Wallace Stegner and the American West

File:Wallace Stegner.jpg

Wallace Stegner d. 1993

When writers of a certain age tell their credentials and stack up their hero/teachers in bio blurbs, few names appear as frequently and in such reverent tones as the name of Wallace Stegner.  Earlier this year when I was at the far eastern edge of the American West I spent a few evenings with a book of Stegner’s essays. Maybe Stegner was so effective in helping young writers find their voices because through much of his life he was working to find his own. Those Stanford graduate students must have known that he was a working writer, meaning that he was working through real issues in life such as his relationship with his father. As he searched for words to describe a special Western culture that meant so much to him he was continuing, in a literary mode, the personal search for meaning and financial success that brought his ne’er-do-well father to the promising West, the place of gold mines and Hollywood.

His father’s rambling search left his mother without a place to call home. In the end, long after his parents were gone,  Stegner gave up his search for a mythical West, ending his father’s quest. In a “letter” essay to his long-suffering mother he tried to make amends with her.

Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (Modern Library Classics) Cover

to his mother:

You believed in all the beauties and strengths and human associations of place; my father believed only in movement. You believed in a life of giving, he in a life of getting. When Cecil [Wallace’s brother] died at the age of twenty-three, you did not have a single woman friend to whom you could talk, not a single family of neighbors or friends to help you bear the loss of half your loving life.  p. 33

on the West:

Sad to say…the West is no more the Eden that I once thought it than the Garden of the of the World that the boosters and engineers tried to make it; and that neither nostalgia nor boosterism can any longer make a case for it as a geography of hope.  p. 99

 

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4 thoughts on “Wallace Stegner and the American West

  1. By coincidence, I have just finished reading Stegner’s novel, The Angle of Repose. It was indeed a tale of struggle of the emerging West in the late 1870s-1890’s. It was also a tale which follows Stegner’s own search to make sense of his family life, as outlined by your comments. The book was a bit sad with its interaction of key characters, but I did enjoy it. It is long, and I thought the prose sometimes a bit wordy and overdone in places, but skillful, nevertheless. The novel draws a very clear picture of the early West, and certainly does not romanticize it. Hats off to those folks who were able to make it and settle there! Thanks for your timely comments that really added to my overall understanding of the book. I always value your remarks on this site.

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  2. I LOVED Angle of Repose so much I only allowed myself short periods of time with it each day so as not to finish too quickly. It was terribly sad and beautiful and hit all the right notes for me.

    Crossing to Safety was also good and certain scenes stick with me years later, but Angle of Repose made me fall in love with Stegner as a writer. I’m just glad I didn’t read his work before I started writing novels or I would have given up 🙂

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