I discover Wallace Stegner.

Last night I was with some people, and someone asked me what I had been reading lately.  I was drunk and started talking about Dick Proenneke.  Not exactly reading, but it’s where my mind has been.  I’ve been giving some thought to why those videos are so damn appealing.  More than those videos.  Those ideas.  Dick Proenneke is just one of countless stories along those same themes of the bucolic, escape from society, the morality of nature.  Those are important ideas.  They’re why kids are made to read Jack London in school.

Anyway a few years back I was revisiting Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.  He prefaces all his chapters with quotes.  This one came from Wallace Stegner, “It should not be denied… that being footloose has always exhilarated us.  It is associated in our minds with escape from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations, with absolute freedom, and the road has always led west.”  I liked that quote very much at the time, but I had no idea who Stegner was and did not pursue him.

Last night I was in the middle of that conversation and suddenly I was reminded of that quote.  I couldn’t come up with Stegner’s name though.  The conversation moved on.

This morning I picked up Into the wild again and found that quote/Stegner’s name.  Meyer Library has several of his books.  Score.  Ah, but it’s a holiday weekend; the library is closed.  Sad day.

This afternoon I opened my Writer’s Almanac email.  It’s a daily publication produced by Prairie Home Productions, a Garrison Keillor outfit, that provides a poem a day and various on-this-date-in-history information for the literary minded.

Today is Wallace Stegner’s birthday.  More than that, they described his career and his legacy.  This is what they had to say:

It’s the birthday of writer Wallace Stegner (books by this author), born in Lake Mills, Iowa (1909). Wallace’s father had what Wallace called “the pioneering itch in his bones,” and moved his family around hoping to strike it rich in a Western boomtown. They moved from North Dakota, to Washington state, then Montana, California, Saskatchewan, and finally settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner got into the University of Utah when he was just 16. He was finishing his dissertation when his brother died suddenly of pneumonia. Not long after, his mother died of cancer and, finally, his father committed suicide. By the end of the 1930s, Stegner had lost his entire family.

Stegner wanted to write about the American West, but instead of a novel about cowboys and heroic pioneers, a novel “about what happens to the pioneer virtues and the pioneer type of family when the frontiers are gone and the opportunities are all used up.” His first big success was The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), loosely based on the experiences of his own family.

Stegner wrote many novels and started the creative writing program at Stanford, where he taught Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, and Wendell Berry.

Not only did he write about the American Western experience and the need to preserve those spaces, Stegner also actively fought for preservation and became involved with the conservation movement of the 1950s. He said, “Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We need wilderness preserved — as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

And then I found this.


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