Wallace Stegner Essay - Stegner, Wallace (Short Story Criticism)

Stegner, Wallace (Short Story Criticism)


Stegner, Wallace 1909-1993

American short story writer, novelist, biographer, and essayist.

Although Stegner is perhaps best known for his novels—especially Angle of Repose (1971), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972—he has also garnered substantial critical acclaim for his short fiction, receiving three O. Henry First Prize awards during his lengthy writing career. In all, Stegner published nearly fifty short stories in such periodicals as Harper's and Atlantic Monthly, half of which were reprinted in his three collections. Stegner—who greatly admired the works of Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather—explored the subject of identity in his fiction. According to Clark Kimball, "Stegner writes always first of the individual, whether young or old, of passion or of reason or of some particular blending. He seems to know that in simply living, the individual is perpetually struggling—struggling every day of his life with thought and action and consequence."

Biographical Information

Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, but his restless father moved the family almost every year throughout the western United States in pursuit of material rewards, a lifestyle Stegner frequently reconstructed in his fiction. After several years in Saskatchewan, the Stegners eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner attended the University of Utah and became acquainted with his first mentor, novelist Vardis Fisher. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa, Stegner met his wife, Mary Stuart Page. After he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1937, Stegner gained his first major publishing success when he won the Little, Brown prize for his novella, Remembering Laughter (1937). Between 1940 and 1944, Stegner taught at Harvard, where he wrote the majority of his short stories. From 1946 until 1971, Stegner headed the prestigious creative-writing program at Stanford. Writers who held a Stegner fellowship during his tenure at Stanford include: Tillie Olson, N. Scott Momaday, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, and Max Apple. Stegner died on April 13, 1993, from complications resulting from an automobile accident.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Stegner's short fiction, which was written early in his career, is largely autobiographical. Over time, his narrative style changed from third to first person, but his themes remained constant. Often set in the western United States, Stegner's fiction is primarily concerned with questions of personal identity and the problem of achieving stability amidst the impermanence and dislocation of the modern world. Written in a detached, traditional, and realistic style, his works explore such themes as the effect of the past on the present, conflicts between generations, and the importance of place and history in defining cultural origins. Setting is critical to Stegner's fiction. As Charles E. Cascio noted, "His settings are sensual and tactile—they chill, warm, capture, release, invigorate, and depress. But at the same time he makes them part of the whole, an extension of the circumstances the characters face, an expansion of—not just a backdrop for—the action."

Critical Reception

Critics contend that Stegner wrote best when he drew from personal experience. His more experimental works are sometimes faulted as too contrived. Many commentators have taken an interest in Stegner's short works for the light they shed on his novels. In fact, many of the characters introduced in Stegner's short stories have reappeared in his novels; "Two Rivers" and "The Colt," for instance, introduced the character of Bruce Mason, the protagonist of The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Recapitulation (1979). Even so, Stegner's short fiction has proved successful in its own right. Charles E. Cascio compared reading Stegner's short fiction to entering a "great community," one "that invites readers into a larger conversation, not through soaring prose or gimmicky plots, but with writing that is as real as the moment and as enduring as history."

Principal Works

Short Fiction

Remembering Laughter (novella) 1937

The Potter's House (novella) 1938

The Women on the Wall 1948

The City of the Living and Other Stories 1956

Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner 1990

Other Major Works

On a Darkling Plain (novel) 1940

Fire and Ice (novel) 1941

The Big Rock Candy Mountain (novel) 1943

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (nonfiction) 1954

All the Little Live Things (novel) 1967

Angle of Repose (novel) 1971

The Spectator Bird (novel) 1976

Recapitulation (novel) 1979

One Way to Spell Man (essays) 1982

Crossing to Safety (novel) 1987


Wallace Stegner (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "A Problem in Fiction," The Pacific Spectator, Vol. 3, No. 4, Autumn, 1949, pp. 368-75.

[In the following essay, Stegner recreates the experience of writing "The Women on the Wall, " describing how the story came to him and how he developed the plot.]

