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Wallace Stegner

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) came to Iowa City in the fall of 1930 for his graduate studies in creative writing, and he left Iowa in 1934 with a PhD in English. Stegner was born in Iowa, in a place called Lake Mills. But his father's adventurous spirit moved their family often, so Stegner grew up in North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming. Thus, Stegner didn't consider himself an Iowan, and except for the three-year period of his studies and occasional visits to his wife's family in Dubuque, he never came back to Iowa. Responding to an inquiry by one Mr. Ryman from Illinois, he explained his attitude to Iowa thus:

I’m afraid I can’t testify to any enduring influence that Iowa has had on my character or my writing. Though I have a warm feeling for the state, and actually for the maligned Midwest at large, I’m hardly a native. I was born in it more or less by accident, when my mother was visiting her parents near Lake Mills, and I remained in it only a few weeks. That, plus a couple of academic years in graduate school, plus a few visits to my wife’s home in Dubuque, is my total experience of Iowa. I’m probably a good deal more native to Saskatchewan and Utah and California than to the state I was born in. But I agree with your general thesis: geography does have an effect, perhaps the definitive effect, on the character of writers and the nature of their writing.

In another letter to Rayman, Wallace wrote with the intention to correct some misrepresentations of his identity:

I am a sort of belated frontier product. While that is true, I'm also fairly suspicious of frontier virtues—they seem to me anachronistic, they don't apply in the age of shortage into which we are moving, and the new frontier calls for virtues of quite another kind. Sure the frontier marks us—it makes us, I suppose, more amenable to change. It makes us alert, it forces us to adapt. And adapt we must, not by killing more grizzly bears but by learning to live with greater scarcity. That, at least, is what I think in 1977. By 1980 I may have had to adapt to something else.

In 1938 Stegner published an almost unknown article in The Saturday Review of Literature about Iowa as a rural state without literary traditions yet having good emerging writers concentrated in Iowa City, Davenport, and Des Moines, The Trail of the Hawkeye, Literature Where the Tall Corn Grows. Read: The Trail of the Hawkeye.pdf

Stegner (who was famous of being a “realist” because he included authentic material from his direct observations and locations in his fiction), used Iowa City as the setting in at least two  pieces. In the short story “Beyond the Glass Mountain” (Harper's Magazine 194 (May 1947):446-52), two alumni, an Iowa City businessman and a Yale professor, meet after 17 years apart. The visitor from Yale

“found himself at the corner of College and Dubuque Streets in Iowa City, at a little past ten on a Sunday morning in May, and as he stopped on the corner to let a car pass, the utter and passionate familiarity of everything smote him like a wind. ... the stone lace of the hospital tower . . . the union and the reserve library [Old Armory] strung out along the riverbank. … He climbed the hill to the field house. He would have liked to go in under the big round roof just to soak himself in the sensations he remembered: smell of lockers opened on stale gym clothes and stiff sweated socks; steam and thumping radiators and liquid soap smell; sweat and medicated foot baths and the chlorine smell and the jiggly reflecting chemical blue of the pool .... “

The narrator of the  novel Crossing to Safety (New York: Random House, 1987) is said to be Stegner himself, while another character, Sid Lang, is thought  to be modeled after Wilbur Schramm, the first director of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and director of the School of Journalism.  The sailboat sinking on page 114 is based on an actual event on Lake McBride, near Iowa City.

Stegner in Iowa City

The fullest account of Stegner’s experience in Iowa City is found in Jackson J. Benson’s Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, reproduced here with permission by the author.[fn]Benson, J.J. Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work. New York, Viking, 1996[/fn]

[Stegner] still had no specific plan for the future but was simply "going to college." He enjoyed working at the store [and] would have gone on working there after graduation if the chair of the psychology department, Professor Barlow, had not one day asked him, "Why don't you go to graduate school?" Wallace said he didn't know. Barlow asked him, "What if I got you a fellowship in psychology? Would you like to come to graduate school?" Wallace replied, "Sure ... fine. Great." Later, he related his good fortune to Professor Neff in the English department, who reacted with dismay, “You're an English major. What are you doing in psychology?" He said he would try to get Wallace a fellowship somewhere. Surprised and pleased, Wallace agreed, and shortly afterward found himself looking forward to a teaching assistantship at the University of Iowa.

This was probably the major turning point in his career and it had come, as such things so often do, without any deliberate thought, nearly by accident. In response to this and two or three other such accidentally presented opportunities, changes of direction that had profound consequences, Stegner has paraphrased that familiar verse by his friend Robert Frost, "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one I was pushed into." So, in the fall of 1930, off he went, not knowing exactly why or comprehending what he was in for, "just like poor old Maurice, the campus moron, given a nickel to buy a root beer." He was off to Iowa, "which I then thought of as the East." Once there, he encountered two people who dramatically affected the course of his life: one was a fellow student, who became a dear friend, and the other a teacher, who would lead him into the studies that would become the basis for his life's work.

