A novelist and historian, Stegner (of whom the centathlete, as an Easterner who lives where citylight washes out the stars, was completely ignorant) addressed the profoundly revitalizing benefits of the Great Outdoors to an American’s spirit and character, and his closeness to nature growing up “on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah.” He also suggested that modern man needs escape, even if temporary, from the “technological termite-life” that breeds insanity and malignance, conditions that have festered, in his opinion, for decades:
“It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become.”The “official” closing Stegner noted was popularized by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper, The Frontier in American History. Turner cited a brief statement about the frontier in the U.S. Census of 1890; he expounded on the “perennial rebirth” and the “fluidity of American life” as a result of ongoing expansion into the West, and he argued that “with [the frontier’s] going has closed the first period of American history.” This thesis has been canonized and, more recently, disparaged by contemporary scholars—in any case the centathlete recalls that rudimentary recognition of Turner and his argument was required in multiple-choice questions on high school history exams.
Stegner’s concurrence with the thrust of Turner’s argument is evident in his 1971 novel, Angle of Repose, which presents a contemporary retired historian relating the life of his grandparents in various far-flung locations out west in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Significantly, the base story concludes in 1890, suggesting that the grandparents’ “frontier days” are over and going forward they must come to terms with a circumscribed, negotiated life together. Look out for “1890” in future retrospectives.
The novel’s heroine, Susan Burling Ward, is an artist and writer who leaves genteel society and cherished personal ties in New York’s Hudson Valley to live with her itinerant engineer husband. She is a Quaker, as reinforced by her usage of “thee” (a Quaker form of address meant to express belief in the equality of all people), which evokes another community that scratched out a life on a harsh frontier of sorts.
Several years go the centathlete traveled to Costa Rica and visited Monteverde, home to a cloud forest, essentially a rainforest (a jungle that receives more than 80” of annual rainfall) at altitude. This reserve was created largely out of land owned by 12 Quaker families from Alabama who had moved there in 1951 in protest of the U.S. military draft.
The resettled Quakers, many of whom still reside in Monteverde, were acting as custodians of the natural environment long before ecotourism was cool (there were at most 60 visitors per year during the 1950’s; there are now more than 50,000 annually).
During one hike through an incredibly lush jungle, the guide explained that ranchers had cleared the entire area, which was then purchased by conservationists who let it alone to grow back quickly in all its diversity. The key to such rebirth is that it must take place within 10 years; even the fertile Costa Rican soil demands a statute of limitations. During an unguided walk a late-morning downpour prompted the howling of unseen monkeys in the treetops. The moment testified to a human’s status as just one minor player in an ancient, uncontrolled drama.
Wallace Stegner was not a Quaker like the Costa Rican conservationists, his heroine Susan Ward, and his fellow historical novelist James Michener (two years older than Stegner), who comes to mind while reading Angle of Repose in light of the family-typifying-an-era formula, geographical and occupational detail, and mixing of fictional characters with actual people. One panner called the novel “a dandified Michener,” a brusque put-down the centathlete considers a hearty recommendation.
Susan Ward and her Eastern friends mingle with impressively accomplished and named personages such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Dean Howells. One specimen of the narrative’s name-dropping (we might think of it as a buffalo chip in honor of the prairies traversed by the Wards) is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish-American sculptor whose work included the monument to General Sherman by the southeastern entrance of New York’s Central Park.
The centathlete lives on the same city block as the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Playground, advertised as displaying “bronze and porcelain decorations that harmonize with the new gates, garden area, and play equipment.” This landmark is an ostensible tribute to the Gilded Age artist, but the decorations are few and unremarkable, and any hint of harmonious commemoration is overwhelmed daily by screaming, scrambling toddlers and urchins—Bah, humbug!
Like the Costa Rican Quakers, Wallace Stegner voiced pacifist and egalitarian policies. He opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning and he wrote about unfair discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities. His public status was due not just to his books—he was the head of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program, which he founded in 1946.
One student, Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while at Stanford, said, “I always compared Stegner to Vince Lombardi—he put together not only a good team but a good team of supporting coaches.”
Another, Nancy Packer, observed that Stegner was “courteous, attentive and forbearing” with students, and extremely disciplined in his own work, balancing writing and teaching equally for 25 years at Stanford.
Stegner was uncomfortable with aspects of the counterculture that arose in the Bay Area during the late 1960’s; he dramatized his disdain for history-renouncing radicalism in Angle of Repose through the repartee between the curmudgeonly narrator, Lyman Ward, and the bra-less hippie, Shelly Rasmussen. In 1971 he retired to devote himself to writing, as his wife, Mary Page Stegner, reported:
“Wally didn’t like the way students were trashing the campus, and he didn’t like the fact that they didn’t come to class. He decided he didn’t have to teach, and he said there was no point in teaching when people weren’t coming to class.”Discipline and endurance, characteristics that Stegner valued and practiced, are evident throughout Angle of Repose. The novel is experienced as a series of arduous slogs enriched by meticulous appreciation of the rugged environments and respect for the enormity of the mining and irrigation projects. Dynamic plot developments, epiphanies and coincidental encounters are scarce and downplayed, in keeping with the upholding of the continuous dedication and resourcefulness that actual pioneers demonstrated.
Then there is the dream sequence in the final chapter, a coda that diverges from the sustained, measured tempo and guarded perspectives of the prior narrative by presenting concentrated, charged intimacies. This coda wraps up the interaction between the past and the present, offering hope for a livable future to be earned.
Stegner was described as “honest and straightforward” and engaged in “debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback.” The man himself said, “The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long.”
Had he been present at certain TV-studio meetings in the mid-1960’s, Stegner would likely have scoffed at one producer’s sales pitch for a new show, promoted as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A popular network melodrama from 1957-1965, Wagon Train was precisely the type of hokey, inaccurate fiction that Stegner sought to dispel.
After Star Trek was greenlighted, its producer-writer Gene Roddenberry drew on a government document (recalling Turner’s reliance on the U.S. Census Report) to craft his famous introduction for each installment. We can imagine the degrees of skepticism, caution and acceptance with which Wallace Stegner would have greeted the first line of Captain James T. Kirk’s monologue, “Space, the final frontier.”