Here are Wallace Stegner’s words upon deciding to leave his papers at the University of Utah, rather than at Stanford: “Any scholar who has to go to Salt Lake to study Stegner will get a bonus by being lured into good country.”
Archetypal wild man Edward Abbey and proper, dedicated Wallace Stegner left their footprints all over the western landscape. Now, award-winning nature writer David Gessner follows the ghosts of these two remarkable writer-environmentalists from Stegner’s birthplace in Saskatchewan to the site of Abbey’s pilgrimages to Arches National Park in Utah, braiding their stories and asking how they speak to the lives of all those who care about the West.
I’d been pulled to Salt Lake City for just the reason he had suggested, to work on a book that was in part about Stegner’s life. I’d never set foot in Salt Lake before July 19, 2012, but within an hour of arriving in the town I was already kind of in love. The wide clean streets, the mountain ranges above the valley, the passes you had to cross to get to the town, at least from the east, as if entering a great fortress. All that and the fact that the whole city was atilt, like one of the villain’s lairs in the old TV version of Batman.
I checked in at the University Guest House, but had no time to waste. The university itself sits perched above the town and, after throwing my bags in my room, I climbed on my bike and headed downhill. The wide roads ran like straight rivers and no pedaling was required. It was like skiing, and hard not to yell, “Wheee!”
I found the small café where I was to meet Stephen Trimble, a photographer, editor, writer, and environmentalist who taught at the University of Utah, and who served as the Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow there during the 2008-2009 academic year. Only minutes after I arrived so did Stephen, also by bike. He is thin, bespectacled, smart, intense, and as it turned out he was in a bit of a hurry, generously cramming in a last minute meeting with me before a trip out of town the next day.
Readers of Edward Abbey are often converts, people from elsewhere who read his books and move to the Colorado Plateau and call it their own. But Stephen was born here, and has spent his whole life exploring the canyon country. He attended Colorado College, which operates on the block system, with three and a half intense weeks of studying one subject followed by four days off, and he spent almost all of his time off exploring the nooks and red rock crannies of his expansive home turf. Desert Solitaire came out while he was still in college and for Stephen the life it described wasn’t the exotic, wild alternative that it is for so many people, but a confirmation of the life he had already been living.
“The guy took what I was doing on break and made it into literature,” he told me. “Until then I had never thought of using the skills I had been developing in a profession. But now I saw an opportunity. A personal opportunity but also a professional one. ‘Wow, this place I’ve loved for so long. I could make this my job.’ And I saw I had everything I needed right in my backyard.”
The book was a vivid re-introduction to a place he already knew, and in the most direct and literal sense it changed his life. Right after he graduated he volunteered at Olympic National Park for the summer, and the next fall, when a position suddenly came open, he was offered a full-time job at Arches. Two years after reading Desert Solitaire, he found himself working at the same park that Abbey had celebrated.
“By the time I was 22 I had cemented my relationship with my home landscape,” he said.
We finished our beers and it seemed that that would be it. But despite his rush, Stephen had something he needed to show me. Luckily, it was on his way home, or rather a little past his home. We climbed on our bikes and began our ascent. It was skiing no longer, but slogging, the sweaty effort to get back up the hill. Breathing heavily, I, the out-of-towner, attempted to keep up.
Ten minutes later we arrived at our destination. A grassy cemetery that, like everything else on this side of town, existed on a slant.
“It’s by those two Spruce trees,” Stephen said, and we got off of our bikes and walked them up a path between the graves.
“I have my students read Recapitulation and then bring them here,” he told me.
Recapitulation, a novel published in 1979, is a sequel to The Big Rock Candy Mountain, in which the Steger-like protagonist, Bruce Mason, now an adult, returns to Salt Lake City to bury his aunt. He has not been back to the city in decades, and the place releases a flood of memories. Bruce is now an ambassador, an interesting choice really, both a politician and balancer, the sort of man with the “excess of moderation” that Abbey abhorred. Competent and powerful, he returns to a place where he was once powerless and weak, and at the mercy of a volatile, angry, capricious father. The father’s fictional fate is similar to that of Stegner’s actual father: he shoots his mistress in a seedy downtown hotel, then turns the gun on himself and takes his own life. The novel ends at this very cemetery, where, after the aunt’s funereal, Bruce finally decides to buy a headstone for his father’s unmarked grave. It is, the reader imagines, an act of forgiveness, catharsis, and reconciliation.