One would have to say that Wallace Stegner was very lucky in his friends. In Salt Lake City he had been befriended by Jack Irvine and his family, and that had brought him tennis, confidence, and a good job that got him through school. In Iowa City he met Wilbur Schramm. Schramm had just finished his MA at Harvard, and he came to Iowa with a background in languages, art, music, and world literature. He was as sophisticated as Wallace was innocent: "I [was an] ... incomparably green and ill-prepared first-year graduate student from the wild west, ... [whereas Wilbur] had been seasoned for a year in the intellectual life in the place that called itself headquarters." The contrast between the two was emphasized when they became roommates and Wallace put a .38 in a gunfighter's holster and cartridge belt on his dresser, and Wilbur decorated his with his flute.

In September 1930 Wallace arrived in Iowa City by bus. All that fall it was wet, dark, and gloomy, and Wallace, who was away from home for the first time, began to yearn for Salt Lake:

Homesickness is a great teacher. It taught me, during an endless rainy fall, that I came from the arid lands, and liked where I carne from. I was used to a dry clarity, a sharpness in the air. I was used to horizons that either lifted into jagged ranges or rimmed the geometrical circle of the flat world. I was used to seeing a long way. I was used to earth colors—tan, rusty red, toned white—and the endless green of Iowa offended me. I was used to a sun that came up over mountains and went down behind other mountains. I missed the color and smell of sagebrush, and the sight of bare ground.

But his attacks of homesickness were gradually replaced by a nearly overwhelming burden of work (as if a burden of work could ever really overwhelm him). He has said, in looking back, that he probably learned more, and faster, during those two years in Iowa City than during any other two-year period in his life.

The University of Iowa is one of the great midwestern land-grant institutions. Its graduate-level creative writing program, since its beginnings at about the time Stegner arrived, has become generally recognized as the best in the country. Wallace's multifaceted career as writer, professor of American literature, and teacher of creative writing had its origins in the emphases provided by his Iowa experience. Most influential on him was a professor, Norman Foerster, who had arrived only a few months before from North Carolina, to become director of the new School of Letters. Foerster was an unusual teacher of literature in those days—he specialized in the not entirely legitimate discipline of American literature (most teachers of English literature doubted there was any such thing until well into this century), having written such books as Nature in American Literature (1923), American Criticism (1928), and The American Scholar (1929) and having in 1934 edited American Poetry and Prose, which was one of the most influential college textbook anthologies for several decades. He was also unusual in that he was interested in pushing forward a graduate program in literature that permitted a creative writing master's thesis or PhD dissertation. Something of a pioneer, even a radical, in these areas, he was, however, best known in academic circles for his philosophical conservatism as a leading voice of the New Humanism—a philosophy that was concerned with the history of ideas, the evolution of ideals, and the expression of values and beliefs in literature.

Foerster and others associated with the movement, such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More, fought the social realism, radical experimentation, and liberation of the individual from traditional morality that were major components of European and American literature of the 1920s and 1930s, and instead emphasized the importance of control and discipline in the creation and criticism of literature. Wilbur Schramm recalled that while the dozen or so students who joined the School of Letters all admired Foerster for his learning, which was deep and profound, and his critical acumen, they tended to disagree almost entirely with his philosophical position. They all considered themselves Naturalists, admired Hemingway, Huxley, and Frost, and read Joyce, Havelock, Ellis, and Freud.

This disagreement between Foerster and his students, which kept the seminars lively, in no way seemed to inhibit his effectiveness as a teacher of literature and writing, nor did it limit his generosity toward his students, whom he invariably supported in their career aspirations. It was Foerster who suggested to Wallace that he go on for his PhD in an academic discipline, namely American literature, since his chances of getting a job with an MA with a creative writing thesis would be dim, and it was Foerster who suggested later that Wallace do his dissertation on a Western nature writer, a suggestion that also had an enormous impact on the course of his career.

When Wallace got to Iowa City, he had no intention of becoming a writer, but he still considered himself "literary." The MA program with a creative thesis required separate application with samples of writing. Wallace gave Foerster two samples, including the one that the Salt Lake Telegram had paid him for, but after reading them, the professor did not think that he was good enough. "That made me mad," Wallace has recalled. "That hurt my pride. I was literary. Of course I was good enough. So I wheedled around and talked to a lot of people and finally got myself into the program with my confidence somewhat dashed."

