Wallace Stegner BA'30, a tireless writer who erected a structure of work as grand as the Western landscape he loved, has come back to Salt Lakeback to the U, back to his native "geography of hope," back to the only place he ever publicly called home. He arrives this time in spirit, three years after his death, his sage wisdom and dry wit rustling in the personal and professional papers he willed ultimately to come to rest in the Marriott Library.
Possessed in his work by characters obsessed with uprooting and moving on, Stegner retained an abiding wish that the raw materials of his career end up here, where he grew up and went to college. This is the spot that he said "embalms that youth of mine," the one town in 20 he lived in that gave him "this solid sense of having had or having been or having lived something real and good and satisfying."
Even after writing 30 volumes of fiction, biography and history, after winning a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the praise of critics nationwide, even after 25 years teaching at Stanford, Stegner still hankered for here, where the kid on the tennis team "skinny enough to read a magazine through" began to fill out and where his literary urges first flickered, where the manthe broad-beamed Westerner with the heavy white hair and the never-with-it glassesfound human as well as detrital repose. "He loved this place and adopted Salt Lake as his home because he never had one to speak of as a kid," says David Freed, a friend of Stegner's from high school through old age. "I wish more Utahns would return the favor; everybody here should read him. He describes us and where we live and where we come from with a language that is just so beautiful. His stuff just kind of rings in your ears."
Stegner moved to Salt Lake City at age 11 and attended East High School before entering the U. Throughout his life, he returned for book signings, to visit old friends and he dedicated the Marriott Library in 1968. His last speech in Utah was the dedication of the Matheson Wetlands Preserve near Moab in June 1991.
Stegner liked to say his books, short stories, and essays were simply the flotsam of a roaming truth-seeker. He started that journey young. He read constantly and let his literary compass swing freely toward any writer who happened to pull him. He then set out from Salt Lake City on a path of self-examination that produced not only a monumental amount of work but an unerring chart of human behavior.
He lived most of his life near Palo Alto and in Vermont, where his widow still lives. His son, Page, is carrying his standard as director of the writing program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
"Despite spending his professional life elsewhere, Wally remained connected emotionally to us along the way," says Gregory Thompson, director of Special Collections at the Marriott Library. That is why housing his papers "is so enormously important for the library. This winter we will have the collected works and the papers of one of the country'snot just the West'sleading lights. He will no doubt become an icon to a new generation of nature writers coming along now."
He is already an icon to the current generation of writers. Many of the students in the writing program he ran at Stanford for 25 yearsLarry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Judith Rascoe, and William Kittridge among themhave gone on to write about the West and become popular and critically praised authors.
Salt Lake City gave Stegner his first sense of being from somewhere, says Jackson Benson, professor of Western American literature at San Diego State University whose biography of Stegner is to be published by The Viking Press next September. The 15 years of deep living Stegner did in Salt Lake crested in a number of unforgettable firsts for him, Benson says.
Stegner writes that he 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. It is here, he writes, where he was "driven by that furious and incomprehensible adolescent energy" and where he first tried "ether beer, peach brandy, and bathtub gin." 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.
And it is also in Salt Lake he first met Mormons, a community he befriended in his youth and carefully chronicled as an adult. Unlike Fisher and his mentor, author Bernard DeVoto, who both wrote scathingly about the LDS Church and its culture, Stegner never derided the church. He said while he "was never tempted to adopt their beliefs," so much goodwill had been offered him in his youth by members of the church that he could only write about it as a friend.
Stegner's book Mormon Country, written at Harvard out of "sheer homesickness" for the West, is a heartfelt treatise on the Mormon community that sprang up in the unforgiving geology of the Colorado Plateau. "This was the country the Mormons settled," he writes, "the country which, as Brigham Young with some reason hoped, no one else wanted. Its destiny was plain on its face, its contempt of man and his history and his theological immortality, his Millennium, his Heaven on Earth, was monumentally obvious. Its distances were terrifying, its cloudbursts catastrophic, its beauty flamboyant and bizarre and allied with death. Its droughts and its heat were withering. Almost more than the Great Basin deserts, it was a dead land...In the teeth of thatperhaps because of thatit may have seemed close to God. It was Sanctuary, it was Refuge. Nobody else wanted it, nobody but a determined and God-supported people could live in it."
Stegner didn't degrade his relationship with the LDS Church by only speaking cloyingly about it. In a 1987 essay he wrote that although Mormons were cohesive and disciplined by their theocracy to survive in arid Utah, they had maintained in modern times "the stubborn Mormon determination to make [the land] support more saints than it possibly can."
He wrote often, sometimes caustically, about one of the culture's embedded attitudes shared by many river-bending Westerners who followed the Mormons: that the desert should blossom as a rose. On numerous occasions he referred to irrigating the desert as engineering the arid land into what it wasn't intended by God to be. That rankled him; the West's "original sin," he called it.
Being reared on the tail end of the American frontier over a span of time from the horse-drawn plow to the information age gave Stegner what he called an "overweening sense of place; almost a pathological sensitivity to the colors, smells, light, land, and life forms of the segments of earth on which I've lived."
Book reviewer John Timpane says Stegner's sensitivity to his surroundings made him "perhaps our country's finest describer."
Although Stegner's work is most often found in the regional sections of bookstores, much of his fiction is East Coast and urban at its core. The Spectator Bird, All The Little Live Things and Crossing to Safety, for example, present the cosmopolitan lives of people who confront both the sublimely wonderful and the perfectly God-awful things that happen to human beings no matter where they live.
