Proud Flesh

A recollection of Wallace Stegner

HUMANITIES, July/August 2009, Volume 30, Number 4

When I came to Stanford in 1963 as a graduate student in English, Wallace Stegner ruled the roost. He had founded the Creative Writing Program and was a celebrated novelist and a master of nonfictional prose; he was widely known beyond the English department, from the president of the university on up. He was also what we would call today an environmentalist, though preservationist might be a better word. His still-famous “Wilderness Letter” from 1960 played a large part in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964. 

Two sentences from the opening paragraph give a sense of Stegner’s style, which is to say his character, with their careful distinction of spiritual from mystical and the combative jab in the last clause: “What I want to speak for is not so much the wilderness uses, valuable as those are, but the wilderness idea, which is a resource in itself. Being an intangible and spiritual resource, it will seem mystical to the practical minded—but then anything that cannot be moved by a bulldozer is likely to seem mystical to them.”

Stegner in person was instantly impressive. He had those good looks that improve with age. His eyes were slightly hooded, and he looked directly at you, as if he were sizing you up. He was formal and warm and reserved all at once. Especially in the company of academic shufflers and slouchers, his upright carriage and gait immediately caught the eye and held it. My old teacher, Yvor Winters, the great poet and critic, once said to me, “Wally’s father was a bootlegger in a Mormon community. That’s where he got that swagger.”

Swagger wasn’t the right word for Wally’s elegance. His father had many jobs, schemes actually, and nothing he did would have given Stegner any reason for confidence, let alone pride, and he had them both. No one who had not read Wolf Willow or who did not know the details of his childhood would have guessed that the itinerant father had put Stegner and his brother in orphanages twice because he could not afford to keep them, that the family had lived for a time in a derailed railroad dining car, or that his father had thrown a piece of stove wood at him, breaking his collarbone. One such event stood out from Stegner’s childhood in Saskatchewan:

I have not forgotten the licking I got when, aged about six, I was caught playing with my father’s loaded .30-30 that hung above the mantel just under the Rosa Bonheur painting of three white horses in a storm. After that licking I lay out behind the chopping block all one afternoon watching my big dark heavy father as he worked at one thing and another, and all the time I lay there I kept aiming an empty cartridge case at him and dreaming murder.

“If not forgiven, at least propitiated” is how he summed up his relation to his father’s memory. In a biography of Stegner, Philip Fradkin reports that while Wally was working on The Big Rock Candy Mountain, a novel based on his father, he learned his father had shot a woman to death in a Salt Lake City hotel before killing himself. Stegner’s first thought was, “So now I know how that damn book ends.”

Toughness you could guess from his background, the post-traumatic toughness of proud flesh, but not his warmth and generosity. I became a Stegner Fellow in poetry and then joined the English and Creative Writing faculty at Stanford. I got to see a lot of Wally. He gave the impression of depth and, as I knew him better, I had a sense of the sources of those depths. His fiction, always straightforward, rings with a sense of reserve, the presence of things almost withheld.

I remember a creative writing party for Stegner Fellows at Wally’s house. It was a particularly wild group, and Wally decided late in the party, for reasons that were never clear, to bring out bottles of his favorite wine, a Green Hungarian. “Hey, it’s Wally’s favorite wine,” somebody shouted, and the writers began pouring the wine into glasses that were not quite empty. Stegner merely smiled and brought out more bottles. As he used to say at the end of an oral examination that went wrong, he’d seen worse.

One afternoon at Stegner’s house in the country stands out. We were gathered outside to hear him read from All the Little Live Things, just before its publication, I believe. We were hearing the novel, we grew to realize, on the hillside where most of the book takes place. The narrator, a cranky older man aware of his age, is arguing the nature of evil with an idealistic young woman, his neighbor—a drama at the center of the book and much more important than the one with the hippie squatter that has drawn most readers’ attention. She asks him disapprovingly if he shoots gophers. He assures her that he does, adding, “Did you ever look into a gopher’s beady eye? . . . He knows he’s evil.”

He read another passage in which the young woman confronts the narrator with several mounds that have suddenly pushed up through five or six inches of rolled asphalt. When she digs through one of the mounds, she reveals “a mushroom,” the narrator concedes, “a dinky mushroom the size of my thumb and as soft as cheese” that has pushed through hard asphalt. She tells him,

You wondered what was in whale’s milk. . . . The same thing that’s in a mushroom spore so small you need a microscope to see it, or in gophers, or poison oak, or anything else we try to pave under, or grub out, or poison. There isn’t good life and bad life, there’s only life. Think of the force down there, just telling things to get born!