Wallace found himself embarked on a sixteen-hour-a-day regimen of reading, writing, thinking, discussing, and teaching. He felt that he was "hopelessly chasing other students whom [he] saw as better prepared, better disciplined, and with sharper minds," feeling, as he has said, that "every class, even the freshman classes I taught, opened my eyes to things I should have known but didn't." Schramm, who found his roommate quiet and likable, thought that Wallace engaged himself more fully and tirelessly than he might have needed to, but that he was prompted to make up for the deficit he felt and invariably "he wanted to know more about nearly anything that might come up." They took courses together, several from Foerster, who began calling them "Simon and Schuster" and who occasionally assigned them papers to write jointly. One course that impressed them was his "History of Criticism," which began with Aristotle, and it was at that point that Wallace discovered his roommate knew both Latin and Greek. He prevailed upon Wilbur Schramm to teach him ancient Greek. The idea expanded so that his roommate was conducting an informal seminar every afternoon for a half-dozen of his fellow students.

And Greek was not all. When Wilbur found out that at the age of twenty-one, Wallace had never heard a symphony orchestra, he began making suggestions for radio listening and took him off to concerts. In none of his tutelage was there ever a sense of condescension or officiousness. Wilbur was simply generous and out of friendship wanted to share what he knew or had experienced and enjoyed. And of course he had a student hungry to make up for lost ground—Wallace's eagerness and openness were both amusing and gratifying. Even travel was for Wilbur an opportunity for education, and the two hitchhiked together during vacations, seeking out museums and concerts (or baseball games and jazz sessions) wherever they went. On one occasion at the beginning of their second year, they hitchhiked separately, meeting in Chicago, the farthest east that Wallace had ever been. On campus they had rooms that adjoined in an old, brick dormitory called the Quadrangle, and shortly after getting to know each other, they opened the connecting door, creating a suite of a bedroom on one side and a study on the other. This arrangement also gave them space so that they could play catch for a few minutes in between study sessions.

His two years at Iowa gave Wallace the best of times and the worst: on the one hand there was the constant excitement of intellectual challenge and a new arena in which to prove himself, and he would meet the beautiful young woman who would become his wife. On the other hand, he would suffer illness, the oppression of severe financial difficulty, and the emotional distress of deaths in his family.

Shortly after arriving at Iowa, Wallace felt the effects of the Great Depression. All his savings, so laboriously gathered over the years of work in Salt Lake, disappeared in a bank failure. When he awoke one morning to find that every bank in Johnson County, Iowa, had been closed, he and other graduate students were able to survive only by borrowing money from each other and by barter. He and Wilbur Schramm made do. They pooled their meager funds to buy a carton of Shredded Wheat, which gave them at least the certainty of breakfast for the rest of the year.

Then, just after Christmas that first year, Wallace got word that his brother had suddenly died. That big, strong athlete, the one in the family who had seemed beyond illness or disability, had contracted pneumonia while helping to rescue a motorist in the snow. He was only twenty-three. It was a terrible blow to the Stegner family. Wallace recalled that his father, who had put so much hope in the athletic achievements of Cecil, was nearly broken, never quite recovering. "That first reduction of our family," Wallace has written, "made me realize how tight a cluster we were, knotted against respectable society, our own sole resource, our own prison." Wilbur loaned him money for a ticket so that he could go back to Salt Lake City for the funeral, and as Wallace boarded the train, Wilbur put his overcoat over his friend's shoulders.

Wallace's father was jolted into changing the pattern of his life, taking Wallace's mother off to Reno, where he purchased a half interest in a gambling casino. His son's reaction was "at least it was legal." The summer after his first year at Iowa, Wallace took the train once again, this time to meet his mother in Salt Lake. In a gesture typical of her and expressing her pride in her only remaining son, she presented him with a used Model A. Then, with Juanita Crawford, the girl who had been waiting a year for Wallace to return from Iowa, they drove to Reno. Wallace, who had been so involved in his own plans and so concerned about seeing his girl again, felt guilty when he found out that his mother was still suffering some effects from the radical mastectomy she had had two years earlier. The car seemed now a desperate effort to pass on to him something of value before it was too late.

During Wallace's second year at Iowa, the Depression came down on him and Wilbur hard. They seldom ate anywhere but in their rooms, and with milk at two cents a quart and eggs a nickel a dozen, they set records for economy. In looking back, Wallace has commented that in these tough times "in certain curious ways there was more security then than later. You couldn't fall any further, and then you demonstrated to yourself pretty early that you could live." For his master's thesis Wallace wrote a series of three short stories (two of which were published later in newspapers), and he had completed his degree requirements by midyear. Nevertheless, he decided to stay in school: 

I looked outside and saw the Depression so deep and black that it was frivolous to think of going out into it and making a living. It was safer in school, where I could live on the $700 I made as a graduate assistant; and besides, my old friend inertia now had me in a rut headed toward the teaching profession. Without a real vocation for scholarship and with imperfect training (my own fault) I decided to go on for the PhD.

