Friday, February 23, 2007

# 82 Angle of Repose – Wallace Stegner

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter,” the reading of which is even more worthwhile than a hike in the woods. Intended as support for governmental land preservation, this 1960 epistle was earnest, passionate and eloquent enough to be recycled as a profession of faith by The Wilderness Society and The Sierra Club—as well as by parks in Africa, Canada and Australia—to this day.

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,
“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.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Kesey reference drew my eye. We had a very interesting speaker series at school… Kesey, Timothy Leary, Abby Hoffman, and Allen Ginsberg. Kind of a counterculture theme though I seem to recall the reference was billed as people who had profound “social influence” or something.

Ginsberg struck me as a happy fool.

Hoffman struck me as an uber Pied Piper with a passion and energy that were hard to resist. Only after his suicide several years later did I think back to a probable bi-polar problem. Suicide just didn’t seem possible with the man I saw.

Leary was a shell… long dead though still breathing. He had these steel grey eyes that seemed able to see on a purely physical level… but there was a blankness behind them… a detachment… that was quietly disturbing. The whole time he spoke I kept thinking about the Quint character in Jaws talking about a shark’s eyes, dolls eyes, lifeless eyes.

But if Leary was one end of the spectrum (acid, etc, as a quasi-spiritual experience focusing on the “tune in” of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out”)… Keasy was the happy jester on the other that essentially was into a fun time. Kind of helped mold the whole Greatful Dead’s side of the drug culture. But he wasn’t some burnout hippy. He was intelligent, witty, and free with laughing. In a nutshell, Keasy was awesome… with a charisma as big as the man… and the kind of guy who probably would have done ice-blocks and “whales tales” at a barbeque. Outside of his speaking gig… he did a little poetry reading thing for about 8 or 9 of us. There was a lot of talking outside of the readings. Ultra-cool life experience. He set the tone right away by saying something along the lines of, “Well… I think I finally wrestled my life from Tom Wolfe.” I’m sure all of us there for the reading were there to meet the Keasy of Wolfe’s Electric Coolaid Acid Test… and there was no way in hell that he was going to sit there as a zoo specimen.

Well gotta run. Sorry for not doing a spellcheck or anything. Trying to squeeze this in with kids tugging at the elbow.