Witness to America's West


IN a recent interview, novelist Ivan Doig said that 20th-century American literature adds up to "Faulkner and the rest of us." If he had been speaking of those who write from and about the American West, as Doig himself does, he probably would have made it "Stegner and the rest of us."

For most of this century, since he started producing publishable work in the 1930s, Wallace Stegner has been one of America's most perceptive and prolific writers.

As a teacher (long affiliated with Stanford University) and mentor for a generation of contemporary Western writers, his authority extends well beyond his own prize-winning fiction, histories, biographies, and essays. And because the West both symbolizes and influences so much of what American culture and society has become and is becoming, Stegner is much more than a regional writer.

Stegner's latest work is a collection of essays covering three broad areas: First, his own life as the child of uneducated parents who, like so many born before the "frontier" had been declared closed near the end of the last century, bounced around the West looking for success and stability. Second, the unique geography and climate that defines the region's character and includes a natural environment too often misunderstood and abused. And third, the literature that character and environment has produc ed.

In the first category, "Letter, Much Too Late" is the most personal, moving, and profound. Stegner, nearing his 80th birthday, is addressing his mother who died when he was just 24. It is a letter of regret, but more than that of great love expressed and felt.

"As I sit here at the desk, trying to tell you something fifty-five years too late ... I know that nothing I can say will persuade you that I was ever less than you thought me," he writes. "Your kind of love, once given, is never lost. You are alive and luminous in my head. Except when I fail to listen, you will speak through me when I face some crisis of feeling or sympathy or consideration for others. You are a curb on my natural impatience and competitiveness and arrogance. When I have been less than myself, you make me ashamed even as you forgive me."

If Stegner's mother typified so many Western women who tried to make a home and a bit of civilization on homesteads and in small towns, his father - like so many other men at that time and in that place - "was a boomer, a gambler, a rainbow-chaser, as footloose as a tumbleweed in a windstorm." The title of this book is taken from the old hobo song "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," which Stegner's father sang and which is the title of his 1943 novel.

That belief in endless possibilities is part of the Western myth. But it's also the reason, as Stegner writes in the essay called "The Sense of Place," that "the West has been raided more often than settled."

Trying to impose a form of agriculture on an arid land in the belief that "rain follows the plow," manipulating river flows as another form of technological fix to dominate nature, strip-mining for precious metals or fuel in boom-bust cycles, over-populating urban areas - all have been the result of an attitude in which "nobody thought of limits, nobody thought of preservation, until generations of living in America and 'breaking' its wilderness had taught us to know it, and knowing it had taught us to l ove it, and loving it had taught us to question what we were doing to it."

Stegner is talking here of values changing and of the social, economic, and political disruption that change continues to bring, especially to the rural West. Here, Stegner writes in the tradition of John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and more recently of Edward Abbey and Wendell Berry, about the importance of conservation and stewardship, about the need for "silence, space, and solitude for the healing of our raw spirits."

In part three, titled "Witnesses," Stegner declares himself exhilarated "to see the country beyond the 100th meridian finally taking its place as a respected and self-respecting part of the literary world." Now dozens of Western writers, men and women, Hispanic, Asian, Indian, and Anglo, are making their mark on the national literary scene. Some have been students of Stegner's, and many (like him) write of the universal found rooted in a place and in personal experience.

There are essays here about some who were Stegner's contemporaries or who preceded him: John Steinbeck, George R. Stewart, Walter Clark, Norman Maclean. In a fan letter to Wendell Berry (who was a writing student in Stegner's class at Stanford 34 years ago), he describes Berry's career as "an entirely principled literary life, a life not merely observant and thoughtful and eloquent but highly responsible, a life in which aesthetics and ethics do not have to be kept apart to prevent their quarreling, but live together in harmony."

That accurately describes the career of Wallace Stegner as well.

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