When he returned to Salt Lake in June 1932, he found that his two years away had cost him his girl. Juanita Crawford was his first serious love affair, an affair that had developed during his last year in Utah. She was a beautiful dark-haired Mormon, but aside from physical attraction they had almost nothing in common: he was becoming an academic and wrote her enthusiastic letters filled with literary allusions; she had little interest in books. What she wanted was marriage and children; he promised marriage, but put her off while he pursued his education. Losing her to another man during his long absence was an event that with common sense he could have predicted but that nevertheless sent him into a tailspin of anger and depression.

Driving on to Los Angeles, where his parents were now living, he was given a second blow when he learned that his mother's cancer had recurred. Rather than go as far away as Iowa, he decided to join his old friend Bed Cowan, who, back from his Mormon mission, was taking his PhD in German at the University of California, Berkeley. Wallace has looked back on that year as "a strange interlude, an underwater period." For one thing, the rather stodgy graduate curriculum in English with its emphasis on philology—Old Latin, Old French, Anglo-Saxon, and Middle English—was not really his cup of tea. For another, he was haunted by the specter of his mother's poor health.

Nevertheless, Cowan and Stegner, who were living on Cowan's $75-a-month fellowship and Stegner's meager savings, did find some fun. They scraped up enough money to buy a beat-up old sailboat and somehow found the time to refurbish it and then sail it out on the bay. They made regular tours of the ten-cent bargain bins at the many used bookstores in Berkeley--one of the very few hardbound books he bought during these years, Wallace recalled, was Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon. And there were plenty of readings, lectures, and musical performances to attend that were free of charge. Cowan remembered one occasion when they went together to hear Aldous Huxley speak.

By the end of the year both of the young men had had enough of Berkeley. It seemed to Wallace that the university, unable to get jobs for its PhDs, simply continued to add requirements for its candidates to limit the number. The prospect of having to take Old Norse was the last straw. Cowan, equally pressured in German and unhappy with his major professor, was beginning to babble the Niebelungenlied in his sleep, much to his roommate's dismay. As they left, that June 1933, they decided together to go to Iowa in the fall. Wallace drove first to Salt Lake, dropping off his roommate, and then south to Fish Lake in southern Utah, where his parents had a vacation cabin.

When he arrived, it was clear that his mother was dying. She suffered without complaint, but the pain became so great that on one occasion Wallace, who couldn't stand by and watch her intense suffering any longer, had to go to a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp to bring back a doctor to give her a shot. By July, Wallace and his father realized that Hilda needed the more constant medical attention she could only receive in the city, and so, despite her desire to remain, they moved to an apartment in Salt Lake. Shortly afterward, George, the big, burly man who had been so impatient with what he perceived to have been his son's childhood weakness, decided he couldn't take it anymore and disappeared. For this, his son was never able to forgive him.

Summer faded into fall as Hilda gradually declined. In addition to Wallace's attention, she had the frequent company of Red Cowan's mother—Red's parents had the apartment across the hall. On November 1 she finally achieved relief. It had been a very depressing and draining experience for her son, who would carry the emotional burden of her death throughout his life. This experience would reinforce the pain of other, similar experiences much later, as four of Stegner's women friends, in the space of a few months, would die of cancer (and some years later his wife would undergo a radical mastectomy of her own, from which she would recover). The cumulated trauma of these illnesses and deaths would form the background for his novel All the Little Live Things (1967), and his last novel, Crossing to Safety (1987)—both are stories of remarkable women defeated by cancer.

Hilda's moment of death is very poignantly recorded in a "Letter, Much Too Late," in which he addresses his mother to tell her what she meant to him when she was alive, but somehow never got around to telling her directly: "Somehow I should have been able to say how strong and resilient you were, what a patient and abiding and bonding force, the softness that proved in the long run stronger than what it seemed to yield to." She, he writes, lives on in his head, speaking to him when he faces some "crisis of feeling or sympathy or consideration for others." And she is still with him as a curb on his "natural impatience and competitiveness and arrogance." He recalls sitting up with her that fateful night, after midnight, while the nurse rested, watching her take her last breath. Just before that she had raised her head and asked, " 'Which ... way?' I understood that: you were at a dark, unmarked crossing. Then a minute later you said, 'You're a good ... boy ... Wallace,' and died. ... I knew how far from true your last words were."

After his mother died and his father had returned for the funeral, Wallace found himself stuck in Salt Lake without a job and without money, rooming with a father with whom he had never gotten along and whom he now hated. It was a dreary fall and winter as he struggled with his sense of loss and with his antagonism: "I was," he has written, "never lower in my life." It is this time and this emotional struggle that became the subjects of one of his best-known short stories, "The Blue-Winged Teal" (later incorporated into Recapitulation as Chapter 2 of Part IV). It is a story not so much of forgiveness—a frequent Stegner theme—as of something short of that and more ambiguous: the process of working through one's own emotions to achieve some kind of emotional equilibrium.