But at the actual gravesite I was in for a surprise. Stephen paused in front of two stone markers embedded in the grass. The first read: Husband. Cecil L. Stegner. 1907-1931. The second: Mother. Hilda E. Stegner. Aug 31, 1883- September 27, 1933. Stegner’s brother and mother respectively.
And next to them? Next to them there was no third cathartic stone to mark the life of George Stegner, father and husband. Next to them was a lumpy plot of grass, nameless and unmarked, which Wallace Stegner’s father lay below.
Stephen was pleased by my reaction. He had given me a gift of sorts, and he knew it. But he needed to run, and so we shook hands by the gravesite before he climbed back on his bike. I started to do the same, but then hesitated. The clouds had closed in, dark blue and heavy below, lighter up above. It looked like rain, but there were still a couple of hours of light, and I remembered that I had seen a convenience store earlier. I pedaled there to buy a cigar, then back to the gravesite to smoke it. The clouds grew darker; rain spat. The town lay below me, the mountains above. I smoked the cigar down to the nub.
I studied the two graves. Cecil, Wallace’s big, strong athletic brother, the family star, died at the age of 24 of pneumonia. Then came his mother, a woman whom Stegner would insist to the end of his life was “saint-like.” “I love my mother,” he wrote later, “and that is not anything for a psychologist to grin about.” Hilda was, by all accounts (mostly his, as the last survivor and writer), a kind, loyal, high-spirited woman who loved her sons despite a hard life of near poverty and spousal abuse. Her last words, as she died from cancer at the age of 50, were: “You’re a good boy, Wallace.”
But while the two marked graves had their own stories to tell, it was the unmarked one that held my attention. Stephen’s gift had been to present me with the perfect place to consider the relationship between George and Wallace Stegner, but more than that. The perfect place to think about names and the nameless, ambition and acceptance, fathers and sons.
Not five miles from here George Stegner, in that seedy downtown hotel, killed his mistress and himself in what his son later called “a neat and workmanlike job of murder and suicide.” It would have hardly been national news, just an event covered in the local paper, gossiped about in town for a while no doubt, but fairly quickly consigned to time’s oblivion. Except. Except for the writer son.
“Well, at least we don’t have any skeletons in our family closet,” Wallace’s son, Page Stegner, said to me when I visited him in Vermont.
I had laughed—rudely, I think now—assuming that Page was joking and that having a grandfather who killed himself and his girlfriend might qualify as a skeleton.
But of course Page was right. That incident had been written about so much by his father that far from being in a closet it has been exposed to the harshest sunlight. It might be a skeleton but its white bones shone for all to see.
To the extent that George Stegner is known to any living person today, to the extent that he still has a name, it is through the pages of his son’s books. Whether as himself in the nonfiction or as Bo Mason in the fiction, he is portrayed as a bully, a strong and often angry man. While Stegner himself later warned about taking his fiction too literally, in other moods he admitted that The Big Rock Candy Mountain was in many ways an autobiography. In that novel he describes an indelible moment after Bo Mason finally returns from his wanderings to discover that his family is living in a tent in the wilderness outside of Seattle. Little Bruce Mason, still not yet five, is scared of walking the path through the woods to the outhouse, and when his father forces him to do so, the boy squats along the path instead of walking deeper into the woods. When Bo finds out what his son has done, he becomes enraged, grabs the boy by the collar and marches him down the path, rubbing his son’s face in the excrement.
Wallace, as a child, was prone to illness, a self-described runt, crybaby, and Mama’s boy. Sick and small and at the mercy of a man whom he watched abuse not just himself but, worse, his mother. It is the transformation of that runt into the ambassador—the movement from small to big—that interests me today. What drives a little boy to be a big man, or, conversely, makes a big man small? How is caring about one’s good name different than trying to make a name? And how does our own smallness impede our dreams of being larger?
