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'Stegner' Recalls Chronicler of the West

September 12, 1996|ANTHONY DAY

The late Wallace Stegner wrote of the American West not as it was in myth but as it is in its stunning beauty and gritty reality.

He wrote of human relationships with intimacy and tenderness.

He campaigned to protect the Western environment with steely purpose. And he was an inspired teacher of writing at Stanford.

These aspects of Wallace Stegner, and some more besides, are the subject of an hourlong documentary on KCET-TV Channel 28 tonight, "Wallace Stegner: A Writer's Life," affectionately narrated by Robert Redford.

Stegner cooperated with the documentary during the last four years of his life. He died in 1993 at the age of 84.

Of his boyhood on the Great Plains, Stegner says matter-of-factly that you learn in that vast loneliness that "the universe doesn't have an obligation to you."

His father was always on the move with his family, going from place to place in the West, always hoping to make it big. He never did, and in 1933 deserted his family. He had treated Wallace brutally, calling him "sissy."

Wallace wrote him out of his life, got rid of him, in his 1943 novel "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." It was, he says in the film, "a book about motion," a story of "hit and run, boom and bust."

In the documentary, Stegner speaks as plainly about the West as he writes.

Of the myth of the cowboy as a kind of self-made lone ranger, he says, "the independent cowboy was a hired hand working for $30 a month."


The history of the West is really, he says, "a series of raids" by "big money." "There is nothing," he adds, "democratic about the actual history of the West."

With this attitude he was an early forerunner of the now common school of the "new historians" of the West, who substitute reality for romance.

But Stegner was no stranger to romance. There is romance in his landscapes of the West he explored in books of history and in the people in his novels.

"Wallace Stegner" spends some time on his efforts to keep great chunks of the West as wilderness. He counted the preservation of Dinosaur National Monument as a success and the flooding of Glen Canyon--"the most beautiful of all the Colorado [River] system," he says--as a failure.

"We need the wild country available to us," he says, "[even] if we don't do more than drive to the edge and look in."

He talks with affection of his intimate 1987 novel "Crossing to Safety," and, in obvious comment on his long marriage to his gentle wife, May, says: "I believe strongly in the virtue of long-term friendships and long-term marriages."

As former Times arts editor Charles Champlin says in the documentary, Wallace Stegner "writes like a poet and thinks like a philosopher."

The documentary is a fine introduction to him. See this and then go out and read his books.

* "Wallace Stegner: A Writer's Life" can be seen at 8 tonight on KCET-TV Channel 28.

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