In February 1934 Wallace hooked up with Red Cowan again, and the two drove in Wallace's Model A to Iowa City to continue their doctoral studies. Shortly he was back in the old dormitory and renewing his friendship with Wilbur Schramm and others and conferring with Norman Foerster about his doctoral program. He enrolled for the second semester and began to attack his first order of business—preparing for his exams. He had no money at all, but within a couple of weeks, Wilbur, who had become director of the university writing program, had found a fill-in job for him at a Lutheran college, Augustana, in Rock Island, Illinois:

At Augustana I lived in the theological seminary among people training to be Lutheran preachers, and on Thursday evening, when my classes were over, I escaped to Iowa City for a three-day weekend of reading for my PhD exams.

He had a half-time load, which at Augustana involved teaching four classes: he became, in effect, the entire English department at $900 a year. Included in his load was a course on Beowulf, in Anglo-Saxon, and he found himself struggling to keep two lines ahead ofthe class the entire term. The Model A had been put up on blocks in storage for the winter, so he hitchhiked the fifty miles to and from Iowa City every week.

When at Iowa he roomed with Wilbur Schramm, while Red Cowan along with two friends became caretakers for an abandoned fraternity house—“a great place," Cowan recalled, "to party." This would seem to have been the original model for the setting of the story "The View from the Balcony" (1948), which focuses on a character based on Vardis Fisher. Cowan recalled that another mutual friend, Don Lewis, invited Fisher and his wife out from Idaho, and they stayed in the fraternity house: "Fisher immediately dubbed it Eagle Heights. He was a heavy drinker, a loud, violent man and very caustic in his comments about everybody. All of this proved too much for Mary. She didn't like it, so Wally and Mary didn't associate very much with the crowd."

Mary was Mary Page, the woman who would become Wallace's wife. She was diminutive, lively, and very attractive. Unlike Juanita, the girl he had been engaged to in Utah, Mary was an intellectual—knowledgeable about literature and an accomplished musician. Her interests and her values matched those of Wallace very closely, while at the same time she was her own person, self-contained and confident, with opinions of her own. They could talk and did, for hours at a time; he came to not only love her, but admire her. Born and raised in Dubuque, she was a graduate student at the university, working in the library. She had been introduced to Wally by Wilbur Schramm, who continued to have a profound effect on the direction of his friend's life. Mary recalled that first meeting:


I had gone with Wilbur some, and I was down in his office one afternoon and Wally came in. And Wilbur introduced me and then I remembered that I had read his graduate student's thesis, which was a thesis of three short stories. I had been very much impressed with it. So I was very interested and pleased when I met him. That afternoon he called and asked me for a date.... He said that Red Cowan was with him and could I get him a date, and so I got him a date with Teddy [Theodora] Romaine, my roommate, and we went out.

Not only did Mary Page become Wallace's wife, but her roommate would become Red Cowan's wife. Mary fell for Wallace, and he fell deeply in love with her, so deeply that the love they had for each other would sustain and nourish him for the rest of his life. He was tall, handsome, and well-built; she was short, slight, and beautiful, with light hair cut in a pageboy, and a pixie smile. Her intelligence and ready wit engaged him; her Ariel sprightliness delighted him. Throughout the spring, mostly on weekends, he courted her, hitchhiking back and forth from his job at Augustana, impatient to get to Iowa City and dreading the trip back.

Nearly every day while he was gone, he would write to her, even though some of the letters might arrive after he returned and saw her in person. An excerpt from one of those many letters reveals the tender, loving, very private side of him that would always be, in its direct expression, hidden from the world:

My Dear,

... Having japed a little to vent my embarrassment at talking about anything that touches me closely, I can now sit down seriously and tell you what loving you means to me.... I've told you before that it means a chance at mental health, for one thing, so that you become not only the woman I love but a sort of Messiah. I hope you don't mind being invested with super-mundane qualities. I will grant you faults, if you wish, but I still insist that you are an angel, although perhaps with a slight limp. And I love you because you are fine and clean and youthful and high-hearted and honest and loving and dozens and dozens of other adjectives that don't mean anything in the abstract, but mean such when applied to you. I love you also because of a certain Puckish, Peter-Panish quality in you that doesn't let anyone take you seriously-you belong in Midsummer Night's Dream, somehow. You should live on nectar and play with butterflies. But in spite of that quality you are not a butterfly and not a doll ...

