The Western sage

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The California writer Wallace Stegner is well known to readers for novels such as "Angle of Repose" and "Crossing to Safety." But Stegner had another dimension, as an advocate for a literary West -- especially the West of mountains and desert and big sky -- not often enough heard from.

The West, wrote Stegner -- who was born in 1909 in Iowa and grew up in Montana, Utah and elsewhere before settling in Northern California's Los Altos Hills until his death in 1993 -- was a place defined by its restlessness. It was a region, in other words, from which people largely moved on, with considerable literary consequences.

"Except in northern California," he wrote in the essay "The Sense of Place," "the West has never had a real literary outpouring, a flowering of the sort that marked New England, the Midwest, and the South. . . . [A] lot of what has been written is a literature of motion, not of place." He referred to books by Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac and pointed out that other classic Western novels, such as Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," were odes to a West that had already vanished.

He founded the West's most prestigious writing program, the Stegner fellowships at Stanford University in 1946, and ran it through 1971. During this period, he shifted the center of gravity of the American literary world.

With the publication for the first time this month of Stegner's letters, edited by his son Page and published by Shoemaker & Hoard, his considerable ability to inspire, exhort and engage those around him -- on issues central to the West as well as many others -- is being given a new stage. Perhaps most striking to read today are his many letters that take up now-trendy environmental issues, including an eloquent and much-quoted 1960 missive that asserts, "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases."

The literary and the environmental were never far apart for Stegner. He wrote of his hope that the West would someday develop "a civilization to match its scenery," which meant not only artists and writers, but also readers, critics, journals and writing programs.

His students, many of whom became dedicated writers of the West, include Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, James D. Houston, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey, editor Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Tillie Olsen.

Stegner's influence isn't limited to people who studied with him. "I think he made novels about the West less 'regional,' " said Ron Hansen, who attended Stanford post-Stegner and whose novel "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford " was recently made into a film. "He was kind of the frontiersman: By the time I came along, no one gave it much thought. He had cut down all the weeds and hacked the bramble so I could walk through."

"All of us outlanders are pushing against the Northeastern cultural orientation that the arts have had for a long time," said Berry, the poet and essayist who studied with Stegner in the late '50s and returned to his native Kentucky a few years later. "I'm not a Westerner, but I'm an outlander -- I'm not from a great center of culture. I think all of us who have been in that predicament owe a debt to him."

Assorted missives

In the collection, there are letters to friends and former students filled with support and warmth. There are letters about politics (he famously turned down an award from the National Endowment for the Arts because of what he called, in a letter to PEN West, "the dominance exerted over the NEA by its reactionary congressional and administrative enemies," abetted by President George H.W. Bush).

There are letters about history, one of his passions, and about his preference for realism in literature. There are several letters about a controversy -- over his use of the life and letters of writer Mary Hallock Foote in "Angle of Repose" -- that would, for some, stain his reputation.

And there are letters on the literary West in which one can see him searching for a way to square his passion for the wildness and freedom of the West with his respect for cultural discipline and tradition.

"I grew up in a cowboy culture," he writes in a tough-minded but gentlemanly 1968 letter to Beat poet Gary Snyder, "and have been trying to get it out of my thinking and feeling ever since."

Or, in a 1982 letter to Anne McCormick about James D. Houston's "Californians": "It is astonishing how few considered and searching books there are about contemporary California. . . . There is a lot more to California than kooks."

Said Jackson Benson, Stegner's biographer: "He was a Westerner and very attached to the land, always going out and camping and observing nature." But his public commitment to the West came over time, first in his early novels and later through teaching and nonfiction.

"As the ecological and environmental movements got going" -- Stegner served as an advisor during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations -- "he became more and more outspoken in regard to the West," Benson said. This came partly out of his sense that the West was essentially a dry and, consequently, fragile region. (Many of his thoughts on the topic are collected in the 1992 book "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West.")

The man's missions

Stegner was driven, in part, by a sense that literary capital was still tied up in New York and the East.

