By Honor Jones and Andrew Shelden
July 22nd, 2009
“Every writer is born to write one story,” Wallace Stegner once said during an interview. In his case, that story was rich enough to generate over a dozen novels—including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose—as well as fifty-eight short stories, one memoir, two biographies, two histories, and innumerable essays. Stegner’s story—of ambition and violence in the American west, families bound and divided, and our own messy American history—hasn’t ceased to be relevant, beautiful, and penetrating.
Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 on his grandfather’s farm in Lake Mills, Iowa, but Stegner’s father soon took his family west. And that time out west would inform Stegner’s sense of self and his writing for the remainder of his life:
I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I’ve got an exaggerated sense of place . . . my personal experiences are all I surely know, and those experiences are very likely to be rooted in places.
Much of Stegner’s writing grew out of his itinerant upbringing, a self-described “wandering childhood” that took him to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, Nevada, and California. In one of his first letters to VQR, he explained that he was “working on a novel of a picaresque nature based partially on the migration of my family through the Western U.S. and Canada.” Many of the stories he produced during this time were later put to use in that novel (The Big Rock Candy Mountain). Stegner was sensitive to the fact that he might be known as “that fellow who writes stories only about little boys in Saskatchewan,” but it was obvious from the beginning that there were greater tensions in his work, greater troubles in the world beyond a farm boy’s fear.
His writing first appeared in the pages of VQR in 1938, when he was a young college professor teaching in Wisconsin. In a book review that fall he wrote, “Somehow on the way to 1938, America has lost the knack of marching up the road to perfection by a series of regular steps.” Indeed, the country had been struggling through the Great Depression for the better part of a decade, and another world war was brewing overseas. No doubt Stegner, like all great writers, had his ear to the ground during these difficult times; his stories could not help but be influenced by these ponderous issues, often in intensely personal ways.
He published three brutal short stories in VQR around this time, all of which depict boys growing up in the rural west of the US and Canada. His characters are often numbed or terrified by what surrounds them—the state, the community, or the violence of the prairie itself. The first of these stories, “Bugle Song,” published in the summer of 1938, is about a boy who hunts and kills hundreds of gophers for a school competition. With a world war looming, it is hard not to read into Stegner’s description of the boy looking at what he had killed:
Frequently he had stood to windward of a dead and swollen gopher, watching the body shift and move with the movements of the beetles and crawling things working their way through it. If such an infested corpse were turned over, the beetles would roar out of it, great orange-colored, hard-shelled, scavenging things that made his blood curdle at the thought of their touching him, and after they were gone and he looked again he would see the little black ones, undisturbed, seething through the rotten flesh. So he always buried his dead, now.
And this description is followed by an unsettling detail: the boy goes on whistling through the cactus blooms, indifferent to these small, self-created horrors. He is the insensitive killer, but he is also capable of losing himself in romantic daydreams or his mother’s old copy of Natural and Lyrical Poems. This tension between the violence and loneliness of the physical world and the tamer, domestic arena of civilization is one that runs through all of Stegner’s work.
“Bugle Song” is also informed by Stegner’s memories of growing up on a rugged and raw frontier. As he noted in his autobiographical essay “Finding the Place: A Migrant Childhood”:
Nobody could have been more brainlessly and immorally destructive. And yet there was love there, too. We took delight in knowing intimately the same animals we killed. Our pets were all captives from the wild—burrowing owls, magpies, a coyote pup, a ferret I caught in a gopher trap and kept in a screened beer case and fed with live gophers. One of the first short stories I ever wrote, “Bugle Song,” was a moment from that tranced, murderous summer season when I went from poetry and daydreaming to killing, and back to daydreaming. “Bugle Song” is an idyll counterweighted by death.
After the success of “Bugle Song,” Stegner was in regular contact with VQR for the next several years, continuing to write book reviews for the magazine despite the lack of compensation. His diligence and generosity, in combination with his critical acumen, made him a favorite in the VQR offices. In 1940, new editor Archibald Shepperson extended an offer to Stegner that could have altered the trajectory of his academic and writing life. Shepperson was looking to hire an editor for a one- or two- year appointment to judge manuscripts for a new writing contest the magazine was cosponsoring, The Thomas Jefferson Southern Award. Shepperson wrote that the job would “require one-half to two-thirds of one man’s time” and that it would allow “considerable extra time for any writing of your own.” Stegner replied immediately by telegram that he was greatly intrigued by the offer, but his situation was complicated by his recent appointment to a teaching position at Harvard. Stegner wrote, “If the editorship could be handled from Cambridge with occasional Charlottesville visits,” he would be very interested. In a subsequent letter, though, Shepperson insisted—“with extreme reluctance”—that the position required local residency. Stegner, thus, remained at Harvard and VQR filled its vacancy with another choice.
The job offer did nothing to deter the relationship between magazine and author, as Stegner soon after published his second story in VQR, in 1942. “Chip Off the Old Block” tells the story of a Montana boy left to defend his family’s farm and his father’s cache of whiskey against neighbors and thieves while his parents recuperate from a flu epidemic. Much like “Bugle Song,” there are moments during this boy’s difficult rite of passage that reflect the somber mood of war:
And at night, when he lay on the couch and stared into the sleepy red eyes of the heater, he heard noises that walked the house, and there were crosses in the lamp chimneys when he lighted them, and he knew that someone would die.
Although the story closes with the boy angrily seeking his father’s approval—another theme Stegner would return to again and again in his writing—it is the quiet passages when the boy is scared and alone that remain with the reader long after. In 1943, Stegner followed “Chip Off the Old Block” with “Hostage,” arguably the least successful story he published in VQR. “Hostage” tells the story of a young boy falsely arrested on arson charges. The strength of the story lies in the boy’s conviction; he clings to his notion of the truth, even as his family crumbles in front of him. But the characters in “Hostage” do not seem as fully developed as those in the previous stories.
By the end of 1943, Stegner was a rising star in the literary field. He had done well at Harvard, and his first novel—that one about the boys from Saskatchewan—was published to great acclaim. While communication between VQR and Stegner remained steady into the middle of the decade, editor Charlotte Kohler felt compelled to write a note to Stegner saying, “We hope ‘Hostage’ will not be the last of your stories to appear in the Quarterly’s pages.” Unfortunately, her premonition proved correct, though he would continue to write book reviews for several years. His critically accepted masterpiece, Angle of Repose, would not be published until 1971, but his lasting success seemed assured by the end of the 1940s.
In his last note to VQR, dated June 24, 1949, Stegner was responding, graciously as always, to a request for biographical information, and after providing a few new details—that, for instance, he had taken a position as director of the Writing Center at Stanford University—he made a wry aside that anything else of substance “could be found in the Who’s Who.” He was a writer on the rise, marching up that road by a series of regular steps, though we at VQR are proud to say that his beginnings were, and remain, with us.
Stegner’s original manuscripts (Papers of the Virginia Quarterly Review, 1935-1954, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia Library):
Stegner’s publications in VQR:
- “Bugle Song” (fiction, Summer 1938)
- “Chronicles of the West” (book review, Autumn 1938)
- “Conductivity in Fiction” (book review, Summer 1939)
- “The New Novels” (book review, Summer 1940)
- “Chip Off the Old Block” (fiction, Autumn 1942)
- “Hostage” (fiction, Summer 1943)
- Patricia Rowe Willrich’s essay “A Perspective on Wallace Stegner” from our Spring 1991 issue.
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