Place and imagination
by Ken Myers
By 1976, Wallace Stegner’s career as a writer was well established. He had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1972 (for Angle of Repose), and was to receive the National Book Award in 1977 for The Spectator Bird. But this diary entry from 1976 is evidence of an abiding sense of restlessness:
“Undoubtedly there are writers who know what they think, and write their books to air what they think. I, on the contrary, seem generally to be asking questions, maundering around and being amazed by the complexity (beauty, anguish) of the most ordinary people and events. Like Dreiser, I suppose I am going to leave this world knowing less than when I came.”
On Volume 157, I talked with Matthew Stewart about his book The Most Beautiful Place on Earth: Wallace Stegner in California (The University of Utah Press, 2022). Stewart’s book discusses Stegner’s novels as reflections on the effects of displacement in modern America.
“Stegner created artistic worlds that had integrity to them and explored a wide range of questions in those worlds, in the attempt to make sense out of the world he actually inhabited. They were moral laboratories of a sort. There is intellectual content to Stegner’s fiction that goes beyond strictly ‘aesthetic’ or ‘political’ categories. While few scholars would defend such divisions in theory, the legacy of the moralistic tales of the Victorians writing in the Genteel Tradition on the one hand, or the agitprop associated with the Popular Front of the 1930s on the other, left American writers with very prominent negative examples of a ‘prescriptive aesthetics,’ or propaganda posing as fiction. At its worst, such work was aesthetically worthless and perhaps not even entertaining, or, for the more politically oriented, simply a useless diversion from more valuable political action. It was a tendency to be avoided at all costs. Further, regardless of theoretical conviction, many readers are simply repulsed by fiction that is overtly ideological and didactic. Nonetheless, Stegner practiced a form of fiction that yields more insight if his novels are considered in the ‘novel of ideas’ category, in which the ‘intellectual’ and ‘aesthetic’ content of a novel are not easily disentangled.
“This is not because an occasional character in a Stegner novel engages in a witty conversation against hasty and destructive suburban development or some other conservation issue. Such remarks are a feature of Stegner’s fiction, but a tendency he studiously avoided as much as possible. Rather it is to emphasize that, for Stegner, the American West would only become a ‘geography of hope,’ in his terms, if its communities managed to enlist the loyalty of generations of stickers, who would build and maintain — and love — cultures that were adapted to the place.
“In the American postwar context, he considered fiction and, to a lesser extent, history and other forms of nonfiction, essential resources for that effort. In Stegner’s vision, fiction was a means of enlightening people to their existing or missing connections with places and other people. In the words of William Bevis, he ‘imagined’ and ‘wrenched’ the ‘conception of western from forms of escape to forms of belonging.’ This attempt was not separate from an aesthetic experience but was in fact part of the way that Stegner believed fiction worked when at its most powerful. It was at least the fiction he found most compelling.
“In sum, Stegner’s fiction should not be reduced to either soft political argument on the one hand or hard ideological fiction on the other; I see his books instead as artifacts that demand an aesthetic and intellectual response, that encourage a form of holistic thinking that is obscured by more one-dimensional modes of thought. Incorporating fiction into intellectual history allows for a mode of inquiry that is not as easily separated into formal and informal categories. Close reading of fiction can point towards ways that ideas are entangled with moral reasoning, sensibility, and emotion, seemingly intangible matters that fiction is uniquely poised to illuminate.”