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Putting Things Back Together

Considering Wallace Stegner on the centennial of his birth

by Rick Bass

Published in the November/December 2009 issue of Orion magazine

Painting: Sam Hyde Harris

I WASN’T A YOUNG writer when I first came to Wallace Stegner—I wasn’t even a writer of any kind—nor was I yet an environmentalist. I was just a reader, a Texan escaped to northern Utah, where I was studying wildlife management. I was fortunate enough to have an elective class in essay writing from the great literary scholar and writing instructor Tom Lyon, who expressed not so much amazement as incredulous delight when I told him I hadn’t ever heard of Stegner. It seems unthinkable now.

Knowing that I was also studying geology, Tom pointed me immediately to Angle of Repose and, subsequently, the biography of Bernard DeVoto, and then all the rest of it: enough books, it seemed, to last a lifetime. A book a year is a modest and sustainable quota for a writer, and even more modest for a practical and committed reader; would not anything more, on the reader’s part, be classified as stalking?

This was one of the things that most impressed me about Stegner, beyond the obvious vibrancy of his voice, and the specificity of his observations, and the confidence he exhibited with pace and tone: the fact that he was accomplished and artistic in both the broad and relatively gentle waters of nonfiction and the turbulent mountain-rivers of fiction. And though I was not an intellectual, I respected and admired the fact that he so clearly was one, and at a time when there was not necessarily an overwhelming degree of respect for such a temperament. Such integrity of spirit—the calm and resolute insistence upon being one’s self, under any conditions—seemed to me, and still does, to be one of the definitions of courage—the low-level step-by-step progression through the cumulative days, avoiding, at every turn, any possible shortcuts whatsoever.

Certainly, there have been writers who have worked with greater lyricism, word-for-word and sentence-for-sentence—who have produced more fluid and varied sounds from the language, and more vibrant imagery, and more intricate story turns—but Stegner’s particular genius, I think, was at the cultural and even spiritual intersection of geology and geography—in the shape of things at the surface, and the contrast, then, with what might lie below. Consider such geomorphology in “Coda: Wilderness Letter,” not just the emplacement of some of the elements we might view as requisite in “nature” writing (“The earth was full of animals—field mice, ground squirrels, weasels, ferrets, badgers, coyotes, burrowing owls, snakes”), but in his grounding of the reader within a space—a spaciousness—and thereby setting the boundaries for the story, the essay. A mapmaker, always:

The sky in that country came clear down to the ground on every side, and it was full of great weathers, and clouds, and winds, and hawks. I hope I learned something from knowing intimately the creatures of the earth; I hope I learned something from looking a long way, from looking up, from being much alone. A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea.

Time and again, his work includes landscape, and the connection between humans and that landscape, celebrating the far and relatively untouched, unmanipulated backcountry—the pristine benchmark of American wilderness—while also understanding and celebrating no less those frontcountry farms and ranches across which humankind had been spilling, the intersection of history and landscape.

TODAY THE WIND is howling, here in Montana’s Yaak Valley, bending the still-green marsh grass almost flat, swirling it like long locks of flowing hair. It’s the Fourth of July, and I just don’t feel like driving down into town and being around so many people. Instead, I’m delighted to be enmeshed in the steady, cool forest-wind and occasional birdsong of the newly hatched birds: tiny chatters of sora rails, as if laughing at a joke told among themselves. No one else for half-a-hundred miles is what it feels like, and it is almost true. Skipping the parade to work.

And doing so—laboring on this essay not so much about what Wallace Stegner means to me, but what I think he means to the country, in all his various personas—award-winning novelist and essayist; environmental activist and spokesperson for the seminal concept in the American conservation movement, the preservation of wilderness; and founder of the powerhouse creative writing program at Stanford University—I find that I’ve come without any subtle run-up or introduction straight to the heart of the question, Why do any of us do what we do?

I can’t imagine that the desire for acclaim was the sole or even primary fuel for such sustained and varied excellence, for surely such thirst would eventually have been slaked or muted. Instead, he kept on going, to the point where his life, in so many ways, seems almost like a parody of success. And then, as everyone must, he left, while the residue of where-he-was and what-he-did remains.

