Wallace Stegner: Beating a Dead Thematic Horse?

Due to other obligations, my daytime posting will have to be brief. But I wanted to briefly touch upon the strange legacy of Wallace Stegner. Stegner is a guy that I’ve never been all that crazy about as a novelist. This may be framing Stegner’s work too generally, but he seems to me someone who might be styled the Merchant-Ivory of literature (and I mean this in the insufferable sense of the comparison), meaning that with a Stegner novel, you’re going to get some tale of a crotchety old man, endless florid details about landscape and nature, and a storyline that is about as predictable as the perrennial constant of San Francisco weather. A Stegner novel is largely about the elegant prose and the way that humans are ensnared into a natural landscape. This is not to suggest that Stegner’s voice is without validity or his prose without grace. Right now, I’m reading The Specator Bird (it’s a book club selection) and am struck with how the novel takes something as banal as rustification and profiles it from multiple perspectives (it is honorable from the point of view of the main couple in their seventies; it is dishonorable from the perspective of a brash Italian novelist who comes to visit about a third of the way into the book). But simultaneously, the scenes with the countess (as profiled in the diary-within-the-novel) feature some of the stiffest dialogue one can endure. And unless Stegner is trying to make an internal point about the prosaic way that the retired protagonist Joe Allston is chronicling his life, I’m truly baffled why we are permitted such redundancies. (To contrast this with proper use of redundant dialogue, I refer to the cocktail party banter that proliferates William Gaddis’ The Recognitions. The banter itself is banal, but it almost serves almost as a time capsule portraying the intonations of a particular scene (affluent New York). One senses this, as one sifts through its preposterous questions and the conversational arcs that will not die. I wish I could say that I felt this same instinct in Stegner.)

To some degree, Stegner’s work strikes comparisons to that of Frederic Prokosch, another novelist who was criticized for prioritizing environment over the human spirit. But while I can accept this criticism to some degree, I nevertheless find Prokosch’s novels to be coruscating diamond mines that dare to portray a rather grim view of the human condition through metaphors and imagery. A Prokosch novel will frequently involve an American or Westerner (or a group of some sort, as in The Seven Who Fled) who is traveling around the world trying to find an identity, only to become acquainted with the seamy underbelly often left unmentioned and unexposed. Whereas a Stegner novel will essentially reveal what seems to me two obvious and less original truisms: (1) humans must come to terms with their past just before passing on; and (2) nature is strong and may consume humanity at a passing whim.

But it is Prokosch’s subtext that speaks to me more. And yet I wonder if this is a fair criticism because what I personally perceive as ambitious may be old hat to a literary traveler. So the rhetorical question I offer is this: Is a novelist worth less if he dares to deal with thematic dead horses? Further, if there are any Stegnerites in the peanut gallery (and there are certainly many in the Bay Area), do you have some hints and/or defenses for how and why to read Stegner?

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  1. Eddie, u a meanie.

    I liked Angle of Repose when I read it 10 years ago—though not enough to dive head long into Stegner’s , uh, ouevre.

    ‘course talking about William Gaddis and Stegner in the same breath, well that does evidence a teensy impatience with what I think Jimmy Wood calls American Shaker writing— a rubric that represents writers such as Russo, Harrison, Haruf Ford. No?

  2. Birnie B: Well, I’m willing to confess that my hostility for Stegner has something to do with having it forced on me during various moments of my life. (Remember: Stegner did teach at Stanford, California claims him as one of his own, and I live in the Bay Area.)

    Here’s the thing: I like Russo, Harrison and Ford. Largely because their work comprises human character. But in Stegner’s case, my gripe is that the character struggles are typical, completely drowned out by the environment. Prokosch was the immediate comparative example that came to mind, but Stegner for me wasn’t nearly as rewarding as Prokosch. I was just hoping that those devoted to Stegner might help me to better appreciate the man’s work (if he is as seminal a figure as they paint him as), instead of leaving me frustrated by the doughtiness.

    But I suspect more than anything that it’s different strokes for different folks.

  3. I’ve only read one of Stegner’s (Angle of Repose) and no Prokosch — but what is it exactly that makes for a thematic dead horse? With very few exceptions, most novels, good or bad, cover the same thematic territory. Is “Nature may consume humanity at a whim” really a tired idea? More tired than the notion that world-travelers may, in one way or another, get more than than they bargained for? Or is it that the tiredness you perceive in Stegner comes from how he treats his ideas? Maybe his style, which is old-fashioned, and not very subtle, puts the themes too much on display, instead of letting them creep up on the reader. Maybe the subtext is not so sub, and that’s what really annoys you about the work.

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