The rain had begun to spit and it made sense to go, to begin my climb back to campus and the University Guest House. But it was hard to leave that place where George Stegner had not left his mark. I thought about the way that the architecture of Stegner’s thinking about the West grew out of the different models provided by his mother, the nester, and father, the boomer. His use of his family’s story is fairly typical of the way Stegner’s mind worked; there is always a movement toward the general, an imperative to think more broadly and openly, a preference for the long view over the short, the large over the small. This was not just an intellectual commitment, but a spiritual or at least a personal one. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” he once said. The goal was magnanimity. But if anything got in the way of that goal in his own life it was his feelings toward his father. Hate was the word that often came to his mind. Hate was the concept—the feeling—that he wrestled with. How to be large when a dark and bitter smallness grew inside?
Wallace Stegner strove throughout his life to make a name, not just a known name but a good name, and more importantly to create a self. Half of the genetic material he made that self with came from his father, but he consciously strove to make himself against the image of his father. Where the father was weak, he would be strong. Where the father was inconstant, he would be steady. Where the father cheated, he would be loyal. Where the father boomed, he would stick.
That was fine, and to an admirable degree he willed himself toward this end. But he still grew out of his father, and out of the male frontier culture that his father embodied. It was a tough culture. A culture that hated “sissies.” A culture where action trumped sensitivity. A culture that laughed at anything fancy or pretentious. A culture where books, art, and intellectual conversation, the very things that Stegner was coming to love and excel at, were scorned. It was also a culture he could never entirely escape. In a particularly astute piece of self-analysis, Stegner wrote in 1962’s Wolf Willow:
Little as I want to acknowledge them, the effects of those years remain in me like the beach terraces of a dead lake. Having been weak, and having hated my weakness, I am as impatient with the weakness of others as my father ever was. . . . Incompetence exasperates me . . . affectations still inspire in me a mirth I have grown too mannerly to show. . . . I even at times find myself reacting against conversation, that highest test of civilized man, because where I come from it was unfashionable to be “mouthy.”
In short, he was taught to be wary of the very qualities that are essential to being an artist. It should not be a great surprise then that as an artist he is tough-nosed, a realist, able to take a punch. That he disdained the overly romantic, had no use for Whitman, for instance, while admiring the way that Bernard DeVoto could toss aside those rotten oranges and get at the essence of a thing. He admired energy, smarts, and adherence to the evidence as opposed to sweeping theory. And as an adult he contained both frontier toughness and intellectual sweep, turning himself into the sort of man he had never encountered during his youth. His father had been a ne’er do well but he would be a success. He would make his name.
And he did: not three miles from where the father rested under a nameless grave stood a library that housed a collection honoring the son. In creating the body of work that one finds there, Stegner relied on the one positive quality he acknowledged getting from his father, and the only one he openly admitted to sharing with the old man: a relish for hard work. Both father and son strove mightily to make it in their lives, though their definitions of what “it” was varied. George Stegner, though mightily flawed, had a vital animal energy, worked tirelessly, and could build or fix almost anything. He was, his son believed, ideally suited for the frontier he longed for. And what George brought to clearing a field, Wallace brought to writing. He loved to roll up his sleeves, to tackle a project, to have another project waiting when the first lay fallow between drafts. In his biography of DeVoto, he wrote: “As a matter of fact, he loved work; he could not have existed without it; and though he sometimes complained about it, that was standard bellyaching, part of the pleasure.” As it had been for DeVoto, work for Stegner was a stay against chaos and confusion, a time to lose himself in the intense process of making.
All his life, Stegner was a volcano of productivity. In Crossing to Safety, which he called his most autobiographical novel, the Stegnerian narrator says of his younger self: “I was your basic overachiever, a workaholic, a pathological beaver of a boy who chewed continually because his teeth kept growing.” This fictional creation, Larry Morgan, produces a massive amount of work, but in fact Stegner admitted that he actually “toned down the facts for fear readers would not believe them.” In his autobiography he writes: “In two years, besides collaborating on a textbook and writing a dozen essays and books reviews, I wrote four short stories, a novelette called ‘One Last Wilderness‘ that killed Scribners Magazine, a novel called On a Darkling Plain, another novel called Fire and Ice, and the first few chapters of The Big Rock Candy Mountain. This while teaching four undergraduate classes.” He wasn’t complaining mind you: “I suspect what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun.”