There are so many kinds of stories that one cannot hope, by analyzing or re-creating one, to say anything very definitive about the form. One kind, intensely personal in feeling, deriving often from memory, its origins clouded and obscured by time, its methods so unconscious and undeliberate that the story seems to grow by itself out of some fecund darkness, can reward analysis only if the analysis searches out the whole mental and emotional state of the author during composition, and becomes a kind of personality analysis, a study in Jungian terms of the creative process and the creative personality. Another kind, built deliberately according to predetermined blueprints, is hardly worth analysis no matter how skillfully it is made, because the skill is all it has; it exists at a rudimentary level, without the difficult and indispensable quality of original design. It is the quality of design which I assume we are after in this series of story re-creations, and what may be valuable in such a study is the simple record of how a story came into being, how the scattered materials of time and place and people and situation and idea and feeling and significant action were subjected to some sort of synthesis and emerged a new thing, with a form of its own.

Almost any professional writer has had stories write themselves for him. I suppose most of us look upon that kind of story with a slight awe: it comes so easily and it leaves no tracks. Almost any writer too has had on occasion to build a story from scanty suggestions or fragmentary experiences, to hew one out by main force. This latter kind lends itself better to critical retrospection because its processes, if not exactly clear, have been at least painful.

"The Women on the Wall" is a story that had to be hewn out. It is one of the few I ever wrote directly from a scene and a group of people immediately under my eyes, and perhaps because I knew nothing about any of these people except their external appearance and their general situation, and so was without the help of the gestative processes which memory and the subconscious often perform painlessly, I had a good deal of difficulty in finding out exactly what my story was about. Action is an easy thing to invent and a hard thing to guide, because to guide it you must know where you want it to go.

Since I am engaged in a process of re-creation, let me recreate. The circumstances which gave rise to the story were not in any way unusual; the idea began casually and accidentally, in the middle of a time of letdown and boredom. I had returned to Santa Barbara from New York in the spring of 1945 to recover from an illness and a long stretch of working on racial minorities in the United States. I was in that state of mild collapse that follows the finishing of a book. Habit drove me to my desk after breakfast, but I could think of nothing I really wanted to do there. I wrote letters, or looked out the window across a lovely pineshrouded point and a sunken lane, with the Pacific shining beyond and the mornings so still and temperate that I almost felt the house wallow slightly, like a ship in a dead calm. I smelled the slow warm fume of that little promontory—pine and eucalyptus and wood smoke and Ceanothus and kelp, and heard the relaxed swash of surf on the beach.

And I saw the Army and Navy wives who lived in apartments in the old beach club building on the point. Every morning about eleven they began to gather on the stone wall at the end of the lane, and for a half-hour, threequarters, an hour, sometimes longer, they waited as quietly as patients sunning themselves in a sanitarium garden, until the mailman in his gray car and gray uniform drove up to the row of mailboxes.

Perhaps the way that picture formed and broke up every noon, only to re-form again in almost identical shapes and colors the next day, impressed it upon me unduly. Perhaps the women did not have over them the still purity of light that I thought I saw. Nevertheless I saw them waiting there under an intense stillness, a pieture of a wistful charm. Before two mornings had passed, what I really did in my study was watch that most beautiful, lulled, enchanted place above the blue and violet sea, with the frieze of bright, still women along the wall.

I have no idea at what point I began to think of them as a story. It was simply apparent after awhile that I felt them with the clarity and force of a symbol, and that I wanted to write them. But you do not write a picture. You do not even write a "situation" like this of the women waiting patiently at the remote edge of the West while their husbands fought the Japanese thousands of mile westward across that miraculous water. Waiting was obviously a significant wartime activity, but it was fairly inert stuff to make a story from.

The women waited, as women have always waited in wars, and I watched them as avidly as a Peeping Tom. I saw how they were tuned-down, stilled, withdrawn into themselves until they seemed to have little to say even to each other. I heard the surf on the beach below, and the surf was slow and muted. I saw the mornings pass over as even and imperturbable as the muted sea and the waiting women. I knew that these images and shapes of quiescence that came to me might sometime be useful, that they were the images from which an atmosphere could be created, but I did not see any story around which to create an atmosphere. The images lay around in my mind at random, unconnected, and though I must even in the beginning have had some perception of how everything that struck me as important about those women had a cyclic, reiterative compulsiveness—tides and waves and growing mornings and the gathering along the wall and the climactic and awaited coming of the gray car—I was too interested in the images singly to see their significance en masse.

