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Frontier Spirit

March 07, 1993|JACK MILES

If there is a turning point in the story of the frontier as Martin Ridge tells it in his marvelously readable and viewable "Atlas of American Frontiers" (Rand McNally: $49.95; 192 pp.), it comes in chapter he calls "The Great American Desert." That was the name originally attached to the region we now call the Great Plains, the semi-arid region lying between the 100th meridian (roughly, Dodge City, Kan.) and the Rocky Mountains. The first explorers thought this region, in the words of Major Stephen H. Long, who visited in 1820, "almost wholly unfit for cultivation, and of course uninhabitable by a people depending upon agriculture for their subsistence." It was John C. Fremont who corrected this view, properly noting that it was the Great Basin, lying between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada, that was America's desert and that the high plain was suitable both for agriculture and, above all, for grazing.

If the earlier view had prevailed, perhaps the culture of the Plains Indians might have survived longer than it did. That view did not prevail, of course, but one of the most distinguished interpreters of Western life and letters has built a personal and literary synthesis around the view that the West, by its forbidding aridity, has resisted full incorporation into the common culture of the United States.

In "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West" (Random House: $21; 227 pp.), Wallace Stegner puts his personal synthesis on display as never before. Writing at the top of his form in his mid-80s, Stegner, by being different and sometimes baffling, shows why the West itself is different and sometimes baffling. I began to read Stegner in 1978 when I moved to California from points east (Chicago and New York), and I found him, as I think most Eastern critics have, impressive and yet strangely unimpressive. I found his individual works of undeniably high quality, and yet somehow the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. Stegner just didn't add up. Mormon history, a life of Bernard de Voto, essays on the environment . . . there was too much nonfiction for the serious novelist's own good, and too much fiction for the serious historian's.

In this collection, I think I see what I have been missing.

A first clue: Commenting with great subtlety on Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," Stegner writes:

"So is this a story of hubris in the Bitterroots, of a young god destroyed by pride? If it is, why all that other stuff the story contains . . . so much exposition of the art of fishing, so many stories of fishing expeditions, so many homilies from the preacher father, so many hints about the relations of Norman Maclean with his wife's family? An impressive story as it stands, would this be even more impressive if it were cleaned up, straightened up, and tucked in?

"I will tell you what I think. I only think it, I don't know it; but once when I suggested it in Norman Maclean's presence he didn't deny it. Perhaps, like Robert Frost, he thinks a writer is entitled to anything a reader can find in him."

Stegner's secret, so to call it, is that he too is a writer determined not to deny his reader anything in him to which the reader might reasonably be entitled. Not to speak of normal and abnormal, his determination is far from automatic or necessary in a writer. Where does it come from?

A second clue: "(I)f I had been able to get to Paris I would probably have babbled with the Dadaists in the direction of total intellectual, artistic, and emotional disaffiliation. But there was one trouble. I had grown up a migrant, without history, tradition or extended family, in remote backwaters of the West. I never saw a water closet or a lawn until I was eleven years old; I never met a person with my surname, apart from my parents and brother, until I was past thirty; I never knew, and don't know now, the first names of three of my grandparents. My family could tell me little, for neither had finished grade school, and their uprooting was the cause of mine. . . .

"And so, though I was susceptible to the dialectic of those who declared their independence of custom and tradition and the dead hand of the past, I had no tradition to declare myself independent of, and had never felt the dead hand of the past in my life. If the truth were told, and it now is, I was always hungry to feel that hand on my head, to belong to some socially or intellectually or historically or literary cohesive group, some tribe, some culture, some recognizable and persistent offshoot of Western civilization. If I revolted, and I had all the appropriate temptations, I had to revolt away from what I was, and that meant toward something--tradition, cultural memory, shared experience, order. Even my prose felt the pull of agreed-upon grammar and syntax. Eventually, inevitably, I was drawn to what I most needed."

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