Pacific Rim Review of Books

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The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner

reviewed by Martin Van Woudenberg

The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner. edited by Page Stegner. Shoemaker & Hoard.

Known as the “dean of western letters,” a title he received from The New York Times, Wallace Stegner was far better known among his readers than his critics. The Times completely ignored both the Pulitzer-prize winning Angle of Repose, and The Spectator Bird, which received the National Book Award. Though given numerous awards and decorations, Stegner remained virtually invisible in the East for most of his life. This sprang partly from his body of work and its focus, and partly from the seeming banality of the man himself. He was conservative, monogamous, guarded, and quietly persevering. Perhaps if he had been a roaring drunk or a flamboyant gender-bender he may have garnered more attention from the mainstream press. Stegner, however, poured his soul and passion into his work, his environmental efforts, and his teaching. In these areas, he is not without considerable influence and impact, both notable and lasting.

Working with close friend and artist Ansel Adams within the Kennedy administration, Stegner’s contribution as part of the board of the Sierra Club was an early and key component leading to the 1964 Wilderness Act, as well as the saving of Echo Park from a series of federal dams. There was a gentle courage to the man, the kind that moved both his heart and those who steadily followed his work. Now, with The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, we get a welcome glimpse into the private and personal life of the man himself, in his own words.

The book is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically. Although this hinders a careful study of Stegner’s change in technique and style over the years, it does provide a far clearer series of snapshots around the various aspects of his life. The first section, titled “Origins,” is possibly one of the best in the collection. This is Stegner’s personal side, his relationships, loves, and fears. In the animosity between his father and himself, we catch a glimpse of the indecision and torment the situation put him though. As he writes to long-time friend Mary Page, “…and I hate him just the same with a fury that scares me,” and within the same few lines, “I wish to God there wasn’t so much of a moping, sick, gnawing Hamletism in me, so that I could hate him whole-heartedly and be done with it.” Within his letters he confesses to equal parts of pity and hatred, being moved even to send his father money and encourage him to get a job. Shortly after, however, Stegner’s father took his own life and the life of the woman he was living with. Later within the collection, we see a father at work with the building of a lasting and respectful relationship with his son and his wife. There is a tenderness and care for the small details resting between the lines that reveal the soul of the man behind the movements he spearheaded.

The letters, especially in this early section, form a narrative as interesting and engrossing as many novels. This is particularly evident in his letters to Sara Barnard, who seemed to dote on him and care about him fiercely. As Stegner communicates with her, he drops hints about his poor worth as a potential husband, going so far as to tell her on March 29, 1934 that he cannot marry her, or any other woman. We are unfortunately denied Barnard’s response to this letdown, or the emotions she may have felt when barely three months later he tells her about falling in love with Mary Page and his plans to wed. Nevertheless, herein lays another window into a personal part of his life that we have not been able to look into before, and as such it is both revealing and welcome.

His more professional side, if we may call it that, comes through in sections of writing to his critics, in his environmental work, and in his efforts for literature at Stanford University. Creating and running one of the finest graduate programs within its halls, he lectured and taught writers such as Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, John Daniel, Ken Kesey, Bill Kittredge, Thomas McGuane, Scott Momaday, Tillie Olson, Scott Turow, and others. If The Times was blind to his influence, those eager to pitch their tents within the world of words certainly were not. The collection reveals much about the work he did at Stanford from an insider’s perspective, and highlights things that few would otherwise know. How many were aware that Stegner gave up teaching because he could no longer deal with the kids in the classroom environment? To what extent did we know of his involvement with big business and the Department of Defence in the Nixon government?

Because Stegner was so forceful and convincing, a fact we see clearly within this collection, it is refreshing to also see the side of indecision and self-doubt. Searching through the threads of narrative the letters provide, we discover a man who waffled on important issues at times, and made a complete 180 degree turn when persuaded by the arguments of others. Though his core values never come into question, the journey does not travel in a straight line. In a letter to poet and Editor Jim Hepworth, Stegner states, “Conduct is what really matters to me: I’m a moral writer, if not a religious one. I don’t mean behaviour, I mean conduct.” It is with a the goal of providing evidence of this, that his son Page Stegner has put together this collection – a glimpse into the life of a man who wanted no biography. It is also, however, where some problems arise.

By its very title, The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, we know the hand of the editor is at work. Granted, not everything this prolific writer put to paper can be included, but one has to wonder about some gaps and seeming omissions within the collections. Not all threads are followed through to the extent they should be, though Page Stegner makes a solid effort at keeping similar conversations grouped. We do not know whether Wallace Stegner ever wrote a further reply on an issue, whether the letter was lost, or whether it never made it past the editing process due to some of its content. One is not searching for scandal, in fact far from it, but occasional judgements made in the footnotes by the son show this is a collection with a purpose. For example, a controversy around “Angle of Repose,” reveals an assertion of plagiarism by professor Mary Ellen Williams Walsh. She claimed Stegner had stolen large sections from Foote’s work and taken liberties with the facts of her life, causing significant damage in the process. Though the accusations may be entirely off the mark, the younger Stegner cannot resist calling Williams Walsh’s comments, “a particularly asinine bit of academic twaddle.” Editorializing such as this does not instil a sense of confidence that the letters are being left to stand on their own merits and within their own context.

Nevertheless, the collection we do have is gold for writers and followers of Stegner’s work. We receive an intimate glimpse into the writing process and labour of a man who published some 35 books, 57 short stories, and 242 articles. If anything comes through, it is Stegner’s two great loves. Clearly, he loved the west and its westerners, giving both a voice when neither had one. Equally evident is his love for people with whom he shared the world. As the younger Stegner says in his introduction, “…he was a serious epistler with an extraordinary range of correspondents… no admiring reader penning an appreciative letter ever went without a reply; Stegner would have found it unthinkable to ignore someone who had been touched by his work.” Undoubtedly, there were many deeply touched by what he wrote and what he did. In this collection and intimate look at the man himself, in his own words, we see that Wallace Stegner retains his power to touch lives and to teach. These are letters well worth pulling from their dusty envelopes, spreading out on the kitchen table, and pouring over slowly and carefully. Whatever the collection’s shortcomings or faults, we owe Page Stegner a great deal of thanks for recognizing the value in this correspondence and sharing it with the world.

Martin Van Woudenberg resides in Langley, B.C. and writes regularly for PRRB.