And another confession of almost unbelievable obtuseness: I had watched the women for upwards of a week, and been reminded of Keats's "On a Grecian Urn" a dozen times, and been impressed every morning freshly by the clear Attic light, the Mediterranean clarity, of the picture the women made. But it was a week before I made the connection with Penelope on the rocky isle of Ithaca above the wine-dark sea waiting her twenty years for Ulysses' return.

That belated perception of the classical parallel took me forward a long step. The very roll and ring of Homer's epithets and the soft thunder of his names added a dimension, dignity, depth. So I found myself with a place, a group of people, a situation, a classical parallel that had the...

(The entire section is 2850 words.)

Chester E. Eisinger (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: "Twenty Years of Wallace Stegner," in College English, Vol. 20, No. 3, December, 1958, pp. 110-16.

[In the following excerpted survey of Stegner's short fiction, Eisinger declares the author indecisive.]

With the publication in 1956 of The City of the Living, a volume of short stories, Wallace Stegner rounded off the first twenty years of his writing career. Yet up to now no one has made an effort to evaluate his work or to place him. I should like to make a beginning by suggesting that Stegner, the author of nine volumes of fiction, is perhaps more important to contemporary literary history than he is to literature. Not that he isn't, especially...

(The entire section is 2325 words.)

Robert Canzoneri (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Wallace Stegner: Trial by Existence," in The Southern Review, Vol. 9, part 2, Autumn, 1973, pp. 796-877.

[In this excerpt, the critic explores the dualities of civilization and nature and life and death in Stegner's short stories and critiques the author's writing techniques.]

"There may be a number of kinds of short stories," Wallace Stegner has said, "but all demand an intense concision and economy, and all must somehow achieve a satisfying sense of finality. Beyond that I don't think we should define or prescribe. We should only give thanks when we strike a good one." In The Women on the Wall and The City of the Living we strike...

(The entire section is 3567 words.)

Forrest G. Robinson and Margaret G. Robinson (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Literary Criticism and Short Fiction," in Wallace Stegner, Twayne Publishers, 1977, pp. 68-92.

[In the following excerpt, the critics survey Stegner's short fiction, paying particular attention to "The Women on the Wall" and "Field Guide to the Western Birds."]

The Short Fiction: Two Personae, One Theme

In the past four decades, Wallace Stegner has produced nearly fifty short stories. They have appeared in an impressive assortment of popular and scholarly publications. We find ten in Harper's, six in Mademoiselle, five in the Atlantic Monthly, and two or three each in Collier's, Cosmopolitan, Esquire,...

(The entire section is 8364 words.)

James Ellis (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Wallace Stegner's Art of Literary Allusion: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Faust in 'Maiden in a Tower'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1980, pp. 105-11.

[In the following essay, Ellis examines the life-in-death and death-in-life metaphor in the story "Maiden in a Tower. " The critic also argues that literary reference in this story to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Faust help explain the importance of the unconsummated sexual encounter that the main character Kimball remembers and why this constitutes a "failure" on Kimball's part.]

In one of the few critical essays to appear on Wallace Stegner,...

(The entire section is 3045 words.)

Wallace Stegner (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Fiction: A Lens on Life," in One Way to Spell Man, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1982, pp. 18-25.

[In the following essay, Stegner discusses the work of the serious fiction writer who he calls "a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life."]

The editor of a mass-circulation magazine once told me proudly that all through the Depression he had published not one story dealing with the Depression's peculiar problems. No unemployment, no flophouses, no breadlines, no despair. Nonfiction articles by the dozen dealt with these things, but stories and serials, no. Fiction was for fun, not for illumination. Fiction was phenobarbital, not amphetamine. And even...

(The entire section is 2740 words.)

Wallace Stegner and Richard W. Etulain (interview date 1983)

SOURCE: "The Early Works," in Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature, University of Utah Press, 1983, pp. 21-40.

[In the following interview, Etulain helps Stegner probe into his formative years as a fiction writer, including his work on the first short stories and Remembering Laughter.]

[Stegner]: Tomlinson, who used to write historical novels about American history, the dark and bloody ground of Kentucky, Indian fights, and so on. More western myth. I remember Tomlinson and Henty; I don't remember much else from that period. But I remember just devouring books, one a day, sometimes more.

We were always moving, and once...

