Wallace Stegner Stegner, Wallace (Contemporary Literary Criticism) - Essay

Stegner, Wallace (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Stegner, Wallace 1909–

Stegner is an American novelist, short story writer, editor, and critic. Throughout his writing, Stegner has sought to find man's place in the world, avoiding extreme social or moral strictures. His interest in the American West is both literary and avocational: it represents to him in his work the American Dream, and he has sought to preserve its beauty as a member of the National Parks Advisory Board. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

All the Little Live Things languishes under the weight of a solemn portentousness. Stegner is a writer of professional skill, capable of carrying on a narrative and sensitively responsive to climate, atmosphere, and appearances. But all these advantages are wasted when he turns what was originally conceived of as "a good-natured story about a fairly typical … upper-middle-class bedroom community in California" into a protracted argument about the modern predicament, the gap between old and young, the need for compassion, understanding, tolerance, and all the rest of it. His main characters … are made to order rather than created. They lack the vitality and the substance to sustain the debate Stegner proposes for them. Their actions are credible but their conversations are flat and their ideas flimsy. The plot is spread too thin, and though individual scenes are effective, there are too many passages of self-analysis, argumentative monologue, and blurred self-revelation for the issues ever to come across with the clarity of insight. Stegner's style is leisurely, at its worst otiose. He spoils his climax by a failure to select, to vary his pace, or to compress. Most of all, though, the book is marred by its self-conscious didacticism, its relentless hammering home of the theme. By being too ambitious, Stegner has lost the effects of simple contrast and pathos which a more discriminating and restricted use of his material might have achieved. (p. 438)

Rachel Trickett, in The Yale Review (© 1968 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), Spring, 1968.

Joe Allston is back, but he's no easier to take in [The Spectator Bird] than he was in All the Little Live Things (1967). A sardonic commentator on his own professional failures and geriatric disorders, hostile critic of contemporary fiction, sexual liberation, and anything connected with youth culture, he thinks of himself as a spokesman for traditional ethical and social values but acts like someone on the lam from life. In All the Little Live Things, he was less a character than an angry critique of student radicalism. Jim Peck, the hippie who disrupts his safe pastoral existence with rock music and a Yamaha, is only a caricature of the campus dissident of the 60s, a straw man for Allston, or Stegner, to shoot at from behind the blind of convention. The novel was so strident and tendentious, so overburdened with melodramatic confrontations between drug-crazed youths and natural goodness—the latter exemplified by the impossibly sensitive and self-sacrificing Marian Catlin—that one was tempted to read it as some sort of personal essay rather than as a piece of fiction.

The Spectator Bird lacks the sustained biliousness of its predecessor, and is much more smoothly and elegantly written. That, in a sense, is part of the problem. The surface is so glassy that we have trouble locating the turbulence we know is underneath. The major crises in Allston's past, the suicide of his son and his brief, abortive affair with a Danish countess, are presented in such oblique, measured terms that they might almost have happened to someone else. About the first he is inconsolable and unforgiving, whereas he has accepted the second with the kind of stoic calm that would have delighted his hero Marcus Aurelius. (p. 193)

Allston's response to things outside his range of experience (and the Danish sojourn that takes up half the novel is straight out of the gothic world of Isak Dinesen, who appears briefly as a character) is usually either defensive sarcasm or smug moralizing. He's learned to smother his own passion and considers the spontaneous expression of emotion by others as exhibitionism or else a subtle form of manipulation. Yet in protecting himself against feelings and circumstances, he also protects himself against us. The dramatic tensions in his life dissolve into talk, and the more he talks the less we listen until even moving scenes, such as his ultimate reconciliation with his wife, lose their edge. In the end the novel seems as somber and intricately shadowed as the countess's estate, with no suggestion of the kind of bright open spaces where Stegner is most at home. (p. 194)

David Dillon, "Somber and Shadowed Novel," in Southwest Review (© 1977 by Southern Methodist University Press), Spring, 1977, pp. 193-94.

The West is not the primary issue in [Wallace Stegner's] writing, not even the primary interest; what has fascinated Stegner from the beginning is the most earnest theme of all, the way to live—how shall a good man conduct himself. The evidence suggests that "man" here should not be taken in its most general sense. Men are the trouble in Stegner's fiction.