It’s the kind of image, a thumb-sized mushroom pushing through six inches of asphalt that stays in the mind—it has stayed in mine for more than forty years. But it reverberates more powerfully as we realize that the young mother is not only pregnant, but is carrying a cancer that will kill her. This effect is what I was thinking of when I mentioned the emotional depth of Stegner’s fiction.

As the young woman’s cancer progresses and the book moves toward its horrifying, moving conclusion, she attempts to manage her own death by refusing treatment and, in the end, pain medication, in a futile attempt not to harm the baby she’s carrying. She also tries to shift her young daughter’s feelings away from her to her father to lessen the little girl’s pain when her mother dies.

A few years ago, when I was discussing this book with an audience of about two hundred, many of them friends of the Stegners, a woman raised her hand and identified herself as the little girl in the novel. After a hush in the room, I asked her what she thought of the novel. She said she hadn’t been able to read it when she was younger, but then she realized that it was fiction and wasn’t really about her mother—many things were changed—and she could appreciate it as a wonderful novel.

“How about the plan to separate the girl’s attachment to her mother?”

“Oh, that was true.”

“How did that work out?”

“It didn’t work at all.”

Her answer is at the heart of All the Little Live Things.

It’s well known that Stegner often worked from life, which has led some readers to look for exact counterparts in the novels. The common mistake is to regard Stegner as the narrator or central character. This is understandable because Stegner, like the Southern writer Peter Taylor, often creates characters who are in some ways like himself, and in others not at all, and there are many advantages to this approach.

He is sometimes relegated to the status of local color artist because he writes about the American West, as if this were a fault, which is puzzling. But this is itself a provincial idea of the most small-island sort.

Better, I think, to see the work of his late, greatest period as dealing with aging, early old age, I am tempted to say for personal reasons. He takes for epigraphs for two of his books poems by his friend, Robert Frost: “To Earthward,” a poem about the bitter replacement of lovely sensations with pain as one grows older; and “I Could Give All to Time,” Frost’s own version of Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.”

When a character in one of Stegner’s novels complains of feeling pains in his hips and the joints of his big toes walking downhill, I feel a twinge myself, and helplessly remember hearing old men talking about having a pain here or here or there and thinking, “How can they live?” Stegner’s novels show you how.

I start his great period a little early with Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. This is a hybrid book of great ingenuity, a book that influenced N. Scott Momaday’s The Way to Rainy Mountain. It would be possible to spend a lot of time with each of Stegner’s books, but I want to point out a couple of passages. This one shows how his character, his style, and probably his distinctive bearing were formed by living on a prairie:

The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, nearly abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.

It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones.

It is also a painful country, and Stegner understood that hardship was not just from his father, but was a matter of climate and history. As steadfast as any Buddhist, Stegner knew that life was suffering, and the marks that suffering left formed him:

Cutting at flax stalks with my knife, I slammed my hand into a cactus clump and drove a spine clear through my middle finger. There was no pulling it out, for it was broken off at the skin, and so I waited for it to fester out. It never did. It is there in the X-rays yet, a needle of authentic calcified Saskatchewan, as much a part of me as the bones between which it wedged itself.

Stegner often took for his main characters men who had been wounded, coping variously with the pain of loss. Lyman Ward, of Angle of Repose, Stegner’s masterpiece, has had a leg amputated and is in a wheelchair; he is also out of touch with his son. Joe Allston, protagonist of All the Little Live Things and The Spectator Bird, has lost his son, probably to suicide, and has hardened himself to the world he finds himself in. Larry Morgan of Crossing to Safety, the most normal of his central characters, is married to a wife who has suffered from polio and who requires his constant help. The antagonist in Crossing to Safety, like the young woman in All the Little Live Things, is dying of cancer and tries to manage her own death.

Joe Allston resembles Stegner is some ways, but many readers have missed his faults. He hates the student rebellion down the hill at Stanford, as Stegner did, and his contempt is directed at Peck, the squatter on his property. What he hates about Peck is his drug use, his free love, and his wild parties, but Allston drinks too much at a party and says unforgivable things to his hostess, and takes a voyeuristic interest in Peck’s parties. Moreover, his love for his young neighbor is touching, but he crosses lines of propriety when he tries to dictate to her and her husband how she should be handling her terminal illness. Allston has all the faults he finds in Peck, translated to his more sophisticated and older sensibilities.

