Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

All the Little Live Things was written fairly late in Wallace Stegner’s distinguished career as novelist, historian, environmentalist, and teacher. The book reflects his concerns about cultural trends in the 1960’s, especially what he saw as a growing rootlessness and irresponsibility in young people, including, apparently, his own students at Stanford University. He saw in the young a callous indifference to the pain of others; Marian Catlin’s struggle with breast cancer connects her with Stegner’s own mother and the lasting pain he felt about her death.

The novel also marks a stage in Stegner’s development as an environmental writer. In essays, short stories, and historical works such as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), as well as in many of his novels, Stegner describes the uneasy relationship Americans, especially Westerners, have with their natural surroundings. Joe Allston is a fascinating case in point, wanting the dramatic views from his hilltop home preserved but willing to destroy any wild creature who interferes with his efforts to grow tomatoes where they never grew before.

This first-person narrative is technically brilliant; the way in which the highly literate Joe Allston relates contemporary issues to the classics—to the Old Testament, The Tempest, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)—as well as to modern poetry such as Robert Frost’s lets readers into the mind and personality of an extraordinarily attractive, if sometimes disturbing, consciousness. Through his eyes, and mind, natural objects attain symbolic weight without losing their realistic character; pages could be written about the redtail hawk that appears regularly over Joe Allston’s retirement home or about the king snake under his brick walk. To see Allston from within is to glimpse the psychological factors that make preservation so problematic.

The issues All the Little Live Things raises remain significant; and this beautifully designed book is clearly the work of a major American writer, not merely a Western regionalist.