Wallace Stegner's signature

From Literature Resource Center Database

The American West has figured prominently in the writings of Wallace Stegner for five decades. He has written two major works on the history of the Mormons, a biography of Western explorer John Wesley Powell, and a remembrance of the plains of Saskatchew an where he spent his boyhood. His novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain ranges over North Dakota, Washington, Minnesota, and Saskatchewan and concerns "that place of impossible loveliness that pulled the whole nation westward," as Stegner writes in the book. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose concerns a professor in California who writes a book about his grandmother, an illustrator and writer of the old West.

"Stegner is a regional writer in the richest sense of that word," James D. Houston maintains in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "one who manages to dig through the surface and plumb a region's deepest implications, tapping into profound matters of how a place or a piece of territory can shape life, character, actions, dreams. Something elemental about the West emerges, comes pushing through his prose." Although admitting that Stegner's fiction is "almost invariably set in the western United States," Richard H. Simpson of the Dictionary of Literary Biography, believes that his "main region is the human spirit .... Each [novel] explores a question central in Stegner's life and in American culture: How does one achieve a sense of identity, permanence, and civilization--a sense of home--in a place where rootlessness and discontinuity dominate?" In their study Wallace Stegner, Merrill and Lorene Lewis offer a similar perspective: "The central theme of all his work is the quest for identity, personal and regional, artistic and cultural."

With the publication of his novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1943, Stegner achieved his first popular and critical success. A much longer and more fully developed novel than its predecessors, The Big Rock Candy Mountain "confirmed Stegner's place as an important American writer," as Simpson states. It chronicles the lives of Bo Mason, his wife Elsa, and their two sons from 1906 to 1942. The family history is one of continuous travel across the American and Canadian West as Bo, convinced that there is a place where opportunity awaits him, seeks to make his fortune. The Lewises explain that The Big Rock Candy Mountain is more than the dream of the bitch goddess Success. It is the "dream of taking from life exactly what you wanted, and the quest for the Promised Land. "

Critics particularly praise Stegner's handling of character and his evocation of the hardships of Western life. Milton Rugoff of the Weekly Book Review believes that "who Bo Mason was and what he did and how he lived Wallace Stegner conveys to us with a vividness and a fullness hardly less than that with which we know our own fathers." Edward Weeks of Atlantic speaks of "the ever deepening sympathy which [he feels] for the man and wife" of the story. Commenting on Stegner's ability to recreate Western life, J. W. Beach of the New York Times writes that "Stegner has felt the spell of mountain and prairie, of drought, flood and blizzard; he can write of moving accidents and hairbreadth escapes which give us the feel of frontier life better than phrases about the stars and seasons."

In 1972 Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Angle of Repose, a work Houston explains is now "recognized as a masterpiece." The story is set in California and concerns a retired history professor, Lyman Ward, who is editing the papers of his grandmother, a writer and illustrator of the nineteenth century. Ward has taken on this project so that he can forget his health and marital problems. Because he has lost a leg to a degenerative disease, Ward's wife has left him. As he imagines the lives of his grandparents through his grandmother's letters, Ward reflects upon his own life, and so Stegner "manages to bring past and present together in a brilliant fabric of memory interwoven with intuition," as Fred Rotondaro writes in Best Sellers.

Ward's grandparents embody the tension of America itself. His grandmother is aastern, cultured, and genteel; his grandfather is a western mining engineer and a rugged pioneer. "The relationship that emerges is one of complex unease," Janet Burroway remarks in the New Statesman. "Neither East nor West is the true region of [Stegner's] novel," Glendy Culligan explains in the Saturday Review, "but rather the human soul and the tension between its poles."

Through his investigation of his grandparents' lives, Ward finally comes to an understanding of his own life. "From them," Culligan writes, "he learns that wisdom is knowing what you have to accept." This sense of tranquillity is reflected in the novel's title, Burroway explains: "Peace-seeking in the poisoned American West is a recurrent theme of Wallace Stegner's novels. He seems now to have found its ideal image in Angle of Repose , the geological term for the slope at which rocks cease to roll." William Abrahams of the Atlantic sees Stegner as using family history to create an ultimately personal statement. "For all the breadth and sweep of the novel," he writes, "it achieves an effect of intimacy, hence of immediacy, and, though much of the material is historical, an effect of discovery also, of experience newly minted rather than a pageant-like recreation."