In Crossing to Safety, the Stegnerian narrator writes that “when I hear the contemporary disparagement of ambition and the work ethic, I bristle.” But: “Unconsidered, merely indulged, ambition becomes a vice; it can turn a man into a machine that knows nothing but how to run. Considered, it can be something else—pathway to the stars, maybe.” Ambition can lead to the stars, or at least to that greater broadening, to magnanimity, to largeness. But it still has its more primitive roots in the craving to be noticed, to be known, to have one’s name recognized.
“Another drop down the well of oblivion,” was what Ed Abbey wrote in his journal when The Monkey Wrench Gang came out.
Neither Stegner nor Abbey were immune from the hunger for renown. Both wanted their work to be remembered. They would not, it seems to me, have frowned at the notion of my writing this book so many years after their deaths.
It is oblivion, of course, that we make our names against. Nothingness that spurs us to be something. And what is worse than being ignored? To a proud person, it is as if our existence is not acknowledged. We are nobody.
“I am tired of obscurity!” Abbey wrote in his journal on November 30, 1974. “I want to be famous.”
Stegner, for all his striving toward largeness, shared some of Abbey’s bitterness. Of course he, characteristically, framed it in a larger way. He believed that Western writing as a whole was ignored, and as he became known throughout his home region Stegner chafed against being considered regional—when considered at all—by the East.
Did he have a case? Well, it should be noted that while The New York Times Book Review chose not to review Angle of Repose, they did manage to print an essay objecting when the book won the Pulitzer.
And there was one final indignity. In 1981 the New York Times Magazine published an article called “Writers of the Purple Sage.” The idea was to finally acknowledge and celebrate the boom in Western writing, to give credit where it was due, and it included mention of a young wildman named Edward Abbey.
Stegner was featured in the article, too.
A caption below a photograph identified him as “The Dean of Western writers, William Stegner.”
I had a beautiful little schedule over my three days in Salt Lake. I got up, did a little writing, ate breakfast, and biked down to the library for six hours of study. I spent the day immersed in Stegner’s notes, letters, correspondence, and the drafts of his novels. Then back up the hill, a nap, more reading, sleep.
One of the finds on my second day was the letters that George Stegner wrote to his son during the year before he died. Here, for instance, is one that George sent from the New Grand Hotel on March 29, 1939:
Wallace do you damndest to raise hook or crook $200 or more to get in on this (illegible) you can write your own ticket. I have sweat blood getting it all in shape.
This is the last chance for me and if I fail in this I will end it all. Regards to family.
Write me at once.
I must know what to expect,
Another letter contains this whopper of a line: “Well appreciate more than you know the occasional check you mentioned sending me so don’t let me down I’ll doubly repay you for it later enabling you to get your family well again.” And: “I’m still trying hard for it’s my last chance.”
When I’d first read the fictional versions of these letters, in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, they seemed almost too much, close to fictional overkill. Little did I know that they were nearly verbatim reproductions of these actual letters, letters that told a little of the day’s news and asked routinely about how “the baby is” (one gets the sense he didn’t know his grandson Page’s name), but whose real purpose was to beg for money for a stake in a new mine.
Wallace was giving a speech in Iowa, the same place he’d been when he heard his brother had died, when he got the news about his father’s death.
It may be too simplistic to see the son’s moral code developing purely in reaction to the father. But whatever the reason, the code did develop. Stegner would never buy into the fashionable belief, exemplified in everyone from Hemingway to Wolfe, that great art and bad behavior went together. After all “largeness of mind,” was the ideal. The notion that “it is a good thing to be large and magnanimous and wise, that it is a better aim in life than pleasure or money or fame. By comparison, it seems to me, pleasure and money, and probably fame as well, are contemptible goals.”
