The power of his pen

Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer.

WALLACE STEGNER presented an intriguing blend of hubris and humility. He remains well-loved by scholars and readers, but often with an odd defensiveness that raises hackles. Stegner himself often admonished his admirers to calm down: “If I am going to develop a claque,” he wrote to James Hepworth in 1988, “how can I be at peace with my greatness if my supporters are all shooting each other like splinter-groups of Lebanese and Palestinians?”

Even this quote, so amusing on the surface, conceals a densely layered self-image. As much as Stegner liked to position himself as a simple man (in the finest patrician tradition of both New England and the West), almost everything he wrote, apart from his pure and stunning descriptions of landscape, could be seen through the lens of arrogance or humility.

Because Stegner’s writing almost always began with a rather large slice of real life (usually a character), he was plagued by accusations of having borrowed material. These charges grew to a crescendo around three books in particular: “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” (1943), which the author agreed was partially, if not largely, autobiographical; “Angle of Repose” (1971), inspired by the life and letters of writer-artist Mary Hallock Foote; and “Crossing to Safety” (1987), inspired by two of his closest friends, Phil and Peg Gray. “I quite honestly don’t quite know where fiction ends and non-fiction begins,” he wrote in 1956, “in my own stories or anyone else’s.”


Stegner’s comment appears about a third of the way through “The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner,” a self-portrait in correspondence that the author’s son, Page, has edited in a tender and protective way. Readers who have followed the controversies around Stegner’s work will recognize that the son has included letters intended to defend the father’s name. Among them are several having to do with the “Angle of Repose” controversy, which emphasize the absurdity of the assertions made by Stegner’s critics, particularly an article in which a professor named Mary Ellen Williams Walsh claimed the author had plagiarized Foote’s work and taken gratuitous and damaging liberties with the facts of her life.

In a footnote, the younger Stegner calls Walsh’s article “a particularly asinine bit of academic twaddle.” Unfortunately, this kind of editorializing lends a creepy, circle-the-wagons feel that disturbs the flow of the material here. “I am not the keeper of my old man’s literary legacy,” Page Stegner told me when I asked how he felt about the dispute over “Angle of Repose.” That was in 2003. He must have changed his mind.

The letters are organized by subject, a strategy that, at first glance, also feels invasive but has some benefits. The largest is that they let us track changes in Stegner’s thinking about writing (fiction versus nonfiction), conservation, youthful rebellion (Stegner stopped teaching in the 1960s because he found the students so disruptive), the uses and aberrations of history and the value of criticism. Because Stegner was so forceful and convincing, it is important to understand the places where he wobbled, listened and was flexible. These moments are subtle in his life, and best seen in his letters.

The first section, “Origins,” reveals the enormous role Stegner’s largely absent father played in his life. In a 1934 letter to his future wife, Mary Page, he describes his anger at receiving a letter and gift from the old man. "[T]he one man on earth that I hate as utterly as I love you,” he writes, “sends me presents, writes letters that are almost pathetic in their loneliness. To me, whom he has never liked, and whom he knows has never liked him. 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.” Five years later, a month before his father killed himself and the woman he lived with, Stegner sent him some money and implored him to pull himself together and get a job.

There is also a letter to Mary about Vardis Fisher’s “Passions Spin the Plot,” a book Stegner loved. “I have not, as I thought,” he admits, “lost the faculty of reading for pleasure. If I read any more books like this soon I’ll have to take aspirin to slow down my heart action.”

A section called “Biographers and Critics” shows Stegner’s least favorable side: bravado, arrogance, a chip on his shoulder in regard to intellectuals and a parochial insistence on the superiority of his way of writing. “I don’t worship Borges et al.,” he notes. “They seem to me arbitrary. They seem to me too often not only to warp reality, but to warp it arbitrarily. Distortion has its function if it makes us see more clearly . . . . To that degree, maybe I’m a realist. Reality is the aim of fiction.”

As an antidote, the book’s fourth section, “Special Friends and Family,” is full of affection, with Stegner at his most expansive, curious and often jaunty, particularly in the early letters from Greensboro, Vt., where he and Mary spent many summers and had some of their happiest times. There are letters to Malcolm Cowley, Ansel Adams, Wendell Berry (whose work Stegner greatly admired) and John Daniel, a poet and close friend.

Among the most interesting letters in the collection is one written in 1992 to Susan Houston of the National Endowment for the Arts, in which Stegner refuses a National Medal of Arts from the first President Bush. His famous “Wilderness Letter” of 1960, which encouraged the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission to set aside wilderness for its own sake (“wilderness as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people”) is also included, in a section called “Conservation.”

Above all, “The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner” frames the portrait of an engaged man, a man with a sense of humor, thoughtful and extremely vulnerable. It is not surprising that when he felt most vulnerable, his considerable backbone went up. But the loving letters -- to his wife, his son, his friends and people he admired -- represent the finest efforts of a human being to be honest and generous. These qualities surround and infuse Stegner’s writing, earning him a loyal, if occasionally dysfunctional readership.