Dean of Western Writers

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)

Sometimes we have the pleasure of encountering a writer during different periods of life. Same author, same reader, but a new intersection due to the passage of time.

Wallace Stegner is a great American writer I have now met twice. The first time was thirty or so years ago when I read his novels Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose (Pulitzer Prize, 1972). I had heard that he was a professor at Stanford who had taught the famous Northwest writer Raymond Carver, but I did not know students also included Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, and future Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. That’s a tall legacy.

We met again two years ago in a roundabout way. I was considering writing a history of the Mormon settlement of Utah in the mid-19th century, tracing my own ancestors’ journey from the U.K. to Utah. I wanted to do some exploratory reading but didn’t know where to begin, so I asked a history professor at Brigham Young University to recommend two or three books. He suggested The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, which he includes on the syllabus for his introductory Utah history classes. It was written by Wallace Stegner. Wait a minute, that Wallace Stegner? I had no idea that the novelist I admired and Raymond Carver studied under was an esteemed historian of the American West, and of Utah in particular. Furthermore, I learned that Stegner and I both spent our adolescence in Salt Lake City and attended the University of Utah (he graduated in 1930, I transferred to the University of Washington). Had he also been raised Mormon? No, he was raised Presbyterian before sliding, like me, toward agnosticism. From a young age Stegner fell in love with the West – its landscape, its frontier-ness, its hardy settlers.

I figured that if a BYU professor uses a gentile author in his introductory classes, that speaks well for both Stegner and the professor. I promptly read The Gathering of Zion and was grateful for the professor’s suggestion. The Gathering is deeply researched, well-written, and unlike so many tracts by non-Mormons about that religion, Stegner treats the faith and its surrounding culture with respect. That is not to say he avoids those warts which disfigure every religion; Stegner lets us know that the LDS (Latter-day Saints) faith is no exception.

I have decided to write the history book and to that end just finished Mormon Country, a book Stegner published at age 33, two decades before The Gathering. Mormon Country is more anecdotal, hop-scotchy, less considered. One fun chapter tells of the lapsed Mormon Butch Cassidy and his Hole-in-the-Wall Gang, which hid out in southern Utah. Mormon Country was Stegner’s first work of nonfiction. Four novels preceded it.

Stegner honed his lyrical prose in those early novels. In this passage from Mormon Country a girl and her bo have just left a Mormon dance: “They walked clear out from under the cottonwoods, clear out of town, up the sagebrush slope, up to a smooth, grassless knob of half-formed rock. There they sat while the long rampart of Monroe Mountain began to smoke with moonrise; they watched the Lombardy poplars by the foothill springs catch silver fire till they looked like light-tipped foxtails; they watched the light come down the ledges of Sigurd Mountain, across the valley, and the junipers emerge again from their dark background; they watched the valley open tree by tree and field by field into the moonlight, and the sagebrush slope below them go liquid silver.” You can pretty much smell the juniper and sage.

The bonds of Mormon society held strong appeal for a boy with a nomadic childhood and a shifty father. About a famed bandit, Rafael Lopez, Stegner writes: “as members of the cohesive Mormon society their first duty would have been to God and their second to a member of the group. But Lopez had to pay the penalty of living in a society that was completely individualist. He belonged to no group. There was no one among his friends who dared take the chance of protecting him.” The American West attracted rugged individualists, antisocial wild men whom Stegner painted as “animals with only a varnish of domestication.” Stegner’s father figures in there somewhere. When Stegner praises the Saints as “a domesticated animal,” his respect is more admiring than grudging. Richard Etulain observes in an introduction to Mormon Country that Stegner saw the “covenanted [Mormon] community as an antidote to the ruthless, destructive individualism of a rootless frontier.” In much of his writing about the American West Stegner denounces the antisocial anarchic cowboy and praises nourishing, hopeful communities that build for future generations, such as he witnessed with the Mormons.

Stegner’s childhood was filled with economic failure and pulling up stakes. He said that he grew up in 20 places in eight states and Saskatchewan. When the family landed in Salt Lake City his dodgy father supplemented work as a bootlegger by playing poker. Mormons befriended the young Stegner, inviting him to church social events and dances. (Unlike some other religions founded in 19th century America, Mormons value music, dance and theatre.) At an LDS church he joined a Boy Scout troop and earned Eagle Scout honors. Though never embracing Mormon theology, Stegner always admired the religion’s ethos of cooperation and mutual support.

P.S. In 2009, for the centennial of Stegner’s birth, Seattle writer Timothy Egan wrote a fine retrospective essay in the New York Times about the man who came to be called the “Dean of Western writers.” (The Times was not Stegner’s favorite publication, for reasons Egan recounts.)

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