Every gateway to the West should be guarded by a sign, preferably painted in peeling letters on a weathered board, that reads: “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.” The quote comes from Wallace Stegner. Never mind the vivid green of the golf courses, parks, and public spaces in the Western cities and towns that we have built. He was talking about the wild landscape of the West: the jagged mountains, snow-capped and forbidding, the vast arroyos that, but for a few hardy plants huddled around a spot of moisture, look as alien and inhospitable as a picture of Mars.
The West is a different aesthetic, and Stegner understood that. Wallace Stegner’s father was a boomer, a “rainbow-chaser,” who was “always on the lookout for the big chance, the ground floor, the inside track.” But he invariably arrived too late to the party. He followed the land rush to North Dakota in the 1890’s, only to find that no one had told him they were in the midst of a ten-year drought. He took to operating a blind pig (an illegal saloon) instead. Then the family headed west, for a gold rush in the Klondike that was long over. They wound up in the current home of Microsoft—Redmond, Washington—selling meals to a timbering camp. “The loggers cut down all the trees and left the lunchroom among the stumps,” Stegner said. At some point during that ill-fated venture he and his brother ended up temporary residents of an orphanage because their parents couldn’t care for them.
In 1914, Stegner’s family took a stagecoach from Gull Lake, Saskatchewan to a town that was called Whitemud at the time. In the coach was a character named Buck Murphy, who had a real six-shooter. Some time after they safely arrived in Whitemud, Stegner heard that Murphy had been shot by a Canadian Mountie. In his youth he would tell his friends he had witnessed the shootout, even though he hadn’t. In Wolf Willow, in typically frank Stegner fashion, he strips the varnish off the tale: Buck Murphy was probably not a desperado but just a liquor-loving cattle herder who, like most people in those parts carried a gun. The Mountie who shot him was “scared and trigger happy and would have been in real trouble for an un-Mountie-like killing if Murphy hadn’t been carrying a gun.” Stegner wasn’t too interested in perpetuating the myth of the cowboy but he was certainly caught up in the lure of the West. Even though he was a latecomer to the scene—his stagecoach ride and Buck Murphy’s untimely demise took place five decades after the Pony Express, four decades after the transcontinental railroad was built, three decades after Buffalo Bill’s first Wild West show—Wallace Stegner spent those impressionable childhood years in what were the last vestiges of the wild western frontier.
Things took a turn for the better during the time the Stegners lived in Eastend, Saskatchewan, though at first they were only marginally better. The first winter there they lived in the abandoned dining car of a train. The next winter they lived in a shack. Eastend grew up to become a real Western town, with plank sidewalks lining its Main Street, a hotel, a bank, a “Millionaire Row” and a “Poverty Flat.” And the Stegners struck it rich in 1915, growing wheat that went to the war effort. Armed with that confirmation of his business acumen, his father more than doubled the crop the next year. But 1916 was too wet. Hope springs eternal, but doesn’t always deliver a reward; in 1917, 1918 and 1919, Wallace Stegner’s father doubled his bets and got wiped out each time. For once they were in on the ground floor of a land rush, but the land was parched there.
It was a lonely life. As he wrote, “I never saw a water closet or a lawn until I was eleven years old; I never met a person with my surname, apart from my parents and brother, until I was past thirty; I never knew, and don’t know now, the first names of three of my grandparents.” Stegner admits that he was always hungry for the sense of belonging, damaged by growing up too fast while being undernourished by place. In that sense, Stegner turned out much more like his mother than his father, who died broke and friendless. Like his mother, Stegner was a frustrated nester.
He found a home in Salt Lake City, where the family lived from 1921-1937, and where he attended high school. In an essay entitled “At Home in the Fields of the Lord” he put it this way:
I have always thought of myself as a sort of social and literary air plant, without the sustaining roots that luckier people have. And I am always embarrassed when well-meaning people ask where I am from. That is why I have been astonished, on a couple of recent trips through Salt Lake City, to find a conviction growing in me that I am not as homeless as I had thought….I am as rich in a hometown as anyone, though I adopted my home as an adolescent and abandoned it as a young man.
In 1927, Wallace Stegner entered the University of Utah. Encouraged to take further studies in writing, he attended the University of Iowa in 1930, and a doctorate program at Berkeley in 1932. But he left Berkeley in 1932 when his mother got sick and he and his wife moved with her to Salt Lake City. After she died, he continued his studies at the University of Iowa. He had no compunction about moving around a lot. He became an expert on the realistic-naturalistic period in American literature, which lasted from the Civil War to World War I. In 1937, he sent a submission called Remembering Laughter to a novelette competition and won first prize.