The Spectator Bird, which received the National Book Award for fiction in 1977, concerns another search of the past. Joe Allston is a seventy-year-old literary agent who lives in California. A chance postcard from an old friend moves him to read over his journal of a trip he made to Denmark some twenty years earlier, looking for his family's roots. The journal is a Gothic tale that even includes Danish writer Isak Dinesen as a character. While reading the journal, Allston seeks some answers to his life. He wants to know "how to live and grow old inside a head I'm contemptuous of, in a culture I despise." David Dillon of Southwest Review describes Allston as "a sardonic commentator on his own professional failures and geriatric disorders, hostile critic of contemporary fiction, sexual liberation, and anything connected with youth culture, [and] thinks of himself as a spokesman for traditional ethical and social values but acts like someone on the lam from life."

Several critics find Allston to be a cantankerous, unpleasant character. A New Yorker reviewer, for example, notes that "Stegner's writing is smooth and clear, and Allston is a believable and frequently sympathetic character, but so much of the book consists of dyspeptic diatribes ... that one often finds oneself reading the book as if it were a letter from an intelligent but rather petulant elderly relative." But other reviewers appreciate Allston as a charming creation. "For some time [Stegner's] narrators have been older people ...." a Time critic notes. "They mount the crow's-nest of age to look back (and down) on current civilization. The resulting author's voice is full of a distinctive sardonic ruefulness that produces a style of its own."

Stegner's concern with the influence of the past on the present and with a personal and societal sense of identity is most obvious in his nonfiction books, many of which deal with Western history and historical figures. In his essay, "On the Writing of History," included in The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West, Stegner defines the best history writing as a branch of literature, combining historical fact with the narrative prose of fiction. The proper blending of history and fiction "should help to unveil those continuities between past and present which have remained obscure," as Forrest G. Robinson and Margaret G. Robinson explain in their study, Wallace Stegner. Speaking to Dillon in the Southwest Review, Stegner explained his attraction to the writing of history: "I think to become aware of your life, to examine your life in the best Socratic way, is to become aware of history and of how little history is written, formed, and shaped. I also think that writers in a new tradition, in a new country, invariably, by a kind of reverse twist of irony, become hooked on the past, which in effect doesn't exist and therefore has to be created even more than the present needs to be created."

The nineteenth-century Western explorer and naturalist John Wesley Powell is the subject of Stegner's biography Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Powell led the first expeditions on the Green and Colorado rivers and conducted some of the earliest geological surveys of the West. "Ethnology and Indian policies, public land policy and the structure of government science stem back to his trail blazing efforts," a Kirkus reviewer explains. Stegner sees Powell, he writes in the book, as "the personification of an ideal of public service that seems peculiarly a product of the American experience."

Critical reaction to Beyond the Hundredth Meridian was favorable. A New Yorker reviewer calls it "an important book and, what is more, an exciting one." Mari Sandoz of Saturday Review finds it a "complex story, but no man is better fitted by understanding and artistry to tell it than Wallace Stegner." The Robinsons, looking back on the book in 1977, find it to be "the longest, the most scholarly, perhaps the best written, and certainly the most valuable of Stegner's contributions to historical nonfiction."

Stegner successfully combines history and fiction in his Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. Returning to the small town in Saskatchewan where he lived for a time as a boy, Stegner searches the past for his own identity much as his fictional characters do in his novels. I may not know who I am," Stegner writes in the book, "but I know where I came from." Stegner's return to his boyhood town is contrasted with a history of the region, a short story set in Saskatchewan, and studies of prairie and small town life. "By combining history, fiction and his own memories," Hal Borland writes in the New York Times Book Review, "Wallace Stegner ... has summarized the frontier story and interpreted it as only one who was a part of it could do. The result is a memorable and rewarding book." Speaking of Wolf Willow and Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, R. L. Perkins of Saturday Review states that "Stegner ... has written two of the most important Western books of the decade .... Both are so to speak geo-history, intensified, sharpened, made viable and useful by poetic insights and a keen intelligence."