Taken in order, the novels chart the spiritual journey of a man who sees himself very much a son of the West, but it does no good to try to describe that spirit in terms specifically Western. The pilgrimage, in fact, is characterized by a residual element of what we call the Puritan spirit and cannot be understood without it—a rock-hard stare into the soul, an enduring desire to look with absolute objectivity on human delusions. I see this spirit evident in two general concerns. The first is his attitude toward the art of fiction, and his distrust of the potentially seductive and distracting power of style (both for the writer and reader). The justification is not unlike the Puritan's distrust of enthusiasm: the emotional response to style can become so great that it crowds other responses and finally takes the place of thought…. [The] hallmark of Stegner's fiction has always been earnestness. Though a fine stylist, he places the rhetoric of fiction in a minor role. The second source of evidence is Stegner's attitude toward the West as material for art, a very complicated issue. Let me hide behind this generalization: Stegner has never in his fiction treated in a positive manner the spectacle of wide-openness or liberated energy and I think it not unfair to say that the meanings inherent in the archetypal Western situation (the spectacle of "man alone") are to him always negative because there are no attendant controls on the individual. This, of course, implies a negative view of the individual if it could be shown that people characteristically do not seek the controls they need. And that is my point: Stegner the self-proclaimed optimist is not best served by that term. His attitudes toward the inevitability of human conflict seem very much like Hawthorne's, first in that the conflicts and loss of faith show themselves in man-woman relationships, and second because optimism is asserted but never lived, seeming, like the "Conclusion" to The Scarlet Letter, not quite connected to the fictional world just lived. Stegner, of course, is a good deal warmer and brighter than Hawthorne, but represents a similar fear of space (psychic and physical) in his writing. In this, he seems very "unWestern"; he, like Wright Morris, has seen through the sham of fulfillment-requires-lack-of-controls cliché at the center of the Western mythos. To come to terms with Stegner's meanings is to determine how far his optimism extends, what conditions support it and what deny it, and what chances a man has of living a good life. That is Stegner's spiritual journey. His novels, taken in order, illustrate that the essential situations in his fiction have changed hardly at all from his earliest work, but that as his fiction has evolved from dealing with young protagonists to old, the sense of hopefulness has been tempered…. One more thing: it is almost without exception the men who will optimism in Stegner, and they always have least reason to.

Which brings me to the title of my piece. We are probably all painfully aware of the narrow way implied by the term "Western Hero," that mobile American bully, however well-intentioned, who in the center of his soul remains untouched by women and other of life's complexities, who resents authority, lives for principles that don't quite cohere in a social context, and never recognizes the destructive impulses of his worship of wandering (again, psychic and physical). In his youth, Stegner knew lots of men who defined competence by what he in Wolf Willow called this "masculine and semi-barbarous" standard. The juxtaposition of those adjectives tells a good deal about Stegner's vision; masculinity has always been defined in his fiction as a savage impulse, always prone to extreme positions…. Consider [in addition to earlier angry heroes] Bo Mason from The Big Rock Candy Mountain, who is given to almost every masculine excess that could in 1943 be described in print. And to eliminate the suspicion that this is merely an early phase, think for a moment of Oliver Ward in Angle of Repose (1971). By the end of that terrific novel, Oliver's mulishness seems more important to his grandson than any other trait. Finally, we have Joe Allston of All the Little Live Things (1967) and The Spectator Bird (1976), a curmudgeon many believe beyond salvation…. [No] man ever turns out "good" in his fiction: the best Stegner can allow is to leave an open-ended situation where a man comes to recognize his fallibility and desires to guide himself henceforth with that knowledge of weakness. His best books, those which explore the problem most fully, end with those resolutions untried. We leave Bruce Mason, Lyman Ward, and Joe Allston on thresholds, with their new paradigms of the self untested by experience. Once the reader understands that Stegner's optimism is conditional, and that always, always, men prepare themselves for "salvation" through some kind of self-renunciation, the relationships between Stegner and the West and between men and women in his fiction become clearer.

Those conceptions of the "good man" (what might be called the optimism of defectiveness), so far from the conventional ideas of the brave hombre, the Western hero, provide the destination, but not the enlivening stuff, of Stegner's fiction. He is fascinated by the brute strength of self-reliance's delusions. I am reminded of the scene in Wolf Willow where Alfie Carpenter takes a foul tip square in the mouth, spits out two teeth, and calls for play to resume. Stegner's dual response is telling: he discounts the bravado as an obvious act, but marvels that … the fellow was still standing. That kind of bravery could never be the absolute center of a Stegner novel because it lacks sensitivity to recognize its limitations. It does figure prominently in the fiction, though, because of its destructiveness and because Stegner like the rest of us is trying to discover how far it is motivated by the beauties of the tough-guy myth and how far it is really tough.

