Wallace Stegner Long Fiction Analysis
Wallace Stegner was a regional writer in the best sense. His settings, characters, and plots derive from the Western experience, but his primary concern is with the meaning of that experience. Geographically, Stegner’s region runs from Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota, through Utah and northern Colorado. It is the country where Stegner lived and experienced his youth. Scenes from this region appear frequently in his novels. East End, Saskatchewan, the place of his early boyhood, appears as Whitemud, Saskatchewan, in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, along with Grand Forks and Lake Mills, Iowa, his birthplace. Salt Lake City figures prominently in Recapitulation and The Preacher and the Slave, the story of Joe Hill, a union martyr. Wolf Willow, furthermore, is historical fiction, a kind of history of East End, and On a Darkling Plain is the story of a much-decorated and seriously wounded veteran of World War I who withdraws from society in an isolated shack on the plains outside East End.
In a much larger sense, Stegner is concerned with the spiritual West—the West as an idea or a consciousness—and with the significance of Western values and traditions. He is also concerned with the basic American cultural conflict between East and West and with the importance of frontier values in American history. Bo Mason, modeled on Stegner’s father, the abusive head of the Mason family in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, is an atavism, a character who may have been at home in the early frontier, who searches for the elusive pot of gold—the main chance of the Western myth. Never content with domestic life or with stability, Bo Mason, like George Stegner, moves his family from town to town always looking for an easy fortune. As a man of mixed qualities—fierce pride, resourcefulness, self-reliance, and a short, violent temper—he is ill at ease in the postfrontier West, always chafing at the stability of community and family ties. He continually pursues the old Western myth of isolated individualism that preceded twentieth century domestication of the region. He might have made a good mountain man. Stegner stresses his impact on his family and community and shows the reader the basic tragedy of this frontier type trapped in a patterned world without easy bonanzas.
In Angle of Repose, Stegner explores the conflict between the values of self-reliance, impermanence, and Western optimism and the Eastern sense of culture, stability, and tradition. In a way, this is the basic conflict between Ralph Waldo Emerson’s party of hope (the West) and the party of the past (the East). He also explores the idea of community as a concept alien to the Western myth. Indeed, community as the close-knit cooperation between individuals is shown in Stegner’s work as the thing that ended the frontier. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain and in Recapitulation, there is a longing for community and a pervasive feeling that the Mason family is always outside the culture in which it exists, particularly in Utah, where Mormon culture is portrayed as innocent, solid, stable, and, as a result, attractive. Mormon life is characterized by the absence of frontier individualism and by a belief in permanence and group experience, an anomaly in the Western experience.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain
A third major concern throughout Stegner’s work is his own identity and the meaning of Western identity. Bruce Mason in The Big Rock Candy Mountain is much concerned with his relationship as an adolescent to the Utah culture and its sense of community.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner’s fifth novel, is an obviously autobiographical account of his childhood and adolescence. A family saga, the novel follows the history of the rootless Mason family as it follows the dreams of Bo Mason, a thinly disguised version of Stegner’s father, as he leads them to Grand Forks, North Dakota, to the lumber camps of Washington, then back to Iowa and up to Whitemud, Saskatchewan, and finally to Salt Lake City and Reno. Family identity problems are played out against the backdrop of an increasingly civilized and domesticated West against which the self-reliant and short-tempered character of Bo Mason stands out in stark relief. His qualities, which might have had virtues in the early settlement of the West, create family tensions and trauma that cause Bruce Mason (Stegner) to develop a hatred for his father only partially tempered by a grudging respect. Bo Mason relentlessly pursues the American Dream and the Western myth of easy success rooted in the early frontier: He endlessly pursues the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Throughout this odyssey, the family longs for stability and community, for a place to develop roots. Even in Salt Lake City, where Bruce spends his adolescence, Bo keeps the family changing houses to hide his bootlegging business during the Prohibition period. His activities within puritanical Mormon culture only highlight the contrast between the Masons and the dominant community. Even in his later years, Bo pursues his dream in Reno by operating a gambling house.
Stegner vividly illustrates how this rootless wandering affects family members. Else, Bo’s wife, representing the feminine, domesticating impulse, is a saintly character—long-suffering, gentle, and protective of her two sons. She longs for a home with permanence but never finds it. Her initial good nature and mild optimism eventually give way to pessimism as resettlements continue. Three of the family members die: Else is destroyed by cancer; Chet, the other son, who is defeated by both marriage and career, dies young of pneumonia; and Bo, with all his dreams shattered and involved with a cheap whore after Else’s death, shoots himself. Only Bruce is left to make sense of his family’s experiences, and he attempts to understand his place in the family saga as he strives to generalize his family’s history.
In the final philosophical and meditative chapters, Stegner tries to link Bruce (and therefore himself) to history, to some sense of continuity and tradition. His family history, with its crudeness and tensions, is made to represent the history of the frontier West with its similar tensions and rough edges. Bruce, who long sought solace and identity in books, excels in school and finally follows the civilized but ironic path of going to law school at the University of Minnesota. He has, finally, reached a higher level of culture than his family ever attained. The Big Rock Candy Mountain has achieved a reputation as a classic of American regionalism, while it also deals with broader national themes and myths.
Angle of Repose
Angle of Repose, published in 1971 and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is...
(The entire section is 2806 words.)