited other works), and he edited numerous collections of writings by other authors. Stegner also contributed many introductions and forewords to books. In, addition, Nancy Colbergs 1990 Wallace Stegner: A Descriptive Bibliography includes a miscellaneous category.
In his lifetime he garnered almost all the literary awards and honors available lifetime (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, PEN USA Body of Work and Freedom to Write awards, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times, eight honorary degrees, and endowed chairs named after him at two western universities, among other more prosaic forms of recognition). One of his students, Wendell Berry, caught the totality of the man when he wrote, “He was perhaps his regions greatest teacher: its greatest storyteller, historian, critic, conservator and loyal citizen.”
Stegner defined place in words and actions, the latter activity being a rare characteristic for a writer. He stressed the realities of the West in classroom lectures, speeches, his writings, and his environmental activism. He was a slayer of myths about this outsize land. Rapacious economic booms followed by inevitable busts, the need for wilderness and national parks to renew the spirit, and the concept of aridity as it defined the West were topics Stegner introduced to national audiences through his writings and conservation activities. He made the subject of the West respectable for other writers back at “headquarters,” his term for the Boston-New York publishing axis.
Stegner reluctantly acted as the spokesperson for the region. No single person has filled that position since he died. Through his multiple legacies, Wallace Stegner remains the emeritus authority on the American West.
He was of the region, but he also ventured beyond its borders. He dealt with racism as a national subject long before civil rights became a fashionable issue. During the early months of the Kennedy administration, he participated in discussions about the formation of a national arts policy—talks that resulted in the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The differences between East, West, and Midwest that he had absorbed from living on both coasts and in the interior of America constituted another theme that this man, mistakenly labeled a regionalist, explored. Of the West, Stegner once explained to a correspondent: “You are right in thinking that I see it as a little America, a late (and by aridity modified and intensified) variant of the American experience.”
Many of the students he taught or writers he advised informally (the latter included Ivan Doig, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams) pushed his ideas further in different styles and from diverse perspectives and are still producing works of great value.
That there was more than one side to Stegner is typified by this jotting from one of his notebooks: “I have a trouble that until now I always knew myself too well, and I was never what I knew I publicly seemed. One lived with a mask until one thought the face fitted it. Then suddenly one day another face looks out of the mirror and the mirror cracks.” Regardless of which mask he wore and what face emerged from the cracked mirror, he was nothing but extremely and obsessively honest with himself and ultimately—insofar as he was able to be—with his readers.
Immensely attractive, articulate, and intelligent, Stegner was described by friends and co-workers who knew him well as reserved. His wife, Mary, said that in his earlier years he had been more outgoing and the life of numerous parties, but the Stanford bureaucracy and students dampened his spirit in the late 1960s, when the threat of change pervaded the campus, the West, and the nation.
Wally and Mary came from the sparsely inhabited regions of the interior of the country and found themselves among the elite on both coasts. The couple inhabited two worlds during their lifetimes. They were in by dint of hard work and talent—not breeding, great wealth, or elite schools. As one of Stegners close friends and a Stanford Nobel laureate remarked about his patterns of speech, “You are getting two voices out of Wally, the rhythms of the country and the diction of the university.”
The multiple achievements that were accompanied by the requisite awards were not enough. Stegner wanted acceptance by all. He was repeatedly vilified in the 1970s by that paragon of eastern bookishness, The New York Times Book Review, and there was the nagging question of his use of sources for his greatest work of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose. Some have termed it plagiarism. Anger marked his reaction to negative criticism and to anyone who crossed him personally or professionally. He never forgot, and he rarely forgave.
Stegner made a mighty effort, but he never came to terms with his fractured youth. From his early years to the end of his life he was burdened by self-doubt. Wally was haunted by guilt for his mothers unhappiness, illness, and death. The anger his father directed toward him—which Wally reciprocated as hatred—never dissipated, although he attempted to exorcise it in his books.
The periodic, intense anger directed by fathers toward their sons was almost biblical, or genetic, in its passage through four generations of Stegners. It may have preceded George Stegner, but since nothing is known about his forebears, what can be said with certainty is that it spread insidiously from George to his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson. Wallace Stegner testified to the force of his anger. He said a few years before his death that his rages “sort of scare me now and then.”
Wally was personally involved in societal shifts of seismic proportions during the twentieth century. His major flaw was that ultimately he could not adapt to the region that had formed him and that he had defined and represented so eloquently. Stegner despaired of his homeland and what he once called “the geography of hope.”
Change bred insecurity in this outwardly assured individual. He first experienced change in one of the last frontier settlements during the early 1900s and again at the end of his life, during the frantic 1990s in Silicon Valley. There was no escaping change, not even in his beloved Salt Lake City. For along with its close relative, transience, rapid change and the physical manifestations it caused were the defining cultural characteristics of the West.
The irony was that Stegner knew this and had documented it in many words. In the end he sought to escape change by having his ashes deposited in a seemingly more enduring place. Stegners fictional doppelgänger, Bruce Mason, inquires in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, “But going home where . . . Where do I belong in this?”7 It is a question that is more endemic to the West than to any other section of the country.
• • •
Stegners first dim memory was of huddling in a tent in Redmond, Washington, after a tramp had told the family there were mountain lions in the surrounding forest. His first clear memory was of an orphanage in Seattle. Wally could recall the rain and the dappled sunshine that fell upon the family tent in the rain forest near the Puget Sound logging town of Redmond and eating crusts of stale bread in the orphanage.