Stegner has chosen to test that conception of heroism with complexity rather than allegorical simplicity. He elevates those whose toughness is enduring rather than brute and fitful. In the archetypal Wild West versions of human conduct, that is female toughness. Hemingway, to his eternal credit, recognized and prized that quality, though many of his readers have not. Stegner believes civilization depends on it, though he cannot avoid the faintly apologetic way he defends the virtue. He knows well what Henry Nash Smith noted in Virgin Land, that violent myths may have little to do with reality and yet still move masses of people. The characters who for him embody virtue stand against that movement, but they are not exciting people. The kind of identity they represent would never lead to the White House or the Cotton Bowl, and Stegner feels that too.

Women tend to be the embodiment of virtue in his work, and he has habitually used them to make living unavoidably complex for his male protagonists. They are the prophetesses of reduced expectations, of objectivity, of the desire to live by controls, and like all bearers of bad tidings, they suffer. In this, Stegner does not reinforce the sexist myths of feminine weakness and subordination; he reflects their existence, and by implication attacks them…. [The] neo-Romantic creed of the epic West [is that] the man without a grandiose plan or an exaggerated sense of his own individuality is a man without talent or worth. Men cannot equivocate in their plans or value moderation without casting doubt upon themselves. One has only to read Wolf Willow to know how much this problem preoccupies Stegner; his goal is to take the narrow world of the Alfie Carpenters and bring a more complex norm to bear on it. He emphasizes that a grand plan and developed talent are the only means for an individual to transcend such limitations as he knew during a childhood in various parts of the West, but he illustrates nowhere a belief that men instinctively know the limits of that impulse. Stegner's distrust of "breaking loose" (no character in his fiction ever gets away with such an audacious course) is to be traced to misgivings with men and the way they use the mobility society gives them, often at the expense of women. He's saying more than that men are unfortunately shaped by the "tough guy" myth; he implies that the myth derives something from men themselves. Thus the simultaneous bias against and fascination with spontaneous masculine aggressiveness. There are two exceptions: Alec Stuart, in the first novel, Remembering Laughter (1937),… escapes detailed analysis only because the novel is short and because Stegner has chosen to look instead at the blight resulting from the wronged wife's cold, unremitting Calvinism. The second is Sabrina Castro, who attempts in A Shooting Star (1961) to break loose from a social confinement Patricia Hearst might recognize. (pp. 125-30)

Stegner's men (except for secondary roles) are not so likeable as the women, though they seem more vital. They are either plagued by guilt and self-loathing, or incapable of guilt and therefore pitied by their creator. The men move plots, but the effort characteristically adds up to futility; in his fiction women are the only ones who endure with grace and good temper. I cannot recall having encountered in Stegner's work a female he gives no sympathy.

Such absolutes bring us ever closer to clichés, however, and lest Stegner seem guilty of creating a species of long-suffering, weak-chinned and vacant-faced women, let me add that just as the men have become more complex—haunted now by the past as well as the present—the women have grown stronger, too, a good index of Stegner's growth as a writer. Since Stegner has defined human conflicts to a great degree in terms of men and women, and since the couples have got older as he has, it is helpful to examine the women in three successive categories: young victims, rebels, and old partners.

The woman-as-victim was a preoccupation difficult for Stegner to modify. It is a constant theme in the early works, sometimes developed, sometimes there like a reflex…. The weakness is Stegner's vagueness about motives; it is never clear why the women continue to suffer so acutely, and prolonged suffering, sometimes for decades, strains credulity and patience. (p. 130)

[Sabrina Castro, protagonist of A Shooting Star,] is Stegner's first strong and rebellious woman, and though the novel is not among Stegner's very best, it deserves attention because the nature of the past and present Stegner creates for her reveals a good deal about how much he values control and how much flexibility can coexist with it. The story shows his freedom from dogma and narrow certainty. (p. 132)