(The entire section is 5795 words.)

Anne Tyler (review date 1990)

SOURCE: "The Outsider May Be You," New York Times, March 18, 1990, p. 2.

[In the following assessment of Collected Stories, Tyler praises Stegner's tales, calling them "as solid as good furniture" and naming Stegner a master of the short story form.]

Wallace Stegner has been steadily enriching readers' lives for more than half a century now, but he stopped writing short stories in the mid-1950's. As he tells us in the foreword to this collection, he believes the short story to be the province of younger writers. It is "made for discoveries and nuances and epiphanies," he says, "and superbly adapted for trial syntheses."

His admirers will take...

(The entire section is 1241 words.)

George Garrett (review date 1990)

SOURCE: "Wallace Stegner: Lessons of The Master," in Book World, Vol. XX, No. 13, April 1, 1990, p. 7.

[In the following estimation of Collected Stories, Garrett appreciates Stegner's ability to present, with equal believability, a wide range of characters and situations.]

Here we have 31 short stories, gathered out of Wallace Stegner's two earlier collections, The Women on the Wall (1950) and The City of the Living (1956), together with some others that, in various forms, found a place in several of his novels including, most recently, Recapitulation (1979). Stegner's first book, the novel Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937....

(The entire section is 920 words.)

Clark Kimball (review date 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 15, 1990, p. 7.

[Below, Kimball writes that Stegner is "quintessential^ an American writer, " and notes that Stegner is very successful in presenting the struggles of the individual]

The very act of writing, of the creation of words and of sentences, is an exercise in mnemonics—the art of memory and of remembrance. So too, is the act of reading an exercise in creative memory, especially when the words and sentences are those of the master writer, Wallace Stegner, and are from his most recent book, Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner.

In his...

(The entire section is 880 words.)

Verlyn Klinkenborg (review date 1990)

SOURCE: "Writing the Land," in The New Republic, Vol. 203, Nos. 8-9, August 20 & 27, 1990, pp. 38-40.

[Here, Klinkenborg praises Stegner's traditional narrative style and discusses Stegner as a "Western writer."]

At last count, Wallace Stegner had written thirteen novels, two short story collections (their contents are included in the present omnibus), seven books of nonfiction, two collections of essays, unnumbered scattered pieces, and he had edited the letters of Bernard De Voto. His first novel, Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937, when he was twenty-eight, his most recent, Crossing to Safety, fifty years later. He won the Pulitzer...

(The entire section is 2181 words.)

Anne Ricketson Zahlan (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Cities of the Living: Disease and the Traveler in the Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 28. No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 509-15.

[In the essay below, Zahlan studies how the main characters in "The Traveler" and "City of the Living" react to the foreign places to which they travel and how each reacts to the threat of illness and disease very differently.]

Characterizing his short fiction as "rest stops" along life's journey, Wallace Stegner claims the Collected Stories to mark the itinerary in no significant order—they "lie as they fell." Nevertheless, the volume opens with "The Traveler" stalled on a...

(The entire section is 2986 words.)

Charles E. Cascio (review date 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner, in English Journal, Vol. 84, No. 1, January, 1995, pp. 114-15.

[In this review the critic admires Stegner's skill at presenting single moments in people's lives poetically and powerfully.]

When that delicious and all-too-uncommon occasion arises for me to read something for myself, nothing feels better than making just the right choice—something with texture, substance, and richness. And I have learned that the best recommendations tend to come from writers whose works I admire. So when I read a tribute to Wallace Stegner in the book What Are People For? by Wendell Berry (1990) I decided that...

(The entire section is 1145 words.)

Further Reading

Ahearn, Kerry. "Heroes vs. Women: Conflict and Duplicity in Stegner." Western Humanities Review 31, No. 2 (Spring 1977): 125-41.

Studies the self-reliant masculine impulse in conflict with the feminine in Stegner's fiction, concluding that Stegner attacks myths of feminine weakness and subordination.

Benson, Jackson J. "Finding a Voice of His Own: The Story of Wallace Stegner's Fiction." Western American Literature XXIX, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 99-122.

Explores Stegner's "voice" as manifested in his style, point of view and authorial distance.

Burrows, Russel. "Wallace Stegner's Version of Pastoral." Western American Literature...

(The entire section is 247 words.)