It was a boom time shortly after the start of the century for nearly everyone except the Stegner family. The forests of the East and the South had been cut. Now it was the turn of the Pacific Northwest. Here the trees were taller and straighter and yielded more board feet: Sitka spruce, cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir, and Jeffrey pine. Puget Sound offered a huge, safe harbor from which the lumber could be exported to Pacific Rim markets. Firms like Pope & Talbot, people like Frederick Weyerhaeuser, modern technology like the double-bit ax and the longer two-man saw with raker teeth, and new railroads and steamships fueled the boom that had begun with the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and didnt end until the Great Depression of the 1930s.
The city of Seattle, “buoyantly speculative in spirit” from its start as a small mill town, did not question the efficacy of booms. Its citizens, like others in the West, accepted them as their due, promoted them beyond the sustainability of the particular resource, and then wrote off the subsequent busts as aberrant and best-forgotten history.
The cheerleader mantra of “the Seattle spirit” prevailed. Hills were leveled, canals dug, and wetlands filled to create a waterfront. Labor problems were dealt with in time to capitalize on the demand for lumber in the early World War I years, when timber production was extremely profitable. The price of lumber peaked in 1912 and 1913, shortly after the Stegners arrived in town from North Dakota.
Wallace Stegner was too young to appreciate the economic vicissitudes of the Northwest, but he would soon be cognizant of the wheat boom on the northern prairie and all the subsequent booms and busts in the twentieth-century American West. His father had a habit of missing the main chance, leaving, and then appearing elsewhere when the next opportunity seemed imminent. Then the cycle was repeated.
From Redmond, George took off. “Then there was a bad time,” Wallace Stegner wrote years later in an imagined letter to his dead mother. “You left my father, or he you; nobody ever told me.”
An aunt provided Wally with a sketch. George was joined in Redmond by a professional gambler he had known before he met his wife. The married couple opened a café, where Hilda Stegner did the cooking and took care of Wally and Cecil. Neither George nor the good-looking, well-groomed gambler was a typical restaurateur. The money came in too slowly for them. The pair departed for British Columbia, leaving Hilda to run the café, make the installment payments on the restaurant equipment, and care for the children. The café failed, and Hilda and the two young boys moved to Seattle. She got a job in the Bon Marché department store, where her sister, Mina Paulson, also worked.
Hilda found it impossible to hold the job and adequately care for her children in the fall of 1913. The desperate mother deposited them in what their aunt euphemistically called “a private home” but in reality was the Sacred Heart Orphanage on Beacon Hill. To Wally, “it was a dump. It was literally an asylum of the old-fashioned kind.”
The memory of the orphanage lodged permanently in young Stegners mind and was subsequently incorporated into his books and speeches. Homelessness had a great impact on him, as it would on any sensitive child. Hilda visited her children on Sundays, but the reunions did not lessen the traumatic experience for her sickly, scared four-year-old son. Cecil, who looked after his brother, was a six-year-old and more robust.
Wally recalled “the musty, buttery odor” of the stale bread crusts, some already half-eaten and resembling “bits of old shoe soles,” that were served as a midmorning snack. Hungry kids ran from all directions of the yard “like ravens.” The bread pan “was practically torn out of the womans hands. I never got any because I was little, and once in a while my brother would take pity on me and give me a bite.” He disliked the oatmeal that was served for breakfast and the tomato sandwiches at lunch. His appetite was deemed finicky, and the obdurate child was punished by the nuns for not eating. He was spanked with a ruler or with bare hands. Skinny Wally cried a lot.
The orphanage was also the product of boom times. It had been founded by Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini in 1903 on Beacon Hill, from where there was a view of Lake Washington and the eastern half of the city. By 1913 it housed more than one hundred children, and the property had become valuable. The city wanted to level the hill. Through a miracle, as it has been described, Mother Cabrini found another property on the shore of Lake Washington. After the Stegner brothers departed, the remaining orphans moved to Sacred Heart
Villa in 1914, and Mother Cabrini went on to found sixty-seven institutions—schools, orphanages, hospitals, and the like—throughout the world and became the first American saint and the patron saint of immigrants.
 Stegner was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His former student Edward Abbey said he was “the only living American worthy of the Nobel.”
 Wendell Berry, “Authors Legacy Extends Beyond Words of the Land to Its Preservation,” San Jose Mercury News, April 18, 1993.
 WS to James Hepworth, July 2, 1985.
 WS, “Greek Trip with the American Academy,” brown notebook, n.d.
 Kenneth Arrow, interview by Jackson Benson, August 9, 1988.
 WS, interview with Jackson Benson, January 27, 1988.
 WS, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 457.
 Redmond is described on its Web site as “home to everything from one person start-ups to Microsoft.”
 WS, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Modern Library, 2002), p.30.
 Mina Paulson Heggen to WS, n.d. Mina Paulson returned to Iowa in 1914 and married Thomas Heggen.
 WS, interviews by Jackson Benson, May 7, June 2, and June 5, 1987. Reminiscences in the following two paragraphs also come from these interviews.
 Lynn Stegner, who had similar experiences in a later version of the same Seattle orphanage and school, pointed me in the general direction that enabled me to make the link to Sacred Heart.
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