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Out Where the Sense of Place Is a Sense of Motion

June 03, 1990|WALLACE STEGNER | On April 27, novelist Wallace Stegner received the lifetime achievement award of PEN USA Center West. The remarks above were his acceptance speech. and

It is exhilarating to me, 60 years after I graduated from a Western university and 45 years after I made the decision to come back West to live and work, to see the country beyond the 100th meridian finally taking its place as a respected and self-respecting part of the literary world.

I used to yearn for the day when the West would have not only writers but all the infrastructure of the literary life--a book-publishing industry, a range of literary and critical magazines, good bookstores, a reviewing corps not enslaved by foreign and eastern opinion, support organizations such as PEN, an alert reading public, and all the rest.

As a writer from the West, I had already discovered how it felt to be misinterpreted. Even well-intentioned people who wanted to praise me often saw in me, or expected from me, things that I was not prepared to deliver, and misread things that I was prepared to deliver. Now and then I used to put on my armor and break a lance against the windmill of the cowboy myth that dominated not only much Western writing but almost all outside judgment of Western writing. We rode under the shadow of the big hat. As they used to say of Reagan, we were big hat, no cows. Nothing could convince them in New York or Massachusetts that there was anything of literary interest in the West except cowboys.

If we took a count now, we would probably find that there are actually more writers in the West than cowboys; and even the cowboys annually gather in Elko to read their poems to one another. Some of those, at least, are real cowboys such as I knew when I was young--hired men on horseback with hands so callused that they would hardly close, whose celebrated independence amounted to little more than the right to quit one bone-breaking, underpaid job for another just as bad. Real cowboys have more brutality and less chivalry in them than the literary kind. Some of them have been subverted by their own propaganda and believe their own myth. Others, I am sure, are trying to do what any real writer is trying to do: render the texture and tensions of their own life, their own occupation, their own place. Their trouble is that if they write with honesty about exploitation, insecurity, hard work, injuries and cows, none of which make even a walk-on appearance in "The Virginian" and most of the horse operas it has spawned, they will find a smaller and less-enthusiastic audience than if they had written about crooked sheriffs and six-guns. I have myself written only two cowboy stories in a long life. Both of them are grim little epics of work, weather and cows, with no six-guns, no sheriffs, no dance-hall girls, no walkdowns, not even a saloon.

I felt from the beginning that there was a great deal about the West in which I had grown up that was not getting into literature, or not finding responsive readers if it did. Like most of my fellows in the 1930s and 1940s, I was a sort of regionalist. People in provincial or unfashionable places are made to feel a sort of colonial complex, and one response to that feeling of inferiority is an indignant assertion of superiority.

But local puffery is not the way to achieve stature. You achieve stature only by being good enough to deserve it, by forcing even the indifferent or contemptuous to pay attention and to acknowledge that human relations and human emotions are of inexhaustible interest wherever they occur. My anguish is potentially as valid as that of Oedipus; my love may be as tragically romantic as Tristan's; my bond with the Earth may have as lasting a significance as Wordsworth's; my work, even if it is with cows, may have as much dignity as honest work anywhere. If a writer is good enough and takes his gift seriously enough, he ought to be able to see as far into the universe or into the human mind from a California promontory or a Montana mountain as Faulkner could from a hunting camp in Mississippi, or Mark Twain from a Mississippi River raft, or Melville from the deck of the Pequod.

Though it has had notable writers since Gold Rush days, the West has never until very recently developed the support structures of a literary life. Neither has it ever produced a group of writers homogeneous enough to be called a school. Why should it have been asked to? It is too various for that. How do you find a unity among the Pacific Northwest woods, the Great Basin deserts, the Rocky Mountains, the high plains, the Mormon plateau country, the Hispanic-and-Indian Southwest, and the conurbation of the California littoral? What kind of school can you discern in writers as various as Ivan Doig, Frank Waters, Scott Momaday, Ed Abbey, Tom McGuane, Larry McMurtry, Joan Didion and Maxine Hong Kingston?

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