True West: Wallace Stegner’s Life and Letters

Despite the fact that he had a prolific writing career spanning 50 years, a younger generation of readers may best remember Wallace Stegner as the writer whose name adorns a prestigious two-year writing fellowship at Stanford. Stegner, ever attuned to the ironies of history, would perhaps expect, if not exactly rejoice in this amnesia: He often wrote about American forgetfulness. His 1970 masterwork, Angle of Repose, captures Lyman Ward, a professor of history emeritus who bewails the forgetful, “hydroponic” California springing up around him, even as he chronicles the 19th-century journeys of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward, across the continent.

The book leaps between eras: In the 1870s, Susan, an New York artist from a Brahmin literary set, falls in love with Oliver Ward, an up-and-coming mine inspector, and follows him west to seek their fortune in the business of resource extraction. A parallel narrative strand follows Lyman Ward as he sits in late-’60s Northern California and watches the emergence of hippies and culture war, struggling to understand the unease that has crept both into his own marriage and into the country at large. But there’s a deep interrelation between these two moments, even as they seem radically disjoined. In addition to being a historian, Lyman is also an amputee whose ghost leg itches him. For him its phantom pain is an analogue for the way any past (be it personal or national) can haunt a person, or a place. He feels the ghost leg’s presence — rather, antecedence — in everything he does. As he looks at the portrait of his grandmother, an easterner who suffered mightily settling mining towns that never bore fruit, he asks her, “Did you cling forever to the sentiment that you wrote Augusta Hudson from the bottom of failure in the Boise Canyon — that not even Henry James’s expatriates were as exiled as you?” These dual, not-quite-fully intersecting feelings of having a ghost limb in the present, and of being an expatriate in one’s own country, animate Stegner’s thinking about writing. They dramatize his struggle to make sense of the role of the west in the American literary imagination, and his hunger to make a literature for the places he inhabited, not only geographically but in time.

It was a struggle he’d make and make again over the span of his career. Angle of Repose is only one of Stegner’s many memorable books, but it’s the one I was spurred to return to after reading two current books commemorating the writer’s life, books that offer the backdrop for the man and his times. It turns out that Stegner often used a generous helping of real life to season his fiction: In Angle of Repose he was criticized for using and not attributing the letters of a real-life California artist, Mary Hallock Foote. But he employed a great deal of his own life, too, and his own experience of crossing and re-crossing the American West. Ninety-nine years after his birth in the wilds of Saskatchewan, on the prairie near the North Dakota border, and a decade after the hills around his 1950s bungalow above Palo Alto have become Silicon Valley tract homes, the collection of letters and a biography flesh out Stegner’s life — his writings, his travels, his struggles. As we near the centennial of Stegner’s birth, we, like Lyman Ward, are invited to jump back (and through) a century and to revisit the models for the roving characters Stegner cast and recast, the places he lived, the outpost America he tried to chronicle.

Taken side by side, the two books are a fair introduction to Stegner, although neither quite does the restless giant justice. The biography, by Californian writer and environmentalist Philip Fradkin, moves chronologically through its subject’s life, while the collection of letters gathered by Stegner’s son Page, professor emeritus of American literature at UC Santa Cruz, carefully edits and defends the father for posterity. Both reveal the mettle that made the artist and the materials from which he made himself. Fradkin’s biography traces Stegner’s growing up with a huckster father — one who tried and failed at a variety of get-rich-quick schemes and traveled with sons and wife in tow to new boom-or-bust ventures in the western states. Despite (or perhaps because of) the upheavals, Stegner became both a quick study and a hard worker, a voracious reader who wrote four hours a day, seven days a week — eventually supporting himself through a combination of teaching and journalism so he could find the time to write novels. He spent his 20s and early 30s moving from academic post to academic post before finally settling at Stanford in the mid-1940s, at the age of 36.

The roving childhood chronicled here often resembles the ones of characters in Stegner’s books, as the protagonist rises from humble roots to the summits of the literary establishment through brilliance and hard work. Decade by decade, Fradkin follows Stegner out of the frontier village in Saskatchewan into Utah and Iowa through the Depression and World War II, and then from his perch at Stanford into the sprawl of the late 20th century.

The letters, by contrast, aren’t chronological at all but have been grouped into clusters by Page Stegner. Rather than allowing the panorama of Wallace Stegner’s life to unfold, they deliver it in thematically constructed takes: “Reflections on the Work,” “Special Friends and Family,” “On History and Historians.” They’re hard to follow as they jump around in time and space, but the writer they reveal in slivers is part swagger, part cocksure stylist. Glib and talky and ambitious at once, Stegner seems always hungry to get a little more of his own work done. He’s also dead serious about craft. After Angle of Repose is published (and dedicated to Page), Stegner writes to his son, “I may have been trying to do something impossible in showing, through two long lives and several shorter ones, that in any social context individuals will be colored by their times, for good and ill, and that in the end one social context is about as good as another?and about as binding on the people born to it. I suppose I also wanted to throw in the notion that one time, despite its assumed freedom and emancipation from history and human cussedness, can be about as foolish as another.”

Neither Fradkin’s careful walk through the years nor Page Stegner’s curatorial editing wholly serve Wallace Stegner, whose writing, if not always directly nostalgic, was always flush, on sentence and paragraph level, with a then-now perspective, a double-take of feeling. Moreover, Stegner’s prose, sentence for sentence, is what truly electrifies. Whenever Fradkin quotes Stegner, one hungers for more. It’s Stegner who keeps working the ideas about place and time around like sculptor’s putty in both the letters and the articles Fradkin quotes. In an interview from 1978, Stegner restates the philosophy that fed Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose: “The past keeps feeding into the present. It isn’t lost and thrown overboard as much as it seems to be. It isn’t as useless or irrelevant as it seems to be. The past controls you a whole lot more than you want to be controlled.”

During his life, Stegner felt slighted for being regarded as a regional author, and yet the stories he told were stories about the nation — a nation that is uprooted, a nation that relies on resource extraction, a nation that settles places and forgets how it arrived in them. Both books capture Stegner’s desire to be, and sense that he was, more than a “western” writer. Instead he was a master of character, of ecosystem, and of the profound linkages between the past and the present, the supposed center of culture and its far-flung reaches. His subject is our uneasy and imperfect society, and he presses on its sore spots deliberately, with a canny eye for situation, an ear for dialogue, and the rare ability to make myths we critique, but also believe in.