by Janice Albert
setting of "All the Little Live
with Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) is claimed by many states: Iowa,
Saskatchewan, Vermont, Utah. The California claim asserts itself
in connection with his long career at Stanford University, where
in 1964 he founded the creative writing program. Stegner himself
would probably laugh at this regionalism. He spoke for the West,
a land he saw possessed of a challenging aridity, a land which
required cooperation for survival, and a land whose wilderness
was needed for deeply spiritual reasons.
Born in Iowa,
he moved frequently as his restless father took the family from
North Dakota to Washington State, Montana and Utah. From 1914-1920
in Eastend, Saskatchewan, an experience captured in Wolf Willow:
A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1962).
Stegner entered the
University of Utah at the age of sixteen and received his Bachelor's
degree in 1930. James Thalman, writing in the University of Utah
says Stegner "fell in love with books at the U. under the tutelage
of the noted Idaho author Vardis Fisher, his first English instructor. "
Here is where he
had his first love affair and his first broken heart. Here is where
he lost his left ring finger, amputated when it became badly infected
after being stepped on during a touch football game
. Later, as
a teacher at the U, he wrote his first short story and first novel, Remembering
Laughter, which won his first major literary prize. Here is where
he buried his mother, brother and father.
In 1937, now husband of Mary,
father of Stuart Page, and doctor of philosophy, Stegner accepted a
teaching job at the University of Wisconsin. The following year he
joined the staff of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont,
where he became friends with Robert Frost and Bernard DeVoto. Throughout
the years of WW II, he taught at Harvard and produced four novels,
including Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). In 1945, he was offered
the directorship of the writing program at Stanford University, a position
he held for twenty-five years until 1971.
With the publication of Beyond
the Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening
of the West (1954) Stegner became a spokesperson for the West
and for learning to live with the iron laws of nature that govern
the West. Under the Democratic administration of Kennedy/Johnson,
he served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior,
Stewart Udall, and as a member of the National Parks advisory board.
In the year of his retirement,
1971, he published Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize
for fiction in 1972. Two controversies are connected with this book.
One is the fact that the New York Times refused to review it.
Stegner's supporters considered this a snub by the Eastern Establishment
against the West.
A second controversy
was articulated by scholar Mary Ellen Williams-Walsh who accuses
Stegner of plagiarism in taking the real letters of Mary Hallock Foote
calling them the letters of Susan Burling Ward, a fictitious character.
According to Stegner, the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a sizable
collection which might take "about a year" to read through "had the
same function as raw material, broken rocks out of which I could make
any kind of wall I wanted to." In conversation with Richard Etulian,
he asserts that Foote's granddaughter, Janet Micoleau, "didn't think
we ought to use the real name, since what I was writing was a novel.
So the acknowledgment I made was thanks to J. M. and her sister for
the loan of their ancestors." Disguising the acknowledgment, to honor
Micoleau's wish that no names be used and that the source of the book
not be identified as her grandmother, Stegner says, led to an error
that he regrets: "I also left the quotation marks so they could be
read as Lyman Ward's quotation marks instead of mine."
In 1992, protesting
government involvement in the arts, he turned down the National Medal
from the National Endowment for the Arts, saying government "has no
business trying to direct or censor [the arts]. The creation of art
is three quarters error. As Lewis Thomas said, 'It was only by making
mistakes that mankind blundered toward brains.'"
In addition to
the body of his work, Stegner's legacy is best remembered in the work
of writers who trained with him at Stanford, a list that includes Edward
Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, N.
Scott Momaday and Tillie Olsen. In addition, his writing about the
environment continues to be a source of strength for his followers.
It is interesting, in this regard, to compare Stegner's views with
those of the poet Robinson Jeffers.
Both ardently write of the beauty of wilderness, yet for Jeffers, wilderness
ought to be preserved because it alone is beautiful. Humanity, in its
propensity toward cruelty and excess, is deeply flawed. Stegner, on
the other hand, upholds the cause of wilderness because it is the great
teacher, humanity's one hope of learning to live humbly, with courtesy
In his "Wilderness
Letter" of 1960, Stegner writes:
will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining
wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to
be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive
the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction;
if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams
and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that
never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise,
the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.
Quicksilver Mining Museum Exhibit near San Jose, California.
-This is where Mary Hallock Foote lived for eighteen months,
and it is one of the sites of Stegner's Angle of Repose.
so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single,
separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment
of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the
natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any
remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for
even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our
technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely
man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved--as much
of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge
against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder
and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual
health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is
good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity
it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives.
It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there--important,
that is, simply as idea.
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