In The Spectator Bird Allston attempts to protect himself by an explicit stoicism—he cites Cicero and quotes Marcus Aurelius—and the book is peppered with sententiae, staples of the stoic world view. It’s a style that attempts to keep the world at a distance. “It is hard to be relaxed around a man who at any moment might examine your prostate.” “Beneath this harsh exterior beats a heart of stone.” “It comes as a shock to realize that I am just killing time till time gets around to killing me.”

The narrative structure of his ingenious book consists of Allston reading to his wife the journal he kept of their trip to Denmark twenty years earlier, a journal he has not shown her before. In his reading, he and his wife experience their encounter with European strangeness and perversity—a Jamesian experience, but in a different style. It is the encounter between American stoic and European gothic, even to a luncheon with the great Isak Dinesen, author of Seven Gothic Tales. This encounter opens the hyper-defended Allston up more than he likes, and what he reveals is a very tame (by our standards) chaste dalliance with their hostess. It is a tale about intimacy and privacy, old love revealed and redeemed, though he does not read all of his entries to his wife.

I cannot do justice to the functional stylistic intricacy of these books, and I have left aside two great books altogether, Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety. We know that in a fit of bad temper, disgusted with the student rebellion on the Stanford campus (and many other campuses), Stegner resigned from the department. Some of Stegner’s attitudes find their ways into these late books, but the books offer more than these bald denunciations. He gives these attitudes to characters whose faults he’s at pains to show us, who are sometimes involved in the very moralities they deplore. And he often gives them wives who point out how self-centered and silly they are. It’s worth remembering that Stegner referred to himself as a crybaby and a mama’s boy.

A good case in point was the long article recently published in the Stanford Magazine, written by Richard Lyman, who was provost and president during the times of trouble. Lyman was a friend of Stegner, and when they discussed these matters I’m sure he and Stegner were in agreement. After more than forty years Lyman is still understandably obsessed with this period, and insists that no good came out of these years. “Most of what might be considered ‘effects’ of the campus unrest are things that would have happened anyway, but more slowly, in some instances much more slowly, without this stimulus”—and these effects include the lifting of quotas limiting the number of women students admitted. The human differences between Lyman’s account and Stegner’s fictional accounts is striking and worth some study.

Allen Tate said that Dr. Johnson had his prejudices but that he was certain that Johnson knew his own prejudices better than Tate knew his own. Something like that might be said of Stegner. “Incompetence exasperates me,” he writes in Wolf Willow, “a big show of pain or grief or any other feeling makes me uneasy, affectations still inspire in me a mirth I have grown too mannerly to show. I cannot sympathize with the self-pitiers, for I have been there, or with the braggarts, for I have been there too.”

Certainly he could be crotchety. When Yvor Winters, for whom Stegner had no good feelings, died, Stegner sent a letter to Janet Lewis, Winters’s wife. Janet showed me the letter the day it arrived, and it said in effect that now that Winters was dead, Stegner could probably respect him. I was young and furious. “Comfort for the grieving widow!” I fumed, and Janet merely said, “That’s just Wally.”

Two years later, while traveling in Europe, I wrote to Stegner, sending him a copy of a poem I’d just written on the death of Hemingway (“Boss” from Sunbelly, 1973). The poem began, “All night he heard the sound of mountain water,” and I told him I’d inadvertently taken the line from the title of one of his books, and that I hoped to see him when I returned to campus. He replied with grace, saying I was welcome to anything he’d written, and he corrected the direction I had the water running, adding that if we met, it wouldn’t be on campus since he had taken early retirement in an attempt to starve his “bosom serpent,” which had grown fat and gnawish on the brood spawned by some of the junior faculty members. That was Wally. But even in his unfictional baldness, it’s worth noticing he implicates himself by the reference to Hawthorne’s short story about the sin of pride.

Wally was a great man, a complex man, of the sort we are not likely to see again. A partial list of his students will show what a long shadow he cast: Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, Nancy Packer, Evan S. Connell, Edward Abbey, Ernest J. Gaines, Tillie Olsen, Ken Kesey, N. Scott Momaday, Al Young, Larry McMurtry.

The car he was driving with his wife, Mary, collided with another car at a merging lane in Santa Fe. He broke several ribs and, after more than two weeks in the hospital, he died of pneumonia. It was a somber day at Stanford when we got the news. A wag among us said he died from refusing to yield. I like to think that Wally would have gotten the joke, savored its justice, and laughed. If he thought about his mother during those two weeks, he might have heard her voice saying what she always said in the face of disaster, “Well, better luck next time.”