One Way to Spell Man
Although One Way to Spell Man is most obviously a book of essays on almost every topic under the Western sun, it is less obviously but quite significantly a kind of serial, partial autobiography—a book which adds up to spelling not only man as Westerner but also man as Wallace Stegner. What one finds here, clear eyed and direct, are the values which have brought meaning to the author’s life as a person and as a Western writer. Thus, anyone who has enjoyed Stegner’s many fine achievements in the writing of history and fiction will recognize One Way to Spell Man as a fine and fitting companion to the author’s earlier book of essays, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969)—and, as a reader, will rejoice.
The seven essays that comprise the first portion of the book were for the most part written in the 1950’s and 1960’s, while most of the concluding nine essays which make up the second part were written in the 1970’s and 1980’s, after Stegner’s retirement as director of Stanford University’s creative writing program. The first set of essays, then, parallels Stegner’s middle phase as a writer (his first popular success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1943)—a period which saw the publication of such works as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), Wolf Willow (1962), and The Gathering of Zion (1964). The second set of essays corresponds to Stegner’s later phase and the publication of such works as Angle of Repose (1971), The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (1974), The Spectator Bird (1976, winner of the National Book Award), and most recently, Recapitulation (1979). If the first group of essays represents some of the author’s bedrock beliefs and opinions, the second group seeks to identify and describe more pointedly the American West as place and idea in giving contour to Stegner’s life and art.
One can easily begin to extract the assumptions and values, the Western stance and viewpoint of Stegner, from the title essay of the collection, “One Way to Spell Man,” which first appeared in Saturday Review in 1958. “One Way to Spell Man” and the opening essay, “This I Believe” (1952; first prepared for the Edward P. Morgan radio and magazine series) established Stegner’s own heroic “code” of the Western man and writer.
When stating his credo thirty years ago, Stegner placed moderation and conscience at the top of his list of virtues. Conscience, Stegner says, is not something divinely bestowed but something learned, part of the traditions integral to the society in which one is reared. It is his hope that even when he does not live up to his conscience, he never mistrusts its directions. Proud to be alive and an American, Stegner believes both in himself and in the responsibilities of his heritage. To be born an American is for Stegner to be born lucky and to be born obligated to the luck of that birthright. This unabashed patriotism, though grounded in the more naïve era of the 1950’s, extends quite sincerely through all of the subsequent essays.
In the title essay, Stegner also takes issue with the absolute authority of the quantitative method. The arts, too, he insists, go far in isolating truth in all its protean forms. Prompted by the curricula revisions of American education in the Sputnik era, Stegner’s insistence that the liberal arts and literature in particular are more than frills is, ironically, still as urgent in 1982, when curricula are increasingly oriented toward high-tech, computer science, and vocationalism. Stegner’s plea is the familiar one of the humanist who prizes the essential usefulness of humanistic education.
To prove his point, Stegner quotes from Joseph Conrad’s 1897 preface to The Nigger of the “Narcissus.” (Conrad, like Stegner’s real-life mentor, Robert Frost, is alluded to numerous times in these essays as an aesthetic ideal.) Conrad’s is an art which in creating its own sensory worlds redefines man’s experiences and “spells” man in small flashes and gleanings, greets man as an act of “presentation and recognition.” In this essay, particularly as it resonates and expands throughout the other essays on his craft, essays such as “Fiction: A Lens on Life” and “To a Young Writer,” Stegner’s deep respect for the magic and mystery, the power and efficacy of words, of literature and art, are both convincing and contagious. Moreover, in the expansive distances and sublime vistas, the extremes of temperature and climate, the exoticism of its peoples, flora and fauna, the American West and westering provide Stegner with a subject worthy of the artistic vision he celebrates.
In one of his most inventive pieces in the first group of essays, a piece called “The Writer and the Concept of Adulthood,” originally written for the American Academy of Arts...
(The entire section is 2018 words.)