What Does Wallace Stegner Have to Say to Us Today?
In The New York Times, A. O. Scott revisits : “‘The dean of Western writers’ is the epithet most often attached to that name, but it’s a description that obscures as much as it reveals, and that corrals a large and protean imagination into a parochial, regional identity. Stegner’s books abide in an undervisited stretch of the American canon, like a national park you might drive past on the way to a theme park or ski resort. If you do visit, you find a topography that looks familiar at first glance — as if from an old postcard — but becomes stranger and more deeply shadowed the longer you stay. A tale of frontier adventure turns out to be the portrait of a marriage; a story of courtship and marriage evolves into a tableau of social and technological transformation; a nostalgic rumination on friendship slides toward generational tragedy . . . Stegner was critical of the individualistic ethos of the West in all its manifestations: romantic, entrepreneurial and countercultural. Sometimes that makes him sound like a left-wing critic of capitalism, sometimes like the deepest kind of conservative. His commitments to ecology, family and community against the forces of modern economic development leave him jarringly and thrillingly resistant to the ideological pigeonholing that has become our dominant form of cultural analysis.”
Scott is absolutely right that Stegner is “resistant to the ideological pigeonholing” that has become—lamentably—the preferred approach to writers in most mainstream publications, which may be one of the reasons that Stegner has been somewhat forgotten, though Scott over-emphasizes his obscurity. All of his novels are still in print and are part of Penguin’s Twentieth-Century Classics series, to boot.
Also, “critique” is not the right word for Stegner’s handling of the “individualistic ethos of the West,” whatever that means exactly. He explored, rather, how people were both compelled to “make their mark” on this world, often leaving families behind to do so, and how they fail to make much of a mark at all. His work offers more of an observation than critique of what I think Stegner would call the tragic element of life. We yearn for freedom and flourishing and, at the same time, are incapable of bringing it about.
Stegner’s Angle of Repose is also a novel largely about history, and about how remembering the past rightly (something The New York Times should think about doing) is of central importance in a functioning society. I wrote about the novel in The Weekly Standard. Here’s what I said at the time (sorry for quoting myself—but that’s what you get in a column sometimes!): “It’s a story of how the American West was settled, how communities and individuals fought against isolation to create a new identity and place. But it’s also a book about history—about how the past shapes us and, importantly, how it provides us with a proper perspective of our own lives. For Stegner, without any sense of the past we are unable to be either wise or just, because without it, we have no sense of ‘what real injustice’ looks like.”
Scott is right that Stegner was preoccupied with marriage: “Monogamy, with its crags and chasms, is the most salient and imposing feature in his imaginative landscape, the human undertaking around which all the others are organized. Marriages in his books are not always harmonious — spouses quarrel, separate and sometimes stray — but they always endure . . . Time is marked by the milestones of family life, rather than the signposted public happenings that festoon historical and self-consciously topical novels. Wars and presidential administrations pass almost without mention, perhaps because, even in the post-frontier West, local matters of settlement and subsistence were likely to feel more pressing. More than that, political and even artistic concerns could seem abstract and insubstantial compared with the warmth and gravity of human relationships.”
But he wasn’t preoccupied with marriage in his novels because his characters lived too far from New York or DC to be concerned about anything other than “local” matters. What silliness. It is, rather, the opposite. For Stegner, world events start with families. A country is but an accumulation of 民彩网官网s. 民彩网官网 life is the world, not an escape from it, and I think Stegner would have found the distinction between 民彩网官网 and the world (conceived of as “wars and presidential administrations”) absurd.
In the Standard I wrote that the marriage of Susan and Oliver Ward in Angle of Repose “is a microcosm of an earlier America that Stegner contrasts with a 1960s version represented by Lyman Ward’s son, Rodman, and Ward’s assistant at the house, Shelly. Rodman is a progressive technocrat who believes in the power of data to explain and solve all of the world’s problems, and who looks with bemused condescension at his father’s interest in his obscure, mildly accomplished grandmother: ‘Rodman, like most sociologists and most of his generation, was born without the sense of history. To him it is only an aborted social science,’ Lyman muses. He continues: ‘Like other Berkeley radicals, he is convinced that the post-industrial post-Christian world is worn out, corrupt in its inheritance, helpless to create by evolution the social and political institutions, the forms of personal relations, the conventions, moralities and systems of ethics (insofar as these are indeed necessary) appropriate to the future. Society being thus paralyzed, it must be pried loose. He, Rodman Ward, culture hero born fully armed from this history-haunted skull, will be happy to provide blueprints, or perhaps ultimatums and manifestoes, that will save us and bring on a life of true freedom.’ The allusion to the birth of Athena from the skull of Zeus, but also the birth of Sin from the head of Satan in Paradise Lost, is, of course, intended.”