These were ideals, of course, and he, a realist, knew how difficult they were to achieve. He would always be a grudge holder, for instance. The reason I was in Salt Lake, and not in Palo Alto, was that he grew bitter toward Stanford, where everyone assumed his papers would be deposited. The reason he could never bring himself to buy a marker for his father’s grave springs from the same root.
I thought of the walk I had taken in Vermont with Page Stegner and his wife Lynn and daughter Allison. As we climbed the hill from their house to Wallace and Mary’s old house, Allison pointed out the ferns, the names of which she had learned many years before from Mary. The landscape was right out of Crossing to Safety, the last novel he wrote.
When we stopped at the Stegner’s old house, I asked his son if Wallace could be intimidating. Page Stegner clearly loved and respected his father, and characterized their relationship as a good one, but he admitted it could sometimes be challenging having a monument for a dad.
“It wasn’t always easy growing up with a father who spoke the King’s English,” he said.
But while Wallace could be intimidating and critical, my sense was that, for Page and the rest of the immediate family, Wallace Stegner was, in their eyes, everything he was in the world’s: kind, steady, brilliant, loyal, hard-working, and if a tiny bit stiff then certainly caring. That picture was tempered and complicated by a familial proximity and a reality that those who only know Wallace Stegner through books could never see. When we passed a neighbor’s house, for instance, Lynn Stegner, Page’s wife, told me that the man who lived there had been Wally’s closest friend. Wally was friends with his wife too and Lynne said that after the man’s divorce Wally refused to talk to the man for a long time, a period of years. He didn’t believe in divorce, or at least not in this divorce. I guess this is not shocking. Simple enough really: Stegner had a clear moral code and the man had violated it.
In Vermont Allison Stegner told me about a fifth grade report she had written about her famous grandfather, and I now looked up the report in the library files. It was Allison’s “autobiography” of her famous grandfather, written in his voice, and it featured this whopper of a line: “I try not to hate my father.”
Both the trying not to and the hating formed the man. Did Wallace Stegner ever get beyond hating George? In moments, I’m sure he did. On an intellectual level he knew that his father had grown up in a violent family, received only a ninth-grade education, and was fending for himself by the time he was 14. And he knew that his father did his best to overcome his own flaws, that he made vows to reform after his bouts of bad behavior. In his better moods, George Stegner could be rambunctious, rowdy, joyful, fun. But there was always regression. The temper and bullying would always recur. On some deep level, striking it rich, making it big, trumped the concerns of his family. Or so the son believed.
That son could be tough on people, could hold grudges, could be inflexible. But magnanimity manifests itself in the act of forgiving, and I like to think that Wallace Stegner achieved some measure of forgiveness. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps, in the end, the son could not forgive the father his sin of smallness.
Do any of us ever get beyond the boundaries of the selves we start with? Can we really make ourselves into more than we are? Or do we always snap back to the default settings that we were programmed for in the first place?
I know what Wallace Stegner believed. I would like to believe it with him.
On my own last morning in the library in Salt Lake, I came across an exciting find, a little orange theme book that seemed a kind of road map for my attempts to understand the lives of both Stegner and Abbey. The book’s cover was illustrated with pictures of boats and planes over a background like a topographic map journal. While Abbey was a great journal keeper, Stegner seemed to have had little time for them, and so far this had been the only one I’d come across. He kept this notebook in the mid-70s, and in its pages he worked through many of his ideas about biography. In red ink—scrawled but legible—Stegner wrote:
Biography is the form for heroes; also for representative men. It is not the form for denials of humanity, or for cynical games. It really goes after a human life, and in something like its full scope. It cannot be unrepresentational; a black comedy biography is hardly conceivable. Farce does not match with reality and full representation; it writes only with exaggeration, distortion, etc. . . . In other words, it works with a certain type of novel, hardly at all with biography. History puts iron in biography.