Stegner became a professor at Harvard. But he left the prestige and the lush green of the East to go back West. He dug in at Stanford where he founded the creative writing program and bought a house in the foothills of the Coast Range, “within sight of the last sunsets on the continent.” What a few years in the East had taught him was how much he craved the West. The western landscape had modified his perceptions. “If there is such a thing as being conditioned by climate and geography, and I think there is, it is the West that has conditioned me. It has the forms and lights and colors that I respond to in nature and in art. If there is a western speech, I speak it; if there is a western character or personality I am some variant of it.” And as the years progressed, he trained his lens—and the lenses of many other gifted students—on the West.
The frontier was “hope’s native home,” Stegner maintained, a golden prize that drew millions away from the pull of the East. But it required more than hope to settle the West; serious adaptations were needed. And an author who proposed to write about the West had to be similarly adaptable. In “Thoughts in a Dry Land,” Stegner wrote that in order to create literature out of the West: “Our first and hardest adaptation was to learn all over again how to see. Our second was to learn to like the new forms and colors and light and scale when we had learned to see them. Our third was to develop new techniques, a new palette, to communicate them.” In his Pulitzer prize-winning novel Angle of Repose, he demonstrated a mastery of all three. But just as importantly, he told a story that communicated, more beautifully and more tragically than any essay or dissertation could have, how a great novel of the West can be written.
First order of business: toss away the well-worn metaphors of the classics. They are, in the words of the novel’s narrator, Lyman Ward, “about used up.” Instead, look to metaphors that are indigenous to the West. Lyman Ward is a former historian who lives in Grass Valley, California, way up in the northern part of the state along Highway 49, numbered after the 49’ers of the Gold Rush. It is 1970 and the Zodiac Mine, which his grandfather, Oliver Ward, ran, is long since closed. For the summer, Lyman is living in the big old Zodiac Cottage by himself. He has a bone disease that has put him in a wheelchair. His wife has left him. His son wants him to move to what they now call an assisted living facility. But Lyman is stubborn as a Forty-Niner’s mule. He expects “regular visits of inspection and solicitude,” he says, as his son tries to do what is best for him. “Meantime,” he says, employing a piquant Western metaphor, “they will walk softly, speak quietly, rattle the oatbag gently, murmuring and moving closer until the arm can slide the rope over the stiff old neck and I can be led away to the old folks’ pasture.”
Second order of business: bring the Eastern sensibility west. In Angle of Repose, Lyman Ward spends the summer working on a research project concerning his aforementioned grandfather, Oliver Ward, and Susan Burling Ward, his wife, who became a well-known (for her time) writer and artist of the West, and left behind hundreds of letters and other writings. His grandfather, a taciturn man, left behind very little. Ward’s purpose, he says, is to get beyond the Doppler Effect, which holds that the sound of any object approaching you will have a higher pitch than the sound of it going away. Ward wants to see what Oliver and Susan felt as life came at them, in all its aspirations and promise, and adaptations.
The first sound registered by his Doppler effect is the roar of a waterfall. Early on in Angle of Repose, Susan and Oliver make a chaperoned excursion from Milton, New York, where he visits her, to the woods. Susan is Eastern to the core. But she’s opted for Big Pond, with its bounding cataract that spills into a marble pool, as something that would be grand enough to satisfy Oliver. He has been working in the West for five years (and courting her by occasional letter) and has seen the magnificence of Yosemite as Bierstadt painted it. “It was incorrigibly Hudson River School—brown light, ragged elms, romantic water,” Lyman Ward describes. The two haven’t laid eyes on each other in what is an eternity for two young people and there they are, finally together.
“I can see a lot of tableaux,” the narrator, her grandson, slyly goes on, “while she is struck speechless by a view or a flaming swamp maple, and he stands there with his hat in his hand before the purity of her sensibilities.” Then, Susan does a daring thing. She lies down at the top of the cliff and hangs her head over to look at the rush of the waterfall while he holds her by her ankles. At about the same time in the West, Lyman Ward notes, John Muir was doing likewise (though without a devoted spotter), dangling over the verge and taking in the awesome enough to impress Oliver and for something in her to change. When she came back up after that clean Romantic thrill, her grandson tells us, she was in love.