For a while some of us who looked to him for guidance in environmental matters fretted after he was gone. We were worried he would be forgotten by the next generation, and never known by the one after that. In the first years after his death in 1993, we watched and waited—keepers of the flame. It seemed that we could begin to see his legacy spilling through the cracks and draining away, and it was a fear that was sharpened by the old story or perception—dare I say myth?—that even in life, Stegner was, if not ignored, underread and underappreciated, particularly by readers and reviewers in the urban East.

Maybe he was. But perched here at the centennial of his birth, looking back before leaning into the deeper waters of the next hundred years, maybe not. There’s little doubt that he felt that way, and that we-his-fans felt it; but the truth is he somehow managed to sell 570,000 copies of Angle of Repose alone. It seems plausible to me that one day that number will be a million. If that’s obscurity and underrepresentation, I know more than a few writers who would be thrilled with being so overlooked.

To haul off and exit the stage with a Pulitzer as well as a National Book Award, to have taught at the greatest universities in the world, helping raise such an astounding intergenerational crop of writers (Evan Connell, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, James Houston, to name only a very few), to have served in Camelot, working in the Kennedy administration on, among other things, early drafts of the Wilderness Act, which would subsequently protect 3 percent of the American landmass—well, looking back, I think almost anyone would have to call it a good day’s work.

In Philip Fradkin’s biography of Stegner, Wallace Stegner and the American West, there is an excerpt of Jack Miles’s review, from the Los Angeles Times Sunday Book Review, of Angle of Repose. The review deals in part with the habitual East-versus-West straw man by which Stegner and his work were so often discussed in his lifetime. Miles wrote of the “rough spirit” of the West that shaped Stegner, who “first fled it, then served it and turned . . . [it] into his art.” He spoke of “a Stegnerian habit of saving what we can from the Western wreckage.” He said, of Stegner, “[he] was calmly putting things together when I believed, instinctively, that what strong writers did was tear things apart.”

This is what great literature does: acknowledges loss, either through the lamentation of what has come and gone, or even the celebration of what-was, or what-is, or what-will-be: assembling stories of meaning and intensity from the absence of some things, or the presence of the wrong things, or the eventual going away of good things. Loss or impermanence is to me the foundation of it all, and the manner in which artists deal with that condition is what makes all the difference.

And in the case of Stegner’s beloved natural world, there was very much over the course of his life a net loss going on. What he did in the face of that knowledge—trying to hold on to what he found valuable, and trying to help put back together that which was broken—seems courageous and heroic, seems easily a value one could live one’s life by; and a good life, a meaningful life, at that.

WITH SO MANY BOOKS by Stegner, and such varied books, it really doesn’t matter where a reader begins, or in what order he or she reads the books. Part of the beauty of the mass and density and quality of Stegner’s bibliography is that it’s like a planet; you can land on it anywhere and begin making immediate discoveries. I recall branching off in several directions—The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, the famed Wilderness Letter, etc.—becoming more and more impressed by the range of his talent and depth of his passion, as well as his constant commitment to excellence, sentence by dignified sentence. But these days, when I allow myself the indulgence of thinking of Stegner as the mortal man rather than the literary artist, Crossing to Safety is the book that intrigues and impresses me the most, for no other reason than that he wrote it not as a young or middle-aged man, but instead as a bona fide old man. I think that with regard to improving with age, Stegner accomplished at least as much with Crossing to Safety as Hemingway did with The Old Man and the Sea. I find that thrilling. I feel guilty for reading the text with such an awareness intruding upon a purer textual appreciation of the book, but I can’t help it.

I know nothing, or next-to-nothing, about the circumstances in Stegner’s life while he worked on this book, which is set in New England rather than the mountain West of which he was so accustomed to providing fluent descriptions—this in itself makes it a bravura performance, an old writer working in a new land, new from a literary standpoint, at least. And although the facts of his life would certainly be interesting, I don’t see how they can be any more so than the emotional map I have already constructed in my own imagination for how he approached that novel, so late in life, and with so much acclaim already behind him, and with every passion and power he had ever known—and there had been so many—in rapid flight from him now.

And yet something in him—something not darkly or crassly ambitious, but instead, something noble, some commitment to what in olden times was called the Muse—still burned and challenged him, tempted him to throw away his infirmities or diminishments and pursue one more time, one last time, the glory of excellence, and the intoxicating, transformative rewards of novel writing: the glory of an almost impossible challenge well met, and exceeded.