It was a courtship that went on intensely, but without much money. They took a German class together, studied together, occasionally ate out together, and did a lot of walking and talking. Alongside of him, Mary was so diminutive and young-looking that once while walking along, they were approached by children wanting to know if his little girl could come out and play with them sometime.

Wallace had intended to continue teaching at Augustana the following year, but suddenly the evangelicals who had hired him were thrown out of power at the school by the fundamentalists, and they wrote him a letter demanding to know if it was true that he was an agnostic and atheist, a disbeliever in the Augsburg Confession. He wrote back that he didn't see how he could be an agnostic and an atheist at the same time—which seemed to him philosophically difficult—and that as far as the Augsburg Confession was concerned, he couldn't remember ever having read it. They demanded an affirmation of the principles of higher Christian education over his signature. Although the confrontation sounds silly in retrospect, it was really an early manifestation of what would become more common in the 1950s, a request for a declaration of political purity, a loyalty oath, and Wallace declined to subscribe to a set of beliefs with which he disagreed or that he felt were irrelevant, just to keep his job.

Jobless for the moment, he enrolled in summer school at Iowa, while at the same time managing to drive periodically to Dubuque to visit Mary, who was home for the summer. He was able, through old friends at Utah, to arrange an instructorship at the university for the fall. But Mary, arranging her own career plans, had obtained a job with Dawson's Bookstore in Los Angeles. He was going to Utah; she, to Los Angeles. So they decided to get married—on the first of September 1934, six months from the time they had met. They had a small wedding in her home in Dubuque, where she had lived all her life, in the company of her parents and a few childhood friends. Looking back on a marriage of more than fifty years, Wallace has said, "My wife was the best thing that had happened to me since I first knew my mother. She was a musician, a reader, an eager and curious searcher of the world. She gave me new eyes to see the West with, for she really saw what I took for granted." She was extremely bright, very well read, and would become over the years a true partner in his writing career, his severest critic, editorial collaborator, and unflagging supporter during those dark periods of rejection or failing inspiration faced by every writer.

Stegner on Teaching Creative Writing

In a fascinating interview with James R. Hepworth published in The Paris Review[fn]The Art of Fiction CXVIII. Wallace Stegner.The Paris Review, 1990, # 115:59-96. Reprinted with kind permission by The Paris Review.[/fn], three years before Stegner’s premature death at the age of 84, the author explains his credo about teaching creative writing:

Interviewer: What’s the most difficult thing to teach about writing? And what’s the most difficult thing for students to learn?

            STEGNER: Assuming that the student is at a stage where he is still teachable—there is a time when you shouldn’t try to teach him, when he is technically proficient and subtle and has his own ways for going about what he wants to say—one of the hardest things to teach him is Revise! Revise! Revise! And they won’t revise, often. Many of them would rather write a new book than revise the old one. Revision is what separates the men from the boys. Sooner or later you’ve got to revise. On the other hand, there’s occasionally somebody like Bob Stone, who won the National Book Award for Dog Soldiers. Quite wacky, really. Quite mad. He got the notion in the middle of the year that he had a brain tumor. He came in and sat across from my desk and big drops of sweat formed on his forehead. “I’m going blind!” he said, scared to death. He had just used up his fellowship. So I quickly reinstated his fellowship so that he could get free medical care. He swore later they bored a hole into his head and blew him out with a pressure hose, but they didn’t find any brain tumor. He came bald-headed to a party when Bill Styron was there talking. But Stone was someone you couldn’t teach not to revise. He was so finicky that it would take him a term to produce a chapter. He would be working on it all the time, but he wouldn’t really let anybody set it until it satisfied him completely. He’s an exception, though, and a very good writer.

Interviewer: If you were to outline a course of study for a writer at the outset of his undergraduate career, what would it include?

            STEGNER: It might be different for every individual. I would ask some questions. I suppose I would ask, “Are you a reader?” If you aren’t a reader, you might as well forget trying to be a writer. I don’t think it’s necessary to take a lot of courses in English literature. I sound prejudiced against the English Department, but in a sense, if you had some kind of guidance, if you had a tutor who could suggest books for you to read, it would be better, I think, than taking regular English Department courses. To know something substantive, to have some kind of skill, some body of knowledge, is terribly useful. I don’t care what it is. It will be useful in writing sooner or later. If you only pay tennis well, if you’re a doctor—whatever you do. I know what I would do if I were doing it again. I would take courses in biology and anthropology, though that’s my particular bias. Whatever your choice, there’s no substitute for knowing something. As Benny DeVoto once said in a dour martini-lit moment, “Literary people always tend to overbid their knowledge.” At the same time, while you’re learning something, I suspect that you should keep writing. Use it or lose it. Creation is a knack which is improved by practice, and like almost any skill, it is lost if you don’t practice it.

Interviewer: Is the proliferation of creative writing programs on the nations’ campuses in any way dangerous?

