Magazine article Humanities

Proud Flesh: A Recollection of Wallace Stegner

Magazine article Humanities

Proud Flesh: A Recollection of Wallace Stegner

Article excerpt

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. …

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