By that age he would have known precisely how difficult, how exhausting, the journey would be, and how easy it would be to fail, and how great the risk of failure—the capping of a great career with the humiliation of mediocrity rather than the ascendancy of further triumph. But he set out on the journey anyway. As if his desire and belief in the importance of the sustained creation of another, better-made world was for him the rootstock of all the other values for which he is so well known.

All the other things were important, too: the reasoned, passionate, intelligent articulation in his essays, the necessary political gruntwork of showing up and speaking out, and, as a teacher, the passing on of beliefs, techniques, values, and general knowledge to future generations; but I love that further into the second half of his life, he returned to the novel, and that he produced a great one—that he was fortunate enough to have one more story he wanted to tell.

STEGNER-THE-MAN could get angry easily, evidently. There were numerous dust-ups with reviewers, students, and fellow writers, which are instructive I think to we-the-living for the utter uninterestingness they possess, once the all-important present has so rapidly become the past. What I find fascinating is how the different extremes respected him—the “assemblers,” like Ivan Doig and Wendell Berry, who were concerned with reformation and social betterment, and the hip, like Ken Kesey, the deep spirits, like Terry Tempest Williams, and the laconic and hyperintelligent, like Tom McGuane. The sacred and the profane were deeply influenced by him alike.

Which brings me back to this idea of tearing down or building up: I think this may be the grand theory of unification, how the faces of respectability, such as Tillie Olsen and Scott Turow—the latter who helped endow the writing center that bears Stegner’s name—and the faces of gleeful disrespectability, such as Edward Abbey and Gary Snyder, have coalesced in different ways around Stegner’s teachings and legacy. They have all, I think, been interested in trying to put things back together, or hold things together, whenever they picked up a pen.

I simply don’t have Stegner’s drive, and, gratefully, I don’t have whatever inner wounds drove him so hard. Within the triumvirate of writing, activism, and family, I find myself trying to balance those first two things, particularly, with the other work, and with what seems to me these days to be equally important: sitting quietly, doing nothing at all. Why is that, and did he ever feel that temptation? The world certainly was no more unsettled, no more revolutionary, then than now.

I JUST GOT UP and went out to pull some weeds, to take a break from essay writing, and was struck by a couple of thoughts: one being that at this time of year, I prefer picking weeds to writing an essay, and the other being a deep mental exhaustion when I try to consider how in the world Stegner got all the stuff done that he did.

There is a feeling I get sometimes, here in midlife, when I am moved by a moment of perceived if not actual clarity. In those moments, it seems that with any of my enthusiasms, much less my obsessions, I am venturing into some sort of funnel, like those weirs that humans have used to trap salmon for tens of thousands of years. I want to draw back from such narrowing. When I look at Stegner’s life I see how every time he was faced with such a choice, he pushed forward, sometimes even bulled forward. It does not appear that he stopped to rest much.

I think occasionally—not overmuch—of the ridiculousness or at least insignificance of almost everything when measured against the finality of the long dirt nap—whether one was read “enough,” or appreciated “enough”! What really is the bottom line? Maybe it is only how a man’s or woman’s friends and family remember him or her.

Today, the wind keeps bending the luminous green marsh grass, as it does every July, and I find myself wondering: whether teaching, or writing, or working at activism, wouldn’t any of us, at the end, trade any of it for one more afternoon spent picking berries with loved ones? Then I consider this blasphemous question: what if, with all his energies and efforts—all his accomplishments—he was wrong to have worked so hard, and to have produced so much? When I am at my desk with my head down, darkening the pages, I sometimes worry that he was, at least in part. When I am in the mountains—particularly mountains he helped protect—I remember, or believe, that he wasn’t. He was noble and exemplary in every way—successful at more things than most ever even attempt or fail at—but in the end he loved the land, and his successes and efforts bought those of us who love these same things the luxury of even asking such questions.

The only possible answer now seems clear: we do what we do—spend our long hours writing or teaching or working—to preserve or create that which we find beautiful.

Something he touched upon, and grappled with, still touches some of us today, and here we are, still reading his books a hundred years after his birth. I feel confident we will be reading his books a hundred years after his death; that for his canon, there will be no angle of repose, but instead his texts will always be carried forward, from one generation to the next, for as long as there is a geography of hope, or the idea of a geography of hope. For as long as people can read.


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Rick Bass is the author of numerous books of fiction and nonfiction and a board member of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.

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