The little journal contained injunctions, rules of sorts, for would-be biographers. “We look through the works back at the man, in order to come back to the [illegible] in something like the spirit the writer wrote them in.” “The imagination of the biographer is ultimately like the imagination of any creator, but it walks along apparently prosy paths, and with materials large parts of which are themselves prosy.” Stegner believed that there is no reason “biography can’t utilize the techniques—and pursue the intentions—o f fiction.” That said, the form requires a writer “significantly addicted to the real” and: “Biography, like nature photography, is an art of found objects.” He warns against “temptations,” including the tendency to “debunk a large figure” or “settling grudges” or “tell all.” “If one has known his biographee personally, he is lucky. If he has to get him from reading, he has an act of imagination to perform—he has to bring paper to life.” Either way biography involves “transformation of fact by the imagination,” though “imagination must work with the real.”
Finally Stegner includes a list:
1. No reason for chronology
2. None for birth-to-death coverage
3. None for the historian’s omniscience point of view
4. As for invention—use the subjunctive
It is worth pausing here to consider that at the time he wrote these words Stegner had just completed his own biography of Bernard DeVoto, who was, by all accounts, an immensely flawed human being. Combative, defensive, always ready to pick a fight. A man who felt bullied and so bullied others back. The perfect subject for a “tell all” in a way. For a tearing down sort of bio. But that was not what Stegner was after, and not just because DeVoto was a friend. His notes continued:
“Malcolm (Cowley) says I made DeVoto the hero of a novel. That’s not far from truth. The subject of a biography should be the hero of a sort of novel, the best sort.”
And: “Heroism—if not heroes, at least representative men (yes, this is what most biogs miss), models of a sort, rarely warnings. The natural tendency of biography is positive, not negative, and it appeals to me. It is otherwise with contemporary fiction.”
“What I suppose I mean to say is that I wish biographies were more like the sort of novels I like, and novels were more like the sort of biographies I like.”
A little further down the page, he wrote: “Biography must not reform truth—that much it owes to its ancestry as history—but there is more than one kind of truth, and that [illegible] it owes to its other parent, story-telling.”
According to Stegner then, the subject must be representative to be worth writing about. And what did DeVoto represent? A difficult, ornery, troubled, anxious man, who, though often afraid of the world, struggles, through work and a great effort of mind, to become more than his limited self. Who fights, in Freuds’s words, “to discipline a primitive inheritance.” A small man who willfully strives toward largeness.
It doesn’t take a particularly astute reader to see that there is a whole lot of autobiography in the DeVoto biography. That what this particular biographer valued, and found in his subject, was the constant, daily effort to expand, and to keep the demons of smallness at bay. To take that raw material and will it in a direction, a “positive direction.” Largeness may be a lifelong affair, but it is also a daily grind. It requires effort above all, that unfashionable virtue.
The flaws of character are not and cannot be ignored. The flaws were real. Of course they were.
But so was the lifelong effort to overcome them.
On the way out of Salt Lake I made one last stop. I pulled up at the address where the seedy hotel had once stood. The hotel itself was gone and I couldn’t be sure which of the two buildings stood in its place, the shiny bank or the one with the brick front and the old-time advertisement for bikes. Maybe neither. But for ambience I walked up to the brick building, a preferable object for the requisite imagining.
If you know of George Stegner at all—and if you do it is likely as the fictional Bo Mason—you know he was resilient. A kind of Jean de Florette of the American West. The failed wheat crop in 1919 was a disaster, no doubt, but soon hope was bubbling up for the next adventure, the move to Great Falls, the man newly excited about all the money that could be made from bootlegging. In his books the son made much of the fool’s gold that was his father’s false hope, but there was always real hope and resilience too. Until this place. This is the place where the hope and resilience ended.
I tried to picture the final scene. The lobby, the shouting. The gunshot through the pane of glass, the blood on the poor woman’s coat. George Stegner, the winner of sharp shooting contests, one of his few worldly successes, the state champ, shooting two bullets, one breaking through plate glass door before piercing Dorothy LeRoy’s heart. Then turning the gun on himself. The man, once a dynamo of energy and ambition and ideas, deciding that it was time to put an end to all that. No more imagining, no more last chances, no more big rock.
It is the end for him, though it will be a beginning of sorts for his son, who will later report his first thoughts upon hearing the news: “So now I know how that damn book ends.”