Thursday, February 05, 2009

Recent Aquisition: The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner

I picked up Stegner's Selected Letters yesterday. It was an urgent thing, because while this book has been in my Amazon shopping cart since l became aware it was out, I never felt rushed to get it until I saw that some doofus had left a ONE STAR REVIEW of it on recently. What kind of moron . . . . ? His reason is that he realized his fictional* college students are RIGHT, Stegner is an elitist snob. And then the doofus goes on to crack a joke, I guess, and mention that he supposes he should read Elizabeth Lynn-Cook's book Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner: A Tribal Voice**.

Obviously I am forced to quickly come to his defense, not that he needs it. His work speaks for itself. He IS not an elitist snob. What is going on is that colleges are now swarming with students who think that being politically correct is proper and that no one should actually speak their mind if it goes against the fashionable current of thought. If a writer uses a word these students haven't heard on Prison Break or American Idol, that writer is clearly not interested in being understood. While I think it's true that some contemporary writers reach for the thesaurus too often and pick the obscure WRONG word rather than the right common word, this is just not the case for Stegner. His writing IS accessible and he is as clear as day. His writing is careful and thoughtful and he creates characters who are real and flawed, though ultimately good.

So far I have read his personal letters, the letters to his girlfriend before Mary Page and the letters to Mary Page (who he would marry). Some good lines from it:

"I am afraid you are a romantic, my love. I am afraid you live in the clouds, and in the future—an impossible future, and I am afraid you are one of these essentially skinless creatures whom every blowing cinder hurts. So am I, or was I. Then I developed a suit of armor, and then you came and undressed me again. I’m not sure that I mind, even on principle. I know that at present I love it, but I’m afraid when I think that both of us are going to get hurt" (p. 21).

And I read this in a letter to biographer Jackson Benson regarding his request to do a biography of Stegner:

"There is the further fact that I have led a very quiet life. I have no marital upheavals, spectacular alcoholism, sexual deviations, madcap adventures, or attempted suicides to report. You might find that even if I told you to go ahead, you would have little to write about. Actually, what I have meant, to myself and I hope to others, is an individual attempt to understand and come to terms with a dynamic, forming, and unstable society, that of the American West" (p. 75).

I like it that he regards his life as quiet and that he is humble about it. He's not thirsting to have someone write about him because he was modest. He recognized that having written novels put him in a kind of spotlight, and so he was something of a public figure, but he wasn't the kind of public figure that relished the limelight.

His son Page writes this about him:

"His letters were not notes dashed off in the rapid-fire, shorthand fashion of today's email. Virtually without exception they were thoughtful, articulate, and carefully crafted, with attention to minutia (spelling, punctuation, syntax); they employed simile, metaphor, poetic imagery, deliberation of voice, and, above all, attention to the melody of language. . . . Like the company accountant in Conrad's Heart of Darkness, he would have been embarrassed to be found wandering about dressed in anything but an immaculate white suit, no matter how remote the exposure to posterity or the likely indifference of his audience" (ix).

The reviewer on who got me all fired up, whose thoughtless review compelled me to rush out and buy the book, wondered why he cared about Stegner after reading half the book. I guess he didn't get it, but I do. Stegner wasn't an elitist snob. Rather, he cared about his words and how he used them. His writing was his way of making sense of the world, of trying to understand and be understood, but in composing his work he wasn't immodest. He had Victorian values to a degree and recognized that one doesn't have to confess every impropriety to be transparent***, and I think this is evident in Angle of Repose when the narrator discusses his disgust about the loose values and hedonism of the 1960s.

Anyway, I know I'm going to give it five stars when I'm done. Stegner was right about his life, he wasn't some spineless, self-absorbed writer whose biographies would reveal a string of affairs and a drug-riddled past interlaced with deviant behavior. He has always struck me as humble, but willing to do hard work and get done what had to be done. And in that way, because these qualities show up in it, his work has always been refreshing and beautiful.

*My assumption. I don't know if they really ARE fictional, but the idiot struck me as too moronic to actually be a college professor. Perhaps they're stocking the colleges with morons these days.
**Both Kirkus Reviews and Publisher's Weekly slam this collection of essays. First of all, Ms. Lynn-Cook truly has NEVER read Stegner. She uses his name to simultaneously capitalize on his success and bludgeon him in one breath. What a girl.
***Contemporary style is to confess everything, resulting in graphic depictions of sex, violence, drug-use and every other kind of depravity that does not necessarily move the plot forward or lead to a deeper understanding of character.


Anonymous said...

Stegner has skills...I read Mormon Country in college and found it pretty compelling. Plus, it was from that very book that I learned about "bear's ass." So I think he's great!

Aries327 said...

"Bear's ass" is a pretty great phrase. I love it.