Scott gets at some this when he writes that “Time is marked by the milestones of family life, rather than the signposted public happenings that festoon historical and self-consciously topical novels . . . political and even artistic concerns could seem abstract and insubstantial compared with the warmth and gravity of human relationships,” but it doesn’t quite capture the seriousness of Stegner’s work. Still, give Scott’s piece , which offers a fair introductory survey of Stegner’s work.
In other news: Ernest Hemingway’s grandson a Hemingway story that has been published for the first in the latest issue of The New Yorker.
Michial Farmer writes about being in The Front Porch Republic: “The French love walking through Paris so much that they have a special word for it: flânerie, which suggests the practice of idly and aimlessly strolling through city streets . . . Flânerie is also . . . a distinctly modern phenomenon, not just because the Industrial Revolution helped create the enormous, smoggy cities that are the flâneur’s fishbowl, but also because flânerie is a kind of silent revolt. The chief virtue in an industrial society is efficiency, but by its very nature, flânerie is inefficient . . . I’ve spent my whole life in the suburbs—mostly the suburbs of Atlanta, which must be one of the least ambulatory places in the country. Atlanta is a city of cars, as its well-deserved reputation for gridlock suggests, and its suburbs even more so. Most of the places I’m familiar with cannot be practically walked at all; the idea of walking to, say, the grocery store would, I suspect, strike most Atlantans as absurd, and the total inadequacy of the public-transportation system (along with the omnipotence of the weather) means that almost everyone drives almost everywhere, filling the air, already stifling for half the year, with the squiggly, translucent auras of the internal-combustion engine. Walking in the suburbs thus has a pleasantly and harmlessly countercultural element to it.”
The Bee Gees were more than : “A set of reissued albums is a reminder of the band’s ambitious second act.”
The Academy of American Poets the 23 recipients of its Poets Laureate Fellowships. The fellowship comes with “$50,000 grants for civic projects throughout the United States . . . Mary Ruefle of Vermont will send handwritten poems to residents of the state selected at random from a phone book. Stuart Kestenbaum of Maine will develop a series of podcasts and a radio program featuring the work of young writers in that state.” Hopefully Ruefle knows that a lot of junk mail is made to appear handwritten now. Maybe she should write “This is not junk. It’s a poem” on each envelope?
The estate of Watership Down has to the classic novel: “In a case at London’s high court, Richard Adams’ estate won a longstanding claim against Martin Rosen, director of the 1978 animation.”
A short : “No performing art is quite as fascinating as puppetry. Blending all kinds of crafts—from acting and animating to design and doll-making—this unique practice holds a special role in the theater tradition. Since making their grand debut thousands of years ago, puppet productions have popped up in art and culture scenes around the world, making them among the oldest—and most widely celebrated—theatrical renditions in history.”
Eric Wills ESPN’s documentary of Lance Armstrong: “In Lance, a two-part documentary directed by Marina Zenovich for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series (part two airs this Sunday), Armstrong returns, more defiant than contrite. The series, part of the recent mini-boom of pandemic-era sports films (Michael Jordan just enjoyed his 10 hours of screen time), is smooth-flowing and compact. It may not break much new ground, but Armstrong remains compelling TV. Lance elicits the full spectrum of competing emotions. Awe, at the footage of Armstrong on a bike, bald from chemotherapy, his head scarred from brain surgery, starting his slow ascent back to the pinnacle of cycling. Respect, for his work with the Livestrong Foundation and role in helping make cancer a less private and lonely battle. (‘I truly believe if you are diagnosed with cancer in America today, your experience is better than it was pre-Lance and pre-Livestrong. Like irrefutably better,’ says Lindsay Beck, herself a two-time survivor and the founder of Fertility Hope, now part of Livestrong.) Disgust, at his history of character assassination and refusal to forgive Floyd Landis, his teammate who was also stripped of a Tour de France title for doping, and who exposed Armstrong’s own history of drug use.”
Poem: Nate Klug,
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