In his nonfiction, Stegner focused on the West. He liked to remind folks that the region is a desert at heart. Aridity was a favorite topic: "Aridity, more than anything else, gives the Western landscape its character. It is aridity that gives the air its special dry clarity; aridity that puts brilliance in the light and polishes and enlarges the stars; aridity that leads the grasses to evolve as bunches rather than as turf; aridity that exposes the pigmentation of the raw earth and limits, almost eliminates, the color of chlorophyl; aridity that erodes the earth in cliffs and badlands rather than in softened and vegetated slopes."
Ivan Doig, the Montana writer and a good friend, says: "Stegner was a man who knew his stuff and he knew he knew it." He was raised in 20 different places in eight different states and Canada, and often lived in as many as 10 different houses in those places. Doig says maybe the main lesson Stegner learned from his "iron tumbleweed past" was a stick-to-itiveness of his writing and thinking. Being physically in motion was a condition imposed by being the son of a wandering farmer, gambler, prospector, bootlegger father who came from Salt Lake City by way of Idaho by way of Montana by way of Saskatchewan by way of Iowa.
George Stegner was a big, strong, violent man, Benson says, who tried to pursue frontier values in a post-pioneer society. He became the basis for character Bo Mason in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner's novel that embodies the rootlessness and mobility that he ultimately felt trapped by. Except for years spent in Salt Lake City, Benson says Stegner felt growing up that he had been cut away from his roots, that he had no history as a basis for understanding his own life and was embarrassed when well-meaning people would ask him where he was from. "He came to think of his family as an outlaw family, always secretive, always on the run, and never in tune with neighbors or community," says Benson. Stegner once wrote of that period: "We turned tail and disappeared, and I never got over the faint residual shame of quitting. I admired the stickers, and I still do."
Benson, whose authorized biography of Steinbeck was published in 1984 by The Viking Press, ranks Stegner alongside John Steinbeck as a world class fiction writer. He says Stegner was also an eloquent spokesman for conservation of the West. He wrote about it early and often. His 1960 letter to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in California, in which he plants the notion that setting aside wilderness is necessary to preserve the country's spiritual health, blossomed in the 1970s into an oft-repeated and widely translated prayer for conservation groups around the world.
"We need wilderness preservedas much of it as is still left, and as many kindsbecause it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed," he wrote in the letter. "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."
He wrote prolifically about resource depletion and exploitation of the West, asserting that the West was an adolescent with a bad habit of over-consuming beyond its healthy development, advancing 1,900-year-old advice offered by Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman emperor and philosopher: "What is bad for the beehive cannot be good for the bee."
Of the new and swarming regions of the West he wrote: "Millions of Westerners, old and new, have no sense of a personal and possessed past, no sense of any continuity between the real Western past which has been mythicized almost out of recognizability and a real Western present that seems as cut-off and pointless as a ride on a merry-go-round."
While love of the West was pervasive in his work, calling it "the New World's last chance to be something better," he also called his region "rootless, culturally half-baked." And he was never reluctant to take a stand against the federal government, whether it be policies that provide cheap water or what he considered too lenient grazing rights or for restricting artistic expression. In 1992, he turned down the National Medal from the National Endowment of the Arts, saying government involvement in the arts should stop with financial support. "... it has no business trying to direct or censor them. The creation of art is three quarters error. As Lewis Thomas said, it was only by making mistakes that mankind blundered toward brains." He worked tirelessly to deflate the myth of the rugged individualist cowboy. Survival in the West has been and will be the result of a code of cooperation, not a legacy born of self-reliant loners slinging six-shooters, he said. He considered the latter effort somewhat a failure. Late in life when asked what the difference was between his West and the wild West of contemporary writer Louis L'Amour, Stegner replied with a chuckle, "A few million dollars."
He was robust despite a hip replacement but showed a few signs of slowing down when he met what his friends say was an untimely death at age 84 after an auto accident in March 1993. The impact injured his chest, and although he appeared to be recovering, he died in the hospital of pneumonia two weeks later. "His was certainly not the demise anyone would have foretold," says English professor Robert Steensma, who teaches a course on Stegner at the U. "He was a monument; it just seemed like he was always going to be around. But then it's almost like his death has caused springtime for his work." Contrary to some literary experts who say Stegner is an author doomed to be admired far more than he is read, Steensma says a renaissance is under way; "students this year seemed to connect more than ever with him." "This is a writer who changed the lives of other more famous writers," says Everett Cooley, former director of Special Collections at the Marriott Library and a close friend of Stegner's since the 1950s. "This was one of those rare individuals who made you a better person just by being around him. I was in awe of the guy. That's why it makes me a little sad that he's not more appreciated."
"He didn't dwell on it," observes Benson, "but it bothered Wally throughout his life that he was relegated to the regional sections of bookstores," noting that The New York Times Book Review refused to review both Angle of Repose, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, and The Spectator Bird, which won a National Book Award in 1977. In December 1981, the paper's Sunday magazine inadvertently wrapped another insult inside a compliment in a story on Western writers. Stegner is called "the dean of Western American letters" but the caption under the accompanying half-page photograph labels him "William Stegner." No matter how he was treated by New York critics, says Benson, Stegner tried to see himself, his history, his land, and his people as clearly as possible and to pass on those discoveries to others. "We in the West can take him, in death, to our hearts to cherish as one of ours, the best of what we can be. "But we can also with pride present him to the world, a great man and a great American writer."
James Thalman, a writer with the University News Service, is a frequent contributor to Continuum.