Third order of business in writing a novel about the West: dispel the myths. Stegner does this throughout the book. One of the earliest myths he explodes is that the West was “made entirely by pioneers who had thrown away everything but an ax and a gun.” It was also made by “continuities, contacts, connections, friendships, and blood relationships.” This is a lesson that had been drilled into Stegner by his own experience in the West, a lesson that also comes forth in Willa Cather’s novels. People scattered thinly through barren miles of harsh landscape needed other people. The idea of the “rugged individualist” was, to Stegner, and his narrator of Angle of Repose, a fool-hardy concoction.
Through a family connection, Oliver Ward gets a job at New Almaden, California, and he brings Susan to the West. In the words of Lyman Ward, “She anticipated her life in New Almaden as she had once looked forward to the train journey across the continent—as a rather strenuous outdoor excursion.” But it makes Susan into a chronicler of the American West. She sends back descriptions and drawings to her two best friends on the East Coast, one of whom is the influential editor of Scribner’s, an illustrated periodical that had its heyday as the West was being won. Susan becomes a regular contributor. The strenuous outdoor excursion, however, turns into a rootless wandering, and then an exile. In Leadville, the very epitome of the Wild West, Susan carries on a literary salon in a rustic cabin. Oliver remains steadfastly taciturn. Susan has a dazzling East Coast literary moment when a friend of hers quotes Emerson in a flowering meadow: “Oh, tenderly the haughty day / fills his blue urn with fire.” A few pages later, as if the Stegner wanted to snap one more mooring that connected her to the East Coast, some thugs beat her friend senseless. From Leadville, Susan and Oliver move on to Mexico and more disappointment. In one of her letters Susan refers to the “angle of repose” as “the angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling.” That is the engineering definition. What interests Lyman Ward—and Stegner—is “how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future.”
One of the harshest features of the West is the lack of water. In his essay “Living Dry,” Wallace Stegner cites the 1878 report of General John Wesley Powell that defines the West as beginning at the 98th meridian. Stegner goes on to say that the actual boundary line, which roughly follows the 98th meridian, is the “isohyetal line of twenty inches.” West of that line, the mean annual rainfall is less than the amount necessary for growing unirrigated crops. As Stegner said in that essay, “I estimate that I missed becoming a Canadian by no more than an inch or two of rain; but that same deficiency confirmed me as a citizen of the West.”12. “Living Dry,” Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, 59.
Fourth order of business in writing a novel of the West: give a character an outsized dream—a dream as big and as fraught with potential failure as the West itself. Oliver shows up. He takes her outside on a sweltering August day. Thunderheads are building up on the river. The Eastern sky rains with so much ease it is almost criminal. Oliver pulls from out of his coat a brochure titled “The Idaho Mining and Irrigation Company.” It is Oliver’s venture, backed by seemingly solid capital, to irrigate a vast swath of Idaho desert with water from the Snake River. This is Oliver Ward’s outsized dream—more daring and useful than Stegner’s father’s dream of making a killing on Saskatchewan wheat, but just as subject to the whims of fate.
Wallace Stegner walked both sides of the line that separates fact from fiction. On one hand he was a historian who wrote a biography of John Wesley Powell and two histories of Mormon culture. On the other, he wrote several semi-autobiographical novels, including The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wolf Willow and Crossing to Safety. Oliver Ward in Angle of Repose was based somewhat on a real figure as well. The character of Susan Burling Ward was based on the letters, articles, and illustrations of a real woman, Mary Hallock Foote.
Stegner came across Foote’s largely forgotten work while at Stanford and was impressed. He got around to reading the transcripts of her letters in the Stanford library several years later. “She lay around in my mind an unfertilized egg,” he later said; it hatched three years later as the beginnings of Angle of Repose. He obtained permission from Foote’s granddaughter, living in Grass Valley, to use her letters. Remaining true to the letters tied Stegner in knots as he was trying to write about pounding of Yosemite Falls. Susan stays down long enough to feel at one with the torrent, a span of time also sufficiently long his fictionalized Susan Burling Ward, but they became essential parts of the book. They are full of vivacity, telling details and, all too frequently, dashed hope lightly dwelt upon with the stoicism of the age.
Stegner offered to let Ms. Foote read the novel before publication. He was told it wasn’t necessary. He went ahead with the book. In an opening statement, Stegner warned that “though I have used many details of their [Foote’s family’s] lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs.” It was an honest disclaimer from a scrupulous writer. But it didn’t prevent bruised feelings from the family when the book came out, and it still generates a small buzz of controversy today. The charge is that he took plagiaristic liberties in reproducing her letters, which he did word for word, without explicitly attributing them to her.
