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A Perspective on Wallace Stegner

ISSUE:  Spring 1991

Wallace Stegner, now in his 80’s, is still writing. In April 1990, The Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner was published to wide acclaim. In 1987, his tenth novel, Crossing to Safety, was published, 50 years after publication of his first, Remembering Laughter. So far, Stegner has written 31 books, a literary achievement of remarkable proportions.

Stegner has summed up his present situation: “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it, you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it. It’s like a beaver’s teeth. He has to chew or else his jaws lock shut.”

Stegner is, however, well known in several distinct roles: prize-winning novelist (Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, National Book Award for Spectator Bird); founding director of the Stanford University creative writing program which bears his name; biographer, historian, essayist, editor; and conservationist. Stegner is often called an environmentalist who also writes. But he describes himself as a writer who sometimes leaves his desk to act in environmental causes. His respect for the natural environment is central to his character.

Stegner’s writings—both fiction and nonfiction—focus mainly on the West. “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.”

Like most writers, Stegner’s fiction starts from his own experience. But, you can’t “really go out and commit experience in order to write about it. You have to take it after it has happened to you and make some sense out of it. . . . I can’t [think of] anything you can imagine with except the facts of real life, but you don’t have to be restricted by them . . . you break experiences up into pieces, and you put them together in different combinations, . . . and some are real and some are imagined.”

Stegner admits to having blurred the boundaries between history and fiction. “In several historical works I have attempted to enliven history by what seems to me expressions of the kind of fictional truth we’re after.”

Stegner’s most autobiographical work, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, yields insights into the origins of the most important themes of his life and writings—how man relates to his family and to his surrounding environment. He is Bruce, a young boy sharing with his mother his thoughts about growing up.

“People [thought Bruce] . . . were always being looked at as points, and they ought to be looked at as lines. There weren’t any points, it was false to assume that a person ever was anything. He was always becoming something, always changing, always continuous and moving, like the wiggly line on a machine used to measure earthquake shocks. He was always what he was in the beginning, but never exactly what he was; he moved along a line dictated by his heritage and his environment, but he was subject to every sort of variation within the narrow limits of his capabilities.”

From his days as a graduate student onward, Stegner’s line was up and out—achievement building on achievement.


Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 on his grandfather’s farm in Lake Mills, Iowa. He was the son of a rugged father who moved his family all over the West looking for opportunities, and of a mother who, in spite of isolation and loneliness, followed her nesting instincts and created a home wherever the family happened to be.

When Stegner was five, the family moved to Eastend, Saskatchewan, living at first in a derailed dining car. Stegner’s father built a gabled house in the town and a shack on the homestead 40 miles away where they spent their summers growing wheat. Stegner still feels the pull of the land that formed him. “You get imprinted very early. Those savannas, prairies, were where people first became human. There’s certainly something in all the people that I’ve ever known who grew up in short grass country that simplifies the world. I think it’s useful to grow up where people have the dignity of rareness.”

Stegner captures this atmosphere in his nonfiction work, Wolf Willow (1961).

“The plain spreads southward, an ocean of wind-troubled grass and grain. It has its remembered textures: winter wheat heavily headed, scoured and shadowed as if schools of fish move in it; spring wheat with its young seed-rows as precise as combings in a boy’s wet hair; gray-brown summer fallow with the weeds disked under; and grass, the marvelous curly prairie wool, tight to the earth’s skin, straining the wind as the wheat does, but in its own way, secretly.”

. . . The people are “mystical, egocentrical, perhaps poetic . . . but not humble. . . . At noon the total sun pours on your single head; at sunrise or sunset you throw a shadow a hundred yards long. It was not prairie dwellers who invented the indifferent universe or impotent man. Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”

Eastend in those days was a frontier. The river was still full of beavers and muskrats. “We were all just turned loose, carrying guns by the time we were eight or nine—22’s and shot guns not bee bee guns. That’s a part of my childhood that I’d just as soon live down because in frontiers like that you just grow up killing things. I suppose half the reason I’m concerned about nature now is that I spoiled enough of it when I was young and ignorant.”

Stegner spent a lot of time living close to nature. He ran a trap line out on the homestead. “I was killing gophers—two dozen a day. Every once in a while, I’d catch something else. A weasel, or a black footed ferret, or a badger. Even hawks on occasion. It’s too lively to let something like that loose. Generally you end up stoning it because you can’t do anything else. I learned quite a lot about animals. By destroying them.”