In one important way, this novel reverses the customary sex roles of Stegner's earlier fiction: Sabrina, who can find no peace because she cannot rid herself of notions of absolute formulas for happiness, receives insights from Leonard MacDonald, a Levi-clad schoolteacher who has no money, no status, no genealogy. Leonard is a low-key, faintly sarcastic Socrates, and although Stegner presents his role in oversimplified terms, the point is effective: you can be yourself and live love even in a California tract development…. Leonard MacDonald stands as the only male in Stegner's novels to separate the barbarous from the masculine and put the philosophy to use (Bruce Mason is similar, but we are not privileged to watch him apply his lessons). But even his example leaves lingering doubts: first, we do not see him among other men; second, Stegner makes sure that this primary man-woman relationship in the novel remains uncomplicated by sexual desire—the tension between Leonard and Sabrina is intellectual and philosophical, and characterized by a detachment unknown to Stegner's married couples. No marriage could survive Leonard's condescension. As such, the book has an unreal quality about it—Leonard lives in an untested calm, yet is presented as the true teacher. If the situation has to be arranged this way, we should be curious to know why. (pp. 133-34)

Sabrina has one saving grace for Stegner: when confronted with disintegration, she responds with self-hatred, whereas Stegner's men in the same situation follow their first instinct to blame someone else. (p. 134)

Moreover, All the Little Live Things can be grouped with A Shooting Star in that its man-woman problem is not for Stegner the ultimate one: the central relationship here is father-daughter, Allston and his neighbor Marian Catlin…. [The] novel [is] too close to cliché. The immense energies of the participants do not lend enough life to the story, proving, I think, that Stegner's imagination is moved to sustain fictional flights only by the ultimate man-woman question that is answered in his fiction only by marriage: does the man seek a total relationship with a woman, and does he make it work?

From this point of reference, Stegner culminated his fiction with Angle of Repose. That this novel is his most ambitiously and perfectly crafted only hints at how fully it grew from the thinking and experience most moving to him over the years. The story of the Ward family has the scope of an epic and the control of a lyric because it draws together all the threads of Stegner's thinking about the West and about that final man-woman judgment. In that sense, the questions of his earlier fiction have only been preludes.

The masterful portrait of the novel, the wandering marriage of Oliver and Susan Ward, allows Stegner to explore a changing relationship, and even if that were the only level in the narrative it would have been a major work. Susan Burling Ward passes through all three stages Stegner's females have seen, while Oliver progresses through the ages of previous male protagonists, allowing the novel to replay and reassess marriage in all seasons. (p. 135)

Age seems to be the crucial fact enabling the man to perceive even the substance of the woman's calm message; to accept it, as Allston does [in The Spectator Bird], requires at least a ritual of humility. It is he, after all, who approaches Ruth at the end and shows affection to break the spell his reading has put over them. No previous Stegner male has done more than contemplate such an act.

But more important than the reconciliation, which may or may not convince all readers, is the timing. Why must it come so late? Why must Allston see himself and his fellow bird as spectators, and the energetic life as "drinking and boasting and fighting"? Why should the only young male in the novel, an Italian novelist, be a sexual predator? Are there not other alternatives?

An overview of Stegner's fiction implies there are not. The "honestly offered spirit" Stegner has presented has long been concerned with the irreconcilables between men and women. It is good to remember that in the last two novels reconciliation between the sexes is possible only because the male has somehow been robbed of his physical aggressiveness, Lyman Ward by amputation, Joe Allston by an old man's general deterioration. I am reminded of the horrible scarring Charlotte Brontë had to inflict upon proud Rochester before she could allow him to marry Jane Eyre, and it seems to me that The Spectator Bird and Angle of Repose only reconfirm the idea that Stegner is fascinated by and makes his most moving fiction from the battle of the sexes, and imperils his novels with an overlay of morality whose source is renunciation of that energy, as though all energy must tend towards evil. Clearly then, his optimism is of a curious kind. Stegner has that "partly feminine sensibility" Richard Chase perceived in Hawthorne and James, that "sense of the complexities of the psychological life" that men in a Wolf Willow world are not comfortable with. His women have always been complex in their vulnerability, while his men want to deny complexity because it restricts them. Yet Stegner remains fascinated with the aggressiveness and the opportunity for tests of will that characterize the male-dominated world of his fiction. His novels use women, but are inevitably about men, and to read them is to see restatements of free will, of optimism, of men hoping to remake themselves, but the overwhelming weight of evidence points to stasis and confusion where the guilt-inspired wishes of the head meet the implacable heart. A kind of predestination by hormones. Those who dismiss Stegner because he is merely optimistic do not read the real Stegner and do not see that the "honestly offered spirit" is also the consciously offered spirit, and not necessarily the whole or true one. (pp. 140-41)

Kerry Ahearn, "Heros vs. Women: Conflict and Duplicity in Stegner," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1976, University of Utah), Spring, 1977, pp. 125-41.