Why Wallace Stegner Means So Much To Me
While on vacation, I contemplated why the writing of Wallace Stegner, who my daughter-in-law, Kim, had introduced me to through “Crossing to Safety,” had meant so much to me. Reading a study of Stegner’s “Life and Work” by Jackson Benson helped me to understand why.
Stegner’s childhood was a lot like my own, it turns out. Maybe that’s why I like his writing so much. He was lonely. Out of the loneliness, Wallace found himself “always volunteering to do something.” His objective, he reflected, “was to belong to something.” He “went up through the ranks to Eagle like smoke through a chimney.” Some measure of his desperation to belong and be admired for something was demonstrated in his admission later in life that he cheated in getting two merit badges on his way to Eagle Scout. That cheating stuck in his craw for decades and that regret is probably in part responsible for producing a grown man who clearly would rather die than lie or cheat anyone for any reason.
I can recall stealing popsicles from a store when 6 or 7.
Like me, “Out of Wallace’s high school years emerges a picture of a boy with incredible energy, determination and ambition. His life was a living testament to the virtues extolled by the books he devoured. His goal was never material so much as acceptance and belonging, never acquisition of material goods so much as the gaining of some status beyond scorn. He seemed to rise to the top of or conquer everything he tackled. He combined constant reading, heavy schedules of school work (which gave him superior grades throughout), participation in sports and achievement in scouts and ROTC with frequent outings and camping trips, an extremely intelligent, capable boy who had been hurt, frustrated and embarrassed. He was not defeated, did not withdraw totally into himself or give up and go wrong, but instead took his problems as a challenge. In a sense, his whole life story became an answer to the insecurities he had felt and the pain he had endured. Despite the pain, his general discomfort with his family circumstances no doubt contributed to his energy, determination and firing ambition.”
This describes a source of my ambition with telling accuracy.
Stegner found drama and meaningful conflict in ordinary lives. Throughout his fiction, he contemplates large questions of purpose: What is fundamental to being human – can a human being live without love, companionship, interaction or help from others? Is there any purpose to life other than serving others? And courage – how do we summon it when we need it?
Just as Stegner was driven in his own life to become resilient and steadfast, he admired toughness in others, but of a particular kind – people with moral backbone, people who were tough in pursuit of constructive ends, people who took what fate had dealt them and made the best of it.
Part of Stegner’s literary genius is that he “understood that part of the tension of being human as found in our desire for, and love affair with both risk and security. What do we risk in our quest for security? What do we secure in a life of risk? And where are the motivations behind creating a life of meaning in the presence of uncertainty? Stegner shows us again and again that it is love and friendship, the sanctity and celebration of our relationships, that not only support a good life, but create one. In friendship, we spark and inspire one another’s ambitions.”
I embrace every word of this statement.
Drawing form “Crossing to Safety,” Williams replays the soulful reflections of Larry Morgan: “Whatever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute…we made plenty of mistakes, but we never tripped anybody to gain an advantage, or took illegal shortcuts when no judge was around…I didn’t know myself well, and still don’t, but I did know and I know now the few people I loved and trusted. My feelings for them is one part of me I have never quarreled with, even though my relations with them have more than once been abrasive.”
As I reflect on all this, I come back to my concept of service in wanting to live a life “that matters to both the people and the place where I belong.” (JEP) And in doing this, Stegner lights on what it takes: “Largeness is a life-long matter…you grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly, because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower; you are large because you can’t stand to be small.”
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One of the things that draws me to Stegner’s later storytellers – Joe Allston, Lyman Ward and Larry Morgan – is that “their wisdom is certified by their uncertainty, by inner debate and self-examination, by their consciousness that although they have had long lives and a variety of experiences, they don’t know everything. All of them, at a late stage of life, are trying to learn more about themselves, as well as about other people and the world around them. While having strong values and carefully nurtured, strong characters, they nevertheless remain open to experience, and it is often in the conflict between their strength and their doubt that we find the central tension of these novels. With these traits, they often seem younger than the young people around them who are often so very sure of themselves, so frozen in their opinions, so terribly close-minded.”
I very much identify with this.
I also identify with this from “Shooting Star:” “I’ll tell you what I believe in. I believe in human love and human kindness and human responsibility, and that’s just about all I believe in…the political revolutions will blow us all up at last, probably, but I’m not working for any. The only revolution that interests me is one that will give more people more comprehension of their human possibilities and their human obligations.”
These words from one of the protagonists in the novel could have come directly from Stegner and they could come from me.
For the most part, Stegner’s fictional protagonists are neither hero or anti-hero, neither conqueror nor victim. They are usually relatively ordinary people who are trying to find their better selves. They do good things, if not heroic things, but they also fail, betray themselves in some way, and try to recover.
Stegner was a man who lived under the obligation of trying his best to be a “good man” and his writing was part and parcel of that effort. For him the individual, insofar as his or her capabilities allow, must not only take charge of his or her own destiny, but take on the responsibility of contributing to the welfare of others and family, community and society.
In all of Stegner’s books which I have read --- “All the Little Live Things,” “Spectator Bird” and “angle of Repose” as well as “Crossing to Safety,” Stegner wants to convince us that the past is always with us, whether we like it or not and he wants to show us that while doing the right thing is seldom easy, in the end we must do it, not for someone else, but for ourselves, to make ourselves whole.