Given time, the reaction of the family to the novel will probably amount to no more than a footnote, ironic because of the accusation that Stegner, like a Western boomer, had somehow plundered the family history and made off with the letters and the story to write his Pulitzer Prize winner. He hadn’t; the reminiscences were published by the Huntington Library Press in 1992 as Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote to a far wider audience than would have existed without his novel.
The Wilderness Idea
Another letter, this one written by Stegner, has also retained its vitality after all these years, and shows an expansion of his feeling about the West. That is the famous “Wilderness Letter” he wrote in 1960 to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission. In his letter, Wallace Stegner argued not for wilderness uses, such as hiking, fishing, and backpacking, but for the “wilderness idea.”
In his poem “The Gift Outright,” Robert Frost suggested that “the land was ours before we were the land’s” and that our salvation lay in our surrender to it. Stegner made a very similar point: there is something to this land of ours that wreaks a profound effect on us. “While we were…slashing and burning and cutting our way through a wilderness continent,” he wrote, “the wilderness was working on us. It remains in us as surely as Indian names remain on the land. If the abstract dream of human liberty and human dignity became, in America, something more than an abstract dream, mark it down at least partially to the fact that we were in subdued ways subdued by what we conquered.”
He brought a Western sensibility into his statement. Unlike the East Coast, where damage to the land might be effaced in a few cycles of seasons by new growth, in the West the scars remain. In the East the cellar holes of abandoned farms slowly closed, in the words of Robert Frost, “like a dent in dough.” In the West we have ghost towns—abandoned mines, dilapidated buildings with false fronts, built in a frenzy of speculation and left desiccating in the desert.
Stegner had another argument for the wilderness idea and, as the letter went on, he let another appreciator of the land make it:
Sherwood Anderson, in a letter to Waldo Frank in the 1920s, said it better than I can. “Is it not likely that when the country was new and men were often alone in the fields and the forest they got a sense of bigness outside themselves that has now in some way been lost…. Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the American line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies…. I am old enough to remember tales that strengthen my belief in a deep semi-religious influence that was formerly at work among our people. The flavor of it hangs over the best work of Mark Twain…. I can remember old fellows in my home town speaking feelingly of an evening spent on the big empty plains. It had taken the shrillness out of them. They had learned the trick of quiet….”
Anderson’s observation about the bigness outside ourselves is one of the most resounding points of the letter. For that presence has been noted before. It seems to have been working on us since the beginning of literary time here, shapeshifting through the ages. Cooper and Irving and thousands of travelers sensed it along the Hudson. A century later and thousands of miles away, Robinson Jeffers was to encounter it in Big Sur.
One can only wonder what government bureaucrats must have made of Stegner’s esoteric pitch on behalf of this “Wilderness Idea.” But Stegner seems to have made it at the right moment. He was appointed, for a time, a Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, who himself became known for describing America’s ecological ideology as the “myth of superabundance.” Udall, a fellow Westerner from Arizona, passed the “Wilderness Act” in 1964 and was instrumental in passing the Endangered Species Preservation Act and several other landmark pieces of environmental legislation.
Wallace Stegner, a man with no roots and a wasteful fatherly influence, became a writer of such power and certitude that his influence stretched all the way to Washington. His is what we often like to call a “typically” American story, of the boy (or girl) who grows up in the shack and goes on to great things, inspired by the land. Stegner did nothing more remarkable than to make the most of what America offered.
No doubt he would be worried about the encroachments of mankind on the wilderness. He would be pained by the slow winking out of small towns, the proliferation of the big box stores, as connections and enterprises that have lasted generations come to an end. There is a geographical footnote to Stegner’s love of the West: the Santa Clara Valley, Stegner’s chosen home, became the “Silicon Valley” and his unobstructed view was cluttered by what one biographer called “obscene ‘castles’” In the end, he gravitated towards his summer home in Vermont, a state which he said “has watched humanity go by and has recovered from the visit.”
Stegner heard the roar of the American future, with its increasing population, its vast needs, its sometimes rapacious outlook, as it bore down through the century that he spanned. He witnessed the mournful Doppler effect that followed when aspects of the West’s colorful landscape and way of life receded into an irreplaceable past. He wrote much about the meaning of place and wilderness, without shrillness, in his own formidable way. Those books, essays, letters, and public efforts were his means to prevent what he loved from disappearing.