            STEGNER: Yes. It’s dangerous because, if you’ll pardon the expression, a lot of people in English Departments should never be trusted to run a program. Their training is all in the other direction, all analytical, all critical. It’s all a reader’s training, not a writer’s training, so they have no notion of how to approach the opportunity.

Interviewer: As a nation, are we pursuing the best course by subsidizing fiction writers and poets and the publication of their work through the auspices of the National Endowment?

            STEGNER: I suppose it could be said that arts that require public support don’t justify themselves, and should be allowed to wither. Buit the arte have always needed support, because they are a product of a highly evolved society with plenty of leisure, and few of them can count on a mass audience big enough to keep them solvent and flourishing. I have no difficulty with the spectacle of the federal government playing modest Mecenas. After all, when I was breaking in, there was outright support for the arts through WPA, essentially a welfare program. The only problem is that a leaky tap will always attract lapping tongues. Any fellowship program, even such university programs as Stanford’s, must keep a careful eye out for plausible fellowship lushes. Fellowships are best applied to young writers with big ambitions, to help them over the first hump. I don’t know the hazards of other arts—I suspect composers have it worst—but any beginning artist needs time to develop, and fellowships, federal or otherwise, buy him time.

Eulogy by William Kittredge [fn]Benson, J.J. Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work. New York, Viking.[/fn]

While my mother Josephine Kittredge, a westerner of Wallace Stegner’s generation, and Wallace Stegner loved what they loved with vital passion, neither of them had much patience with sentiment. After I’d been writing for a number of years, and not publishing very often, my mother asked if I‘d give her something of mine to read. Maybe she thought she could give me some tips. So I gave her one of my more experimental short stories—I don’t recall which. There was silence while she made her way through twenty or so typewritten pages.

Then she looked up and smiled.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think,” she said, “ I think I would have thought you would have outgrown this sort of thing.” Sounds like the sort of thought Stegner might have had.

My mother and Wallace Stegner would have likely argued about politics. My mother tried hard, for instance, to keep on believing in the Republican party even when some of its recent practitioners and manifestations (tax breaks for the already well-heeled) pretty seriously disgusted her.

But she and Stegner would have agreed, I think, about other important matters. My mother and Wallace Stegner both believed we are defined by, and responsible for, the things we do. She and Stegner both insisted on the prime importance of taking care. In their widely various ways they taught me that I could, while trying to be an artist, also be useful; they taught me to understand that many people, like gardeners and cowhands, are artists in the long run.

My mother and Wallace Stegner grew up in and were to a great degree defined by lives in the rough, chancy American West that’s mostly gone now. They were tough and useful in sometimes fierce, hardheaded ways, and we loved them for their strengths; so long as they were around we felt at least partways secure; they would face the fear. They were the best we had, and now they’re gone. We’re on our own.

[…] Stegner is an artist who reminds us of responsibilities to those things we are willing to name as sacred. He reminds us that we must never let ourselves be talked out of our most central purposes. Both Wallace Stegner and my mother told me, the one in his work, the other in the privacy of the room where she died, that I’d better get down to defining those things I hold sacred and taking what measures I can to preserve them. Which means saying what I mean, as directly and unequivocally as I can manage.

The way to work toward cherishing the things we revere is not with anger and selfish righteousness we hear so much of lately, but with compassion and humility, with great patience and with all the fairness we can muster, with gifts and giving, over and again, and over and again, until it’s someone else’s turn.

Consider all this an introduction to these words by Wallace Stegner, recorded in 1952, included in a book called This I Believe, edited by Walt Wheelock and Edward R. Murrow in that same year and broadcast nationally on February 26, 1953:

It is terribly difficult to say honestly, without posing or faking, what one truly and fundamentally believes. Reticence or an itch to make public confession may distort or dramatize what is really there to be said, and public expressions of belief are so closely associated with inspirational activity, and in fact so often stem from someone’s desire to buck up the downhearted and raise the general morale, that belief becomes an evangelical matter.

In all honesty, what I believe is neither inspirational nor evangelical. Passionate faith I’m suspicious of because it hangs witches and burns heretics, and generally I am more in sympathy with the witches and heretics than with the sectarians who hang and burn them. I fear immoderate zeal, Christian, Moslem, Communist, or whatever, because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences, and creates an orthodoxy with a sword in its hand.

I cannot say that I am even a sound Christian, though the code of conduct to which I subscribe was preached more eloquently by Jesus Christ than by any other. About God I simply don’t know; I don’t think I can know.