During those years, Stegner had lots of time to use his imagination. “For one thing, there weren’t very many children in that town. I suppose Eastend had 500 people. There may have been 75 children. We all went to the same Sunday school, the same parties, the same school, which had just four rooms. You didn’t like everybody and they didn’t all like you. But you knew them. You had a sense of society, and sometimes a sense of excitement. It was a new community, and it was just starting. It had all kind of things going on in it. You don’t understand them when you’re growing up in it but sometimes you do later.”

During the summers, his brother Cecil, two years older, worked and lived in town, while he lived with his parents on the homestead helping with the wheat crop. “For a couple of summers,” he says, “I was entirely alone. I hardly saw another kid. In a place that doesn’t have any people at all and no signs of people. No buildings in sight, no trees, no anything; you’re just out on a geometrical disc.” Stegner captured this in a short story, “Bugle Song,” which he later incorporated into Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Stegner describes himself during those Saskatchewan years as a “little savage.” From Big Rock Candy Mountain, the reader also knows he was sickly and small and often fearful of his abusive father. “I grew up hating my weakness and my cowardice and trying to pretend that neither existed.”

He gave no thought to writing then. He never met a writer until after college. “So there wasn’t any literary ambition. I didn’t make up songs or go around chanting into the grass.”

Stegner did write on the air, until he was teased about it and stopped. “I did it in the middle of ball games or anywhere else. I wrote whatever was in my head. I hadn’t any idea what it was. Whatever word came to mind.”

Stegner feels that living in the country was good for developing observational skills. “When there isn’t a lot to catch your eye, you keep looking for things to catch your eye. Ants will get very interesting to you.”

When Stegner was eleven, the family moved to Great Falls, Montana.

“I left Saskatchewan mourning what I had left behind and scared of what we were going toward, and one look at my mother told me she was feeling the same way. . . . I was a nester like my mother; I loved the place I was losing, the place that my living had worn smooth.”

But Great Falls became a turning point, for he now had access to a public library. “It wasn’t until [we moved again to] Salt Lake City, that I began to be a real addict. I would go down to the library two or three times a week to bring away three or four books each time, without any direction.”

Stegner says he “took shelter” in social groups as an adolescent. In Salt Lake City “you could go to the Boy Scouts, or you could go to the Mormon wardhouse [he was not a Mormon], and I was grateful for it because I was a kind of lone particle, and I was looking for something to attach to.”

Since he had skipped the seventh and tenth grades, Stegner graduated from high school at 16, with his older brother Cecil.

“I hadn’t even started to grow. I probably weighed 90 pounds about the time we stood up together on this graduation platform. That could be difficult for [Cecil] . . . I was held to be smarter than he was, but I was such a runt he couldn’t help being ashamed of me. Nevertheless we got on very well, and we were good friends, partly because we were in no sense competitive. He didn’t go on to college. He played semipro baseball and worked in the mines and married early.” Cecil died of pneumonia at 23.


At the University of Utah, Stegner started in economics but, encouraged by an English teacher, changed his major to English in his sophomore year. He graduated from Utah in 1930, and went to the University of Iowa for graduate studies, receiving his Ph. D. in American Literature in 1935. In 1934 he married his wife, Mary, also a graduate student in English, and thus established a relationship that lasts to this day.

At Iowa he started writing in earnest. He had not written for the Utah college paper, partly because he worked 40 hours a week for a linoleum company. He says, “I didn’t know what I wanted to be—maybe make a living selling linoleum . . . I can’t claim I ever had a dedication to the arts. I was going into business but [this was the Depression and] there was no business. I guess I’ve been a kind of weathervane, taking the line of least resistance, going wherever friends who knew better kept pushing me.”

Stegner credits the encouragement from his college professors for making a difference in his writing. “I was patted on the head. It keeps you going. When I was at Iowa, they let you write stories for an M.A. thesis. I didn’t write during the years of my Ph. D. Then I wrote a story and it became a chapter later in The Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Stegner was paid $25 for the story.

After graduation from Iowa and a semester of teaching at a small college in Illinois, Stegner returned to the University of Utah, where he taught for the next three years.

Stegner likes to tell the story of writing his first novel. He saw the notice of a contest. Since he did not have a class to teach until 10 o’clock, he wrote for two hours every morning until he finished Remembering Laughter.

This first work won the 1937 Little-Brown prize and $2,500. On the strength of it, Stegner quit his teaching job at Utah, and he and Mary bicycled around England and France for a summer. When his prize money was spent, he took the first job offered: instructor at the University of Wisconsin. Two years later, he went on to Harvard, where he taught composition for six years as assistant professor. During that time, he wrote On a Darkling Plan (1940), Fire and Ice (1941), and Mormon Country (1942).

Then in 1943, Big Rock Candy Mountain was published. This was the novel that brought Stegner fame and commercial success.

Big Rock Candy Mountain took six years to write. “The whole experience of writing that novel was, in a sense, cathartic, because I had to re-create a lot of my past, and it was a long way past.”

Stegner says he was exorcising his father in the novel. “The dominant figure in your life probably is your father . . . and if he happens himself to be mixed-up, irritable, and frustrated, and to feel himself many times a failure—those things do bounce off the child’s head and leave knots. . . . The effect, I’m sure, of such a dominating and hair-trigger kind of father on many kids is to breed a kind of insecurity which may never be healed. I was probably looking for security.”

Stegner writes in Big Rock Candy Mountain about Bo Mason, modeled after his father:

“He was born with the itch in his bones. . . . He was always telling stories of men who had gone over the hills to some new place and found a land of Canaan, made their pile, got to be big men in the communities they fathered. But the Canaans toward which Bo’s feet had turned had not lived up to their promise. People had been before him. The cream, he said, was gone. He should have lived a hundred years earlier.

“Yet he would never quite grant that all the good places were filled up. There was somewhere, if you knew where to find it, some place where money could be made like drawing water from a well, some Big Rock Candy Mountain where life was effortless and rich and unrestricted and full of adventure and action, where something could be had for nothing.”

Stegner’s father committed suicide in 1940, three years before Big Rock Candy Mountain was published. Stegner says he could not have published the book when his father was alive.

Stegner agrees with those who think that the women in his fiction often seem stronger than the men. This stems in part from his relationship with his mother. He says “a lot of it is recollected in something less than tranquility. That was a hard life for a woman—very lonely and isolated and periodically yanked up by the roots.”

Stegner describes his mother as “gentle and affectionate, yet at the same time very durable. . . . She could take the kind of life that she got handed. But it killed her, too. She died at 50, so I never really knew her in my later life.” [Stegner was 24 at the time of his mother’s death.] “We got on very well; I could talk with her endlessly, and did. . . . She had a lot of cultural hungers and a real cultural capacity. She was a reader.”

His mother had not gone beyond the sixth grade; she helped raise her brothers and sisters after her mother died. Stegner says her life was “terribly limited. . . . She never met anyone who had an education or ideas. Nobody who had traveled anywhere. She had to do what a lot of women in the past have had to do—get a vicarious life out of her children.”

In 1944, Stegner took a leave from Harvard for a year and a half to work on One Nation, a book that examines the conditions of racial minorities in the United States. This project, initiated by Look Magazine, was published in 1945.

At the end of this assignment, Stanford University offered Stegner a full professorship. He says, “I came like a nine-inch trout on a copper trolling line. . . . I arrived at Stanford just as the GI students were flooding back, the best students, and the most motivated, that any professor ever had. Many of them were gifted writers. They had so much to say and they had been bottled up for two or three or four years. They were clearly going to have to be handled somewhat differently from the ordinary 18-year-old undergraduate.”

With these students in mind, he drew up a proposal for a writing program—a combination of fellowships, prizes, visiting writers, and short publications. He presented it to Richard Foster Jones, then head of the Stanford English department. When his brother, Dr. E.H. Jones, who had discovered oil on his Texas property, learned about the proposal, he offered funding for five years. The half-millon dollars in the E.H. Jones Endowment paid for the major part of the program for the next 30 years.

The models for the program were Iowa, Harvard, and Bread Loaf near Middlebury, Vermont. Stegner had participated for several years in the two-week Bread Loaf Writers’ summer workshop. There he began his friendships with Bernard De Voto, Robert Frost and others. He says, “It was a nice place but it was a kind of two week bedlam. If it had lasted one day longer, divorces and murders and all kinds of things might have taken place. Two weeks and you just got out in time.”

Over the years, many well-known writers have come through the Stanford creative writing program. Stegner says, “It’s like being a basketball coach with great recruiters. Somehow or other, Stanford is a great recruiter. Good people have come here. They always make the coach look good. Sometimes, someone of quite exceptional quality comes along—like Bob Stone, or Wendell Berry, or Larry McMurtry or Tom McGuane. A lot of American literature got written out of that program by those people and others. I had a sense as they were coming through my class that I was seeing American literature before it was in print.”

Stegner’s teaching was always in conflict with his own writing. “It was hard to write novels while I was teaching because for one thing, I was reading students’ novels. As Frank O’Connor used to say, “When you get more interested in your student’s novel than your own, you’re in trouble.”“

Stegner asked Richard Scowcroft, his former student at the University of Utah, to come from Harvard to assist him with the program. For the next 25 years, Stegner and Scowcroft alternated teaching the writing workshop; Stegner generally took summer and fall quarters off to write himself.

Stegner has said that he thinks literacy and grammar can be taught; he does not believe people can be taught to be imaginative. “You can encourage them to be. But if the spark isn’t there, I don’t think they can be taught to write. The spark is a gift. Character, stamina and other things go into it, too. A lot of it is luck.”


During the 1950’s, Stegner published two collections of short stories as well as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. With his wife, Mary, he edited Great American Short Stories. Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel was published in 1950.

Ten years elapsed before Stegner published another novel, A Shooting Star, in 1961. About this hiatus, Stegner says he was discouraged by the way his books were received, so, he stopped writing novels for a period. A Shooting Star is not a book he is fond of now. “It came dangerously close to being a soap opera,” he says.

Stegner and his wife, Mary, served as West Coast editors for Houghton Mifflin for eight years. He scouted his own Stanford students as possible authors and published his cousin, Tom Heggen, who wrote Mister Roberts.

All the Little Live Things was published in 1967, a story about a retired couple living in Los Altos Hills who become close to a neighbor, a young married woman who is dying of cancer. Stegner still gets letters from readers of this work who have lost a relative or friend to cancer. He was feeling grim when he wrote the novel. “In one year,” he says, “four of our friends died of cancer . . . all relatively young women in their forties.” Stegner says “I knew from the beginning that it was too glum a subject, a downer, unless I could do something with the surface of it to make it look lighter than it was. That’s when I invented Joe Alston [as the narrator]. He’s a composite. The part of him that gave him his profession and something of his exacerbated willful irony was my former agent, Carl Brandt, who was always threatening to write a book called “what I have done for 10 percent.”“

Stegner says that when he moved to Los Altos Hills in 1948, there were a lot of people retiring to California as well as a lot of young people rushing in. “This was right after World War II when the growth in California took place . . . . It made for a rather prickly situation. Some people wanted California to stay a pastoral paradise but others thought “tear up those orchards in Santa Clara valley and plant factories.”” Stegner mixed up these ideas in Joe Alston. “I liked the chance to be crabby if I felt like being and put it in somebody else’s mouth.” Stegner is quick to point out, however, that he is not Joe Alston. “He’s wittier than I. I say that even though I made him. He turns things into wisecracks and recovers from them or dismisses them in ways I can’t. He is also angrier than I am. He gets more emotionally involved and mad about things. About his child [who committed suicide], about the hippie [living] down below, about all kinds of things that draw his wrath, he’s a firecracker. Whereas, I think I boil at a little higher temperature.” Stegner says he was never a frustrated writer like Joe. “I was always in one way or another, able to do what I most wanted to do which was write.”

In All the Little Live Things, Stegner draws on his own experiences, his own sense of place. “I’m writing right off this hill. I’m looking at it out my window as I put it down, and I’m dealing with the problems that a bedroom town like this encounters on its way to becoming a community. I’m looking at the kinds of neighbors we have had, the kinds of people they are, and the kinds of lives they live.”

“One minute I was looking out my study window into the greeny-gold twilight under the live oak, watching a towhee kick up the leaves, and the next I saw that the air beyond the tree was scratched with fine rain. Now the flagstones are shining, the tops of the horizontal oak limbs are dark-wet, there is a growing drip from the dome of the tree above, the towhee’s olive back had melted into umber dusk and gone.”

Stegner published The Sound of Mountain Water in 1969, a collection of personal essays written over a period of more than 20 years. He writes in the Introduction: “. . . if these essays begin in innocence, with a simple-minded love of Western landscapes and Western experience, they move toward the attempt, more systematically made in other books of mine, to understand what it is one loves, what is special or fragile about it, and how far love will take us.”

Stegner retired from Stanford at age 62 in 1971, in part to have full time to devote to his writing and in some part due to the disillusionment of teaching in the 1960’s. It was a demoralizing time for him because the students could not keep their minds on their work. “A lot of the aggressive ones came with answers instead of questions. . . . The undergraduate classes were a shambles. There were all kinds of expression of the repudiation of authority. The University wasn’t replacing the broken windows; we were a plywood university until it all passed.” There were a lot of “serious dedicated [writing students] whose minds were not political at all who wanted to come here and get the most out of a fellowship year and write their book. But they were being shattered and shaken up. So that was one of the principal reasons I resigned. I didn’t want to go on teaching under those circumstances.”


Angle of Repose was published in 1971. The critics thought it was his best, awarding it the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. Stegner said: “It cost me the most in effort and thought. And it comes closest to what I think I understand about the culture I [came] from.”

Angle of Repose grew from Stegner’s study of the life and letters of Mary Halleck Foote, writer and illustrator, who followed her mining-engineer husband west from New York in the 1870’s. In the novel, their travels are re-created by their grandson, Lyman Ward, an historian, who, 100 years later, links their lives to his.

Initially, Stegner considered writing a biography of Mary Halleck Foote, but her story did not interest him enough. “But, I discovered somewhere deep in one of the letters a veiled illusion to her husband’s alcoholism. He was full of disappointments and constant trouble. So I began to see a novel, and I spent another year just reading around in the letters to see what novel I thought was there. And eventually, quite without my inclination or knowledge, it became a kind of second run of The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The nesting woman and the booming man, which is an old western theme.” Stegner says it was “probably in my bones.”

The angle of repose is the angle of rest at around 30 degrees at which loose dirt will stop sliding. “I guess I used that title because it suggested something which was inevitable given certain conditions. You have to find [the angle]. You roll until you make your own slope. Those two people rolled quite a lot and, in a way, never succeeded in making their own slope. But in another way, did. . . . They were still a marriage. They were still bonded mutually, respectfully in their curious, mixed way. And lastingly.”

In the novel, Lyman Ward tells his son, Rodman, that as he goes through his grandmother’s letters and memorabilia, he is writing a book about a marriage.

“What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.”

Here we have again Stegner creating a strong sense of place. Susan Burling Ward writes about the Idaho territory to her friend back east.

“[This] is a place where silence closes about you . . . where a soft, dry wind from great distances hums through the telephone wires and a stage road goes out of sight in one direction and a new railroad track in another. There is not a tree, nothing but sage. As moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens. The wind has magic in it, and the air is full of birds and birdsong . . . . Not a house, windmill, hill—only that jade-gray plain with lilac mountains on every distant horizon.”

Stegner published The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard De Voto in 1973. In his Introduction, he says:

“We were both Westerners by birth and upbringing, novelists by intention, teachers by necessity, and historians by the sheer compulsion of the region that shaped us . . . The same compulsion that made amateur historians of us made us conservationists as well.”

Stegner published a second Joe Alston book, Spectator Bird, in 1976, and it won the National Book Award. By now Joe is almost 70 and, supposedly, is writing a book about his life as literary agent. Mainly, he is going through old albums and letters. A postcard arrives from a woman in Denmark, a one-time romantic interest, causing him to reread his journals of a trip he and his wife had taken to Denmark years before.

Stegner wanted to write a story about crossing the Atlantic on the Stockholm. “I had to write that up and, having written it, I began to cobble on the basis of that. We did live in Denmark for six months so I had a notion of the country. I did run across the trail of a Danish nobleman, a great breeder of horses, who was thrown in jail for incest which struck me as a nice theme, and we did meet Karen Blixen. So I was pulled into the Gothic tale, by a succession of recollections that didn’t come all at once.”

When asked if there is to be a third Joe Allston book, Stegner laughs and says Joe would really be crotchety now.

In 1979, Recapitulation was published. Stegner calls it a “trailer” to The Big Rock Candy Mountain, but more fictionalized. By that time, he did not need a catharsis. In the novel, we find Bruce now a diplomat in his 7O’s, returning to Salt Lake City to attend the funeral of an aunt. During his stay, his memories confront his adolescence and, in particular, his hatred for his father. By looking back, he is able to see things more clearly, in a different light, and come to a sense of acceptance of his past, a reconciliation.


Stegner’s environmental concerns began after World War II. He has written: “Natural things soothe my soul, and I like to help preserve them if possible.” Bernard De Voto urged Stegner to oppose actively a bill that would have divested the government of all its grazing lands. Stegner later joined many other conservationists to support legislation to prohibit construction of dams in national parks. In 1961, Stegner served as assistant to Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, joining the campaign for a wilderness bill.

Stegner wrote at the time:

“It is a lovely and terrible wilderness, such a wilderness as Christ and the prophets went out into; harshly and beautifully colored, broken and worn until its bones are exposed, its great sky without a smudge of taint from Technocracy, and in hidden corners and pockets under its cliffs, the sudden poetry of springs. Save a piece of country like that intact, and it does not matter in the slightest that only a few people every year will go into it. That is precisely its value. Roads would be a desecration, crowds would ruin it. But those who haven’t the strength or youth to go into it and live, can simply sit and look. They can look two hundred miles . . . they can also look as deeply into themselves as anywhere I know . . .”

The Wilderness Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson in September 1964, designating nine million acres of wilderness areas on the American public lands. Stegner subsequently became a board member of the Sierra Club, founded the Committee for Green Foothills and has served on the National Parks Advisory Board.

With his son Page, also a novelist and writer about the environment, Stegner published in 1981 a book of essays about wilderness areas in the United States entitled American Places.

Crossing to Safety, Stegner’s latest novel, was published in 1987. It is a story of a 34-year friendship between two couples—Larry and Sally Morgan from the West and Sid and Charity Lang, Easterners—who meet in 1938 as young academics at the University of Wisconsin. Through life’s ups and downs, they remain devoted and loyal and as a final test of friendship, Charity, the most vividly drawn of the four characters, has summoned the Morgans from New Mexico to Vermont to help her die.

Stegner thinks that friendship is not a “notion,” but a “series of acts, a relationship that is constantly changing. Somewhere in the Berkeley Library, the hero of the novel, [Larry Morgan], runs across Henry Adams, who says that “Chaos is a rule of nature, and order a dream of man.” This novel is about the tension between chaos and order, and how friendship is an effort at order.”

Stegner planned to use the words of his friend, Robert Frost, as an epigraph but found in them instead his title:

“I could give all to Time except—except What I myself have held. But why declare The things forbidden that while the Customs slept I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There And what I would not part with I have kept.”

Stegner says there is a kind of crossing to safety for each character in the novel. “Every one of these four lives crosses to a different kind of safety. And crosses something different. And takes with him something different.”

Stegner wrote this book on a theme, something he doesn’t ordinarily do. He says, “It’s a portrait of a friendship and I made everybody in the book fit the theme of the friendship.”

Larry Morgan, the narrator, thinks about what friendship is. “Friendship,” he decides, “is a relationship that has no formal shape, there are no rules or obligations or bonds as in marriage or the family, it is held together by neither law nor property nor blood, there is no glue in it but mutual liking. It is therefore rare.”

In thinking about the long friendship between the Morgans and the Langs, Larry concludes: “We made plenty of mistakes, but we never tripped anybody to gain an advantage, or took illegal shortcuts when no judge was around. We have all jogged and panted it out the whole way.”

When asked if this novel is as much about marriage as about friendship, Stegner said, “Marriage is a form of friendship. Friendship is a form of marriage. Put it either way. It’s a close, intimate, forgiving relationship.”

The friendship between the women is the more intense. “I know it’s fashionable to suggest there was a lesbian relationship, but there wasn’t. I think friendship can be stronger for not having to cross sexual picket lines.”

Contrasts are a conscious part of the craft of this novel. Stegner says, “I wanted a contrast between a poor boy on the make [Larry Morgan] and one who is essentially born with a gold spoon in his mouth [Sid Lang]. And I had to give the poor boy some way of making it, so I took the easiest way out and made him a writer. Rich, poor, part of the ambiguous nature of friendship—the gratitude and other kind of things which can foul up a friendship and cloud it.”

In the book, the difficult but generous Charity says, “Friends don’t have to repay anything. Friendship is the most selfish thing there is.”

Stegner strikes a balance between his characters. “Larry has what Sid wished he had—a talent for writing. Sid and Charity both in the way of money and advantages and education and so on have what Larry and Sally would like. Sally is a stabler character than any of them but she gets polio.” And in spite of determination and manipulation, Charity doesn’t get what she wants.

Larry Morgan comes at the end to the realization that “Sid Lang best understands that my marriage is as surely built on addiction and dependence as his is.” Sid needed Charity’s domination even as it debilitated him. Larry is tied by the inexorable chains of love to Sally, whose polio is doomed to return at the end of her life. He doubts if he can survive her. Larry also realizes that the affliction of Sally’s polio can be a “rueful blessing. It has made her more than she was; it has let her give me more than she would ever have been able to give me healthy; it has taught me at least the alphabet of gratitude.”

Stegner began this book as a memoir, not a novel. “I was just trying to get some friends of ours down where I could understand them. It turned out to be a novel because I invented a whole lot more than I intended. I was going to do this one right straight from life but I can’t do that. I’m not to be trusted with life; I keep inventing it.”

He spent 40 years trying to understand “a lady whom we loved but who was constantly standing people on their ears. There was a Charity. She is dead. But I wanted to get her said. All of her children suffered from her inordinately because she bore down on them. She couldn’t do anything except in her own way.” This included insistence on arranging the details of her own death.

Death is another theme in Crossing to Safety. Larry Morgan says, “. . . if you could forget mortality . . . you could really believe that time is circular, and not linear and progressive, as our culture is bent on proving. Seen in geological perspective, we are fossils in the making, to be eventually exposed again for the puzzlement of creature of later eras.”

Stegner says that “biological mortality is the only immortality I believe in. It’s not a full comfort, I don’t suppose, if you’re going to come down to a pound and a half of chemicals that will disperse themselves through a lot of other biology, but still it’s more comforting than total oblivion. Some people I know take great comfort from the notion of the continuity of life.”

Readers of Crossing to Safety are left with many questions. Stegner says, “A novel that doesn’t ask more questions than it can answer isn’t doing its job.”

Wallace Stegner dedicated this novel to his wife Mary. He says that Mary Stegner is tired of being read as the wife in any of his books. But Stegner admits that Mary is like the character of Sally. In the book he writes, “Sally had a part in everything I wrote. She is critic, editor, gadfly, memory bank, typist, she decides when things are good enough to be sent out.” Stegner says that he thinks “that’s also the pattern for any good marriage that I know in which one or the other is a writer. The other one becomes inevitably the prompter, and encourager, the researcher, the assistant, memory bank, and editor.”

In Crossing to Safety, as in his other writing, Stegner beautifully records his reverence for nature.

“Then I come out on the shoulder of the hill, and there is the whole sky, immense and full of light that has drowned the stars. Its edges are piled with hills. Over Stannard Mountain the air is hot gold, and as I watch, the sun surges up over the crest and stares me down.”

The Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner (1990) consists of 31 stories previously published in two collections, The Women on the Wall (1950) and The City of the Living (1956), as well as in various reviews and magazines. Some of the stories he later incorporated in his novels (Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation) as well as in his non-fiction, Wolf Willow. Stegner has not published a story since 1960. Everything he wanted to write during the last 30 years “somehow wanted to be long.” In his Introduction, Stegner advises the reader “not to trust the details” in his stories but “to trust the feeling.” His stories “are places where I have paused more or less to understand something that happened.”

In the spring of 1990, Wallace Stegner received the lifetime achievement award of the PEN USA Center West. In September of 1990, Stegner was awarded a senior fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts, in recognition of his contribution to the field of American literature.

As Wallace Stegner continues to participate as an environmentalist through his writing (“It All Began with Conservation,” Smithsonian, April 1990) and his speaking engagements (Earth Day 1990 in Palo Alto, California) and to “make sense” of his life through writing fiction, his readers will continue to be nourished by his gifts as well as by his example.


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