Happy birthday, Wallace Stegner

Reflections on a seminal Western author, years after his death.

 

Matthew D. Stewart is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He received an MA in American studies from the University of Wyoming and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history at Syracuse University.


Wallace Stegner lived through almost the entire 20th century and wrote his way through more than half of it. His fan mail started with a trickle in the 1930s, opened up to a flow in 1943, after the publication of The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and then rushed like the rivers he loved until his death on April 13, 1993. Many letters came on his birthday, Feb. 18. Today, they are preserved with the rest of his papers at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. 

The letters arrived by plane from Kenya, Japan and England, and by hand from Los Altos Hills, California, where Stegner and his family lived when they were not traveling or spending the summer at their cabin in Vermont. Book clubs from across the nation wrote to Stegner, from the Literary Ladies of Hyde Park, Vermont, to a Vietnam veterans’ book club in New York City that enclosed 25 copies of Angle of Repose with a request for Stegner’s signature on all of them because the book had “left a deep-seated impression” on all 25 members of the club.

Many letters asked for autographs, some confessed love, and one was written by a couple on their honeymoon. A British fan of Stegner’s Women on the Wall included this brief review of the book: “I think it is lovely, so do my friends, we all hope you make masses of money, and pay no tax." Among the thousands of letters that readers wrote, the theme that recurs over and over again is that Stegner respected his readers, their lives and the places they inhabited. 

Most profoundly, he was capable of writing about heartbreak without succumbing to nihilism. His characters suffered real pain, and many of them failed. But Stegner’s characters sometimes went beyond the failures, if only by one step, and he never fell into cheap sentiment. 

As a woman wrote after finishing Crossing to Safety: "It has something to do with bonds and frailties, a sense of place and events unfolding, and above all, endurance." Stegner respected those who fell into the abyss and saw it for what it was, but endured nonetheless.

Stegner also told hard truths to his readers — particularly his readers in the West — about the region’s past and present. Decades before the “New Western Historians,” several of whom acknowledged his influence and corresponded with him, Stegner brought serious and critical attention to the settling of the West. He could criticize the region from within; in the words of a man who wrote to him in 1978, he could “handle the region’s culture without condescending to it.”

Ed Marston/HCN file photo

As one of his most famous readers, his friend and former student Wendell Berry, put it in his 1990 collection of essays, What are People For?, Stegner was a regional writer “who not only (wrote) about his region but also (did) his best to protect it, by writing and in other ways, from its would-be exploiters and destroyers.” Berry contrasted Stegner with the “industrialists of letters” who mine “one’s province for whatever can be got out of it in the way of ‘raw material’ for stories and novels.”

A woman from Montana told Stegner, “Somehow I have a sense of the land from reading your book that I have not found in a long time, and the urge to tell you that looking back to the years when I was an unprepossessing small girl suffering some of the same mental tortures that you seemed to, I figuratively wave to you across the prairie miles that lay between us. You have used your background well — the prairie and I are proud of you.”

If wisdom is simply pulling back the curtain to reveal a howling empty wasteland, 20th century fiction was full of such debilitating wisdom. Stegner was generally agnostic about any ultimate reality, but refused doubt as an excuse for selfish despair. There were too many people who had fallen in love with the land, and who counted on him; there were too many places that were threatened and fragile. In one of his most famous phrases, he described the West as the “geography of hope.” Letter after letter thanked Stegner for his sympathy, but also for his thoughtful nudge to move past the pain and live.

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