Stegner's last novel, Crossing to Safety, is the story of the lifelong friendship of two couples, the Langs and the Morgans. Both men are fiercely ambitious, and each is tied in complicated ways to his wife: Sid Lang is tied to Charity because he needs her domination and control, even though it weakens him; Larry Morgan is deeply connected to Sally in part because she has been disabled by polio, creating a bond of dependence that somehow satisfies them both. The story is framed by the events of a single day, when the two couples, separated for years, meet for a farewell picnic knowing that Charity, afflicted with cancer, has only a few more days to live.

The reviews for Crossing to Safety were strongly approving. Howard Frank Mosher, writing in the Washington Post Book World, calls it a "magnificently-crafted, heart-wrenching story," and comments, "Although Crossing to Safety is a quieter, more reflective book than many of his earlier novels, Stegner has never handled these themes more effectively. It is a novel brimming with wisdom on subjects as diverse as writing for money, solid marriages, and academic promotion policies; with page after page of the superb description writing that has been a hallmark of his work from the start .... " In the New York Times Book Review, Doris Grumbach observes: "Clearly Mr. Stegner has not gone unnoticed. But neither is he a household name, as he deserves to be. What I am extolling here is the appearance of a superb book at the other end of a consistently accomplished career, heartening proof that the novelist has continued to grow, is still maturing in his late maturity, has added to his accomplishments a sympathy for his contemporaries' condition: the miseries of old age, the resentment of physical decay and, most of all, the pleasures of enduring marital love."

Stegner gathered similarly favorable reviews for his Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner, published three years later. "I had read most of [the stories] before," comments Merna Summers in the Toronto Globe and Mail, "but reading one after another has reminded me of what a master of the form Stegner is, and made me newly aware of how many of his stories deserved to last." She adds, "Stegner at his best is the equal of Chekhov at his best, and Stegner is often at his best." "Every story in Stegner's Collected Stories bears the indelible signature of an artist," writes George Garrett in the Washington Post Book World.

Reviewers commented on Stegner's notion that the short story is "a young writer's form, made for discoveries and nuances and epiphanies and superbly adapted or trial syntheses." "His admirers will take him any way they can get him--novels, essays, biographies," declares Anne Tyler, reviewing the collection for the New York Times Book Review, "but after sinking into these stories gathered from 'a lifetime of writing,' we can't help but mourn the passing of his short-story days. These stories are so large, they're so wholehearted. Plainly, he never set out to write a mere short story. It was all or nothing."

Stegner continued to work on essays until virtually the end of his life. In 1992, less than a year before his death, he published Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West , a collection of essays whose title comes from the same song as the title of his celebrated novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain . Where the Bluebird Sings continues Stegner's exploration of the significance of the American and Canadian West. According to Ivan Doig in the Los Angeles Times Book Review , three of the book's sixteen essays "are the brilliant crystallization of a lifetime of thinking about the American West." One of Stegner's lifelong preoccupations has been with ecology and the destructive role of development; Evan S. Connell, writing in the Washington Post Book World , found that Stegner uses his essays to "express his anger at the damage wreaked by developers--among them the U.S. government," Connell concludes, "Wallace Stegner has given us a cautionary book, full of grace, full of apprehension, carefully balanced."

As "one of our finest Western novelists," as Karl Shapiro of the Chicago Tribune Book World describes him, as well as a writer of award-winning nonfiction, Stegner "has made an extensive, permanently valuable contribution to American letters," Shapiro maintains. Richard G. Lillard, writing in the Los Angeles Times Book Review , speaks of Stegner's nonfiction in the highest of terms. Stegner, Lillard believes, "writes in the great tradition of narrative history, that of Francis Parkman, Henry Adams, or Bernard DeVoto. His style and substance are enriched by a wide knowledge of literature and natural science and by the skills he has developed during a career of writing."