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Know the West

What Wallace Stegner knew


The Wallace Stegner Pathway along Matadero Creek in Los Altos Hills, California.
Dicklyon via Wikimedia

In a tribute celebrating the 100th birthday of Western writer Wallace Stegner, New York Times columnist Timothy Egan recently wrote that if Señor Stegner were here to blow out the candles on his cake, he would still be angry about the "East Coast Media Conspiracy."  The beloved author of Angle of Repose and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, among many other books, had good reason for nurturing his antipathy. When Stegner's book The Spectator Bird won the National Book Award, the New York Times book review never gave it a single drop of ink. That's blind arrogance.

The East Coast's provincialism may chafe our Western pride, but on balance it's a plus.  We gain more from that buffering neglect than we lose.  Snubbing Stegner, says Egan, also "raises the question of whether our national literature is too tightly controlled by the so called cultural elite -- those people who talk to each other in some mythic Manhattan echo chamber."  It does indeed, but Mr. Egan is being polite about that mythic echo chamber.  Today, more than ever before, I find myself wondering if the legions of blabbermouths that make up the East Coast media ever stop yammering long enough to realize how disconnected they sound to the rest of us out here in the Other America.

This East-West thing started getting interesting about 170 years ago, right about the time we split the sheets and faced opposite oceans.  Ever since James Fenimore Cooper turned Natty Bumppo loose into the primeval forest of his Leatherstocking tales, the homegrown epic at the root of our Western identity has been the land itself. For Cooper and Twain and their successors, it's on that unfenced frontier that John Locke's idealized man found himself fancy-free on the first morning of the world.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the story of going free had been spun through with enough romantic dust to lure a procession of settlers toward the setting sun for the next half-century.  Even though by 1845, trail bosses described the Oregon Trail as "the longest graveyard in the world," the people kept coming, undaunted, kicking loose stones toward a home they had never seen, toward a moment of truth on a distant day when the dream would either materialize in glory or disintegrate into ashes. 

That's the kind of experience that changes a people, a society.  In Huck Finn, Mark Twain for the first time endows that change with a sound and a language that is raw and uniquely American.  But be forewarned, say Twain and Stegner, the terms of engagement out here are different than any you have known "back East."  Say goodbye to all of that, for the timeless silence of the mountains, the wildness of the rivers, the loneliness of a prairie vaster than all the oceans of the world, or a grizzly bear, will get the last word. Welcome home -- if you dare to claim it.

Like his predecessors, Stegner realized that the American Dream was programmed to self-destruct. Stegner witnessed that destruction first hand in his father, a flimflam artist who careened around the West from one manmade disaster to the next. Here was the paradox at the heart of the America's romantic adventure in freedom:  What we most want is that which we inevitably destroy.  In less than a century, we dammed, mined and logged off much of the wilderness that symbolized the freedom our immigrant forefathers so desperately sought to capture.

The West, after all, was seen by the East as a vast warehouse of cheap resources to be exploited in the name of America's insatiable appetites. That's when it got ugly, when we ran out of real estate and easy resources on our own continent.  That's when we extended the betrayal and exploitation to distant shores.  Our record of human rights abuses on those shores, not to mention environmental calamities, is a mirror of what we did to Native Americans in our own homeland.   It's profoundly sad, and it's disgraceful.

In the end, truth and reconciliation, says Stegner's protege, writer William Kittredge, will be America's only way out of that tortured legacy -- our Last Chance Saloon. As far as legacies go, Mr. Stegner might just settle for that.

Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, and is the author of the new book, Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory.