“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.
[caption id="attachment_2524" align="alignright" width="192" caption="Thomas Wolfe, 1937 (photo by Carl Van Vechten)."][/caption]
In 1929, Thomas Wolfe—whom William Faulkner described as the greatest writer of his generation—published his novel Look Homeward, Angel to rave reviews. The Virginia Quarterly Review took notice of this young writer from North Carolina and began a tumultuous courtship to bring Wolfe’s prose to the pages of the journal. This courtship spanned three editors and numerous entreaties, though neither side ever evinced the least bit of reluctance. The delay appears to lie with Wolfe, who was a furious, tinkering sort of writer, a fact evident not only in the staggering volume of work he left behind at the end of his abbreviated life, but also in his correspondence with VQR. Plagued by the pressure of pleasing others, saddled with financial woes despite his success, and never far from his next deadline, Wolfe’s brief relationship with VQR reveals a writer who was constantly struggling to balance his life with his craft, though he remained exuberantly committed through it all.
James Southall Wilson was the first VQR editor to query Wolfe, about appearing in Charlottesville at the Southern Writers Conference in the fall of 1931, an event that brought Sherwood Anderson, Allen Tate, and William Faulkner, among others, to the city. In his reply, Wolfe confided that he did not feel worthy of being included in such an august group: “I have published only one book and am sweating and agonizing over another.” He was sagging under the weight of his novel-in-progress and feared losing traction:
I’ve worked [on] my new book over a year—I had all the material for it a long time ago, but it’s been hell getting it in sequence—arranging, revising, shaping—a few months ago I got it straight in my head for the first time, and now I’m plugging away as hard as I can every day . . . It’s very hard for me to get started, and when I’m started I hate to stop until I’ve finished. Also, meeting new people has a very deep and powerful effect on me—particularly interesting and talented people: nothing excites and absorbs me more, and for this reason I go nowhere at present while I’m at work.
In 1929, Thomas Wolfe—whom William Faulkner described as the greatest writer of his generation—published his novel Look Homeward, Angel to rave reviews. The Virginia Quarterly Review took notice of this young writer from North Carolina and began [...]
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