Wallace Stegner Essay - Critical Essays

Wallace Stegner American Literature Analysis

Stegner wrote in the great tradition of American realism. Other famous authors of this school were William Dean Howells, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Stephen Crane, and William Faulkner, to name only a few. The distinguishing feature of realistic fiction is that it deals with ordinary events in the lives of ordinary people; the author’s intention is to make the work resemble real life as most people experience it. Plots do not take spectacular turns but evolve slowly, the way most lives evolve. Changes do occur in people’s lives, but they take place slowly and without any orderly pattern.

It was appropriate for Stegner to work in the tradition of realism because it was his lifelong purpose to depict what the American West was really like. For many years, popular fiction had been presenting a lurid picture of the West. The general public imagined a panorama of cowboys and Indians, the U.S. Cavalry riding to the rescue, shootouts on Main Street, masked bandits holding up stagecoaches, cattle stampedes, burning wagon trains, saloons full of drunken men and immoral women, and all the other stereotypes that are still perpetuated in motion pictures and on television. In his famous short story “The Blue Hotel” (1898), Stephen Crane highlighted the contrast between the real West and the Wild West of dime novels; this was what Stegner also wanted to do.

Stegner knew that, in reality, most of its people were quiet, hardworking pioneers trying to build homes and raise families. These were the people he admired, not legendary figures such as Billy the Kid or Jesse James. Many of Stegner’s male characters carried guns, but they could not draw their weapons in a split second or shoot with superhuman accuracy.

The problem with literary realism is that it can be dull, as real life contains few dramatic events. Realism depends on sensitive description and close psychological analysis; the most important events take place inside characters’ minds. Stegner was especially interested in how people change. In his novels, these changes may take place over lifetimes; in his short stories, the character changes often take place in a matter of minutes, as in “The Blue-Winged Teal.”

Novelist James Joyce applied the word “epiphany” to fiction. An epiphany, in this sense, is like a miniature religious experience, a spiritual insight into the true nature of reality that brings about a change of character. These are not necessarily pleasant experiences but can be unpleasant or even terrifying; nevertheless, they are an essential part of growing up. Such epiphanies are integral to many of Stegner’s short stories and novels.

In “The Blue-Winged Teal,” for example, the whole point of the story is to be found in young Henry Lederer’s sudden insight into his father’s true nature—and, hence, into his own true nature as his father’s son. In Stegner’s best-known novel, Angle of Repose (1971), the hundreds of pages of narrative lead up to the final epiphany in which the narrator, Lyman Ward, understands his grandparents, their whole generation, their world, and his own nature as their descendant. He understands something that his contemporaries are in danger of forgetting: that it is important to learn to accept life with all of its limitations.

Although Stegner was a contemporary of many of America’s most famous authors, including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, he never achieved comparable popular success. His low-key approach to writing was not calculated to attract a mass audience. He supported himself and his family by teaching in colleges and consequently did not feel compelled to sensationalize his material. He is known to connoisseurs of good writing for his sensitive descriptions of people and places as well as for his crystal-clear, unaffected prose style. Readers who are looking for thrills may be disappointed with Stegner’s fiction, but those who are looking for understanding of human nature will find his work satisfying.

Stegner preferred writing about the nineteenth century to the twentieth. He was appalled by the growing scorn of the work ethic, the loss of religious faith, the cynicism about morality, the use of drugs, and the sexual libertinism that he regarded as diseases of the modern world. His interest in the past led him to write history and biography as well as fiction.

Although Stegner is best known as a fiction writer, he left a large body of distinguished nonfiction behind when he died at the age of eighty-four. This versatility is the mark of keen intelligence and dedication to literature. He was also a college professor for much of his life, passing on to younger generations his love of learning, his love of literature, and his love for the American West.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain

First published: 1943

Type of work: Novel

A man drags his wife and two sons all over the West in search of riches but ends up penniless and disillusioned.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain was Stegner’s first critical and popular success. The title derives from a popular song of the early twentieth century which describes “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” as a utopia where riches grow on bushes.

The book’s protagonist, Harry “Bo” Mason, is one of the many dreamers who came West in search of riches. He tries many different occupations but fails...

(The entire section is 2231 words.)