Ron Carlson, a short-story writer who runs the fiction-writing program at UC Irvine, was deeply moved by Stegner's stories about Utah, which were some of the first he'd ever read about his home state. He responded, too, to Stegner's push to level the playing field in the West, which had partly to do with education and institutions.

"Harvard, I think, was founded in 1636," Carlson said. "Arizona State was founded in 1959. Harvard was 260 years old before Utah was a state."

But Stegner wasn't just fighting against the storied Eastern establishment.

"I've written about four western writers now," said Benson, a retired professor at San Diego State. "Steinbeck, Stegner, Van Tilburg Clark, and now A.B. Guthrie Jr. They all felt that western literature had been dominated for too long by what Guthrie called gun and gallop, and what Stegner called the saga of the lone horseman, and that these things were just wrong for how the West really developed. So these major writers, really, were kind of anti-mythic in their approach to western literature."

Said Berry: "He tried to break through the cowboy mythology and the movie mythology of the West, to its actual history and its reality as an arid region."

Stegner lamented that the myth had been dangerous for the region's culture and politics: The romance of the rugged individualist spread a culture of guns, land-grabbing and reflexive defiance of government and made collective action, like environmental efforts, difficult.

Despite often being photographed alone on a field in a way that made him resemble a cross between Ronald Reagan and the Marlboro Man, Stegner was "very liberal," according to his biographer, and marched in anti-Vietnam protests before being turned off by the destructiveness of the New Left. He was, in general, unsuited to radicalism.

"Stegner was very concerned with the hero-ization of the outlaw," Benson said. "In one of his books, he shows that Joe Hill was just a cheap gunman who'd been made a hero by the labor movement. That made him mad."

His legacy

More than 60 years after Stegner founded the Stanford program, the West has developed a body of writers that would match any region anywhere. Stegner protege McMurtry has created a literary and cinematic Texas, McGuane a vision of Montana, and the late Abbey stands as an important, if controversial, beacon for the environmental movement.

And powerful writers who never studied with Stegner have brought his old dream of a literary West to life: Cormac McCarthy in the desert southwest, Annie Proulx and Gretel Ehrlich in Wyoming, and so on.

Many of those who love Stegner's work not only write, but also spread the word through teaching. "Especially in the West, we think of him as the father of the creative writing industry," said Pam Houston, who directs the writing program at UC Davis. "And of a particular kind of very physical, landscape-centered writing. In California, Steinbeck and then Stegner put the landscape on the page."

Still, Houston, like many other admirers, fears that Stegner is not well known by writing students today, who seem to hold on to fewer and fewer of their predecessors ( Raymond Carver, she said, is one).

Benson thinks Stegner was able to change literary culture and help launch some great careers but not, in the end, change the culture itself.

"I don't think the West interests people unless it's a mythic West," said Benson, downbeat in part because his well-regarded 1997 Stegner biography has just gone out of print. "Or unless, for intellectuals, it relates to the environment."

But Berry says Stegner's emphasis on landscape and sense of place has finally gotten a wider hearing in the last decade or so, especially in the sustainable-farming and organic-food movements. Berry also sees the shadow of Stegner in nonfiction writers such as Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma"), Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and William McKibben ("Deep Economy").


In a 1991 lecture at the University of Colorado, Stegner spoke of the difference between the "boomers," who approach land and water "as grave robbers might approach the tomb of a pharaoh," and "stickers," who honor the land on which they settle.

"I think they will learn to control corporate power," Stegner said, "and to dampen the excess that has always marked their region, and will arrive at a degree of stability and a reasonably sustainable economy based on resources that they will know how to cherish and renew."

Said Berry: "I think he'd have been impressed with what's been accomplished by the development of local food economies and urban agrarianism. But when you consider the backdrop of exploitation and ruin, you can see that it can't come fast enough."

This flowering of consciousness, sadly, has come too late for Stegner to enjoy it.

Still, said Berry: "He's very much a part of it."

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