However far I have missed achieving it, I know that moderation is one of the virtues I most believe in. But I believe as well in a whole catalogue of Christian and classical virtues: in kindness and generosity, in steadfastness and courage and much else. I believe further that good depends not on things but on the use we make of things. Everything potent, from human love to atomic energy, is dangerous; it produces ill about as readily as good; it becomes good only through the control, the discipline, the wisdom with which we use it. Much of this control is social, a thing which laws and institutions and uniforms enforce, but much of it must be personal, and I do not see how we can evade the obligation to take full responsibility for what we individually do. Our reward for self-control and the acceptance of private responsibility is not necessarily money or power. Self-respect and the respect of others are quite enough.

All this is to say that I believe in conscience, not as something implanted by divine act, but as something learned since infancy from tradition and the society, which has bred us. The outward forms of virtue will vary greatly from nation to nation. A Chinese scholar of the old school, or an Indian raised on the Vedas and the Bhagavad-Gita has a conscience that will differ from mine. But in the essential outlines of what constitutes human decency we vary amazingly little. The Chinese and the Indian know as well as I do what kindness is, what generosity is, what fortitude is. They can define justice quite as accurately. It is only when they and I are blinded by tribal and denominational narrowness that we insist upon our differences and can recognize goodness only in the robes of our own crowd.

Man is a great enough creature and great enough enigma to deserve both our pride and our compassion, and engage our fullest sense of mystery. I shall certainly never do as much with my life as I want to, and I shall sometimes fail miserably to live up to my conscience, whose word I do not distrust even when I can’t obey it. But I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility; and being born luckier than most of the world’s millions, I am also born more obligated.

Stegner’s Words about His Wife

“She had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls; also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my waking hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly—not by precept but by example—how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-six years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.”


The Stegner Plaque

The Stegner Plaque on the Iowa Avenue Literary Walk reads:


"All of us felt it. We must have. For in front of their gate, before we drove away still wearing their burnooses, we fell into a four-ply, laughing hug, we were so glad to know one another and so glad that all the trillion chances in the universe had brought us to the same town and the same university at the same time."


The excerpt is from Crossing to Safety (1987) thatexplores the friendship between two married couples.


Works by Wallace Stegner

1937 Remembering Laughter. Prompted by a writing contest sponsored by the publisher Little, Brown, Stegner attempted his first work of fiction, a realistic tale of a triangular relationship on an Iowa farm. It is selected as the best from thirteen hundred entries.

1940 On a Darkling Plain. The novel tells the story of a Canadian World War I casualty who seeks solitude and purpose on the western Canadian prairie.

1941 Fire and Ice. A college student flirts with Communism in Stegner's novel, which ultimately makes the case that any ideology is insufficient to explicate the range of human experience.

1943 The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Stegner achieves his first popular and critical success with this novel concerning the itinerant Bo Mason and his family. Their quest for an elusive fortune takes them across the American and Canadian West.

1950 The Preacher and the Slave. Stegner offers a fictionalized treatment of the life of labor radical Joe Hill. It marks Stegner's first use of historical material in his fiction, which would be the source for his masterpiece, Angle of Repose (1971).

1956 The City of the Living and Other Stories. Joe Allston, a character who appears in three of Stegner's major works, debuts in the story "Field Guide to the Western Birds."

1967 All the Little Live Things. Stegner comments satirically on the youth culture of the period from the vantage point of one of his recurring characters, Joe Allston.

1971 Angle of Repose. Some consider this fictionalized treatment of the life of western realist novelist Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) Stegner's masterpiece. A Pulitzer winning book.

1976 The Spectator Bird. Stegner's National Book Award-winning novel brings back the character Joe Allston, who recalls a trip to Denmark twenty years before.

1979 Recapitulations. Stegner returns to the character of Bruce Mason from The Big Rock Candy Mountain, showing him as a former American diplomat returning to the Utah of his childhood to face his past.

1982 One Way to Spell Man. Part autobiography, part a collection of essays, this volume includes the distinguished writer's work from the 1950s to the early 1980s. Some essays focus on individual writers such as Owen Wister, Walter van Tilburg Clark, and A.B. Guthrie who influenced Stegner's view of the American West. Other essays promote the importance of the American West and the idea of the wilderness.

1987 Crossing to Safety. Two bright young couples meet during the Depression and form an instant and lifelong friendship. "How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?" Larry Morgan, a successful novelist and the narrator of the story, poses that question many years after he and his wife, Sally, have befriended the vibrant, wealthy, and often troubled Sid and Charity Lang. Crossing to Safety is about loyalty and survival in its most everyday form--the need to create bonds and the urge to tear them apart. Thirty-four years after their first meeting, when Larry and Sally are called back to the Langs' summer home in Vermont, it's as if for a final showdown. How has this friendship defined them? What is its legacy? Stegner offer answers in those small, perfectly rendered moments that make up lives "as quiet as these"--and as familiar as our own.

Content and text by Zlatko Anguelov

United States