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Stegner's Legacy : WALLACE STEGNER: Man and Writer. Edited by Charles E. Rankin (Univ. of New Mexico: 280 pp., $19.95) : THE GEOGRAPHY OF HOPE: A Tribute to Wallace Stegner. Edited by Page Stegner and Mary Stegner (Sierra Club: 140 pp., $15, paper)

December 01, 1996|JOHN BALZAR | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent and contributing writer to Book Review

Collections of appreciation are field guides. These are the first to attempt explanation of the writing of Wallace Stegner and to inquire how we might finish a simple and, in his case, impossible sentence: Wallace Stegner, who. . . .

Who evoked panoramas by looking through clean and ordinary windows, and who brought calm appraisal to agitated events in the developing West.

Who, never mind the flash and fizzle of other gloried American writers, grew in stature and accomplishment all his life--steady gains--so that now, looking back 2 1/2 years after his death, this itself can be recognized as a lasting achievement.

Who, at the heart of the matter, commanded history and memoir, fiction and essay, and produced 29 books; who grandfathered the school of nature writing in which humanism is central; and who devoted 37 years to teaching and inspiring a generation of other fine writers, among them Norman Mailer, Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone and Thomas McGuane.

In one of 20 essays in "Man and Writer," teacher Rob Williams recalls Stegner's own words on approaching history as a source of story and understanding.

"In the old days, in blizzardy weather, we used to tie a string of lariats together from house to barn so as to make it from shelter to responsibility and back again," Stegner said. Then he added: "I think we had better rig up such a line between past and present."

He trod this ground on paths seldom traveled--the wild in Stegner's Wild West is not of the six-gun variety--and carried himself with "balance," a word of praise that is repeated by this volume's collection of scholars and writers.

If other American novelists tend to engage their readers by presenting "the unusual as if it were normal," Stegner did the contrary, writes James R. Hepworth, a poet, essayist and professor:

"Perhaps that's why Stegner's novels strike me as revolutionary--and why readers in the last two decades have responded to them in steadily increasing numbers," Hepworth concludes. "By ignoring accepted opinion and approved fashion, his novels restore a lost balance to American fiction."

These books overlap in some selections. With "Geography of Hope," Stegner's son and widow have transcribed speeches, letters and short essays delivered in appreciation of the writer immediately after his death. Some of the material has been expanded and other sources of applause collected in "Man and Writer."

Just as a field guide to clouds propels one outdoors to look again at the sky, these writings, and surely the best half of them, virtually insist you free one hand to reach back for Stegner himself and search for what moved you and what you may have missed.

Consider this compliment by historian Richard W. Etulain, author of the earlier "Conversations With Wallace Stegner": "He gained thousands of new appreciative readers even though his fiction focused on families, friendship and the humane qualities of his characters rather than on the despair, social criticism and hyped ethnicity that marked much contemporary America fiction."

Or as novelist Ivan Doig writes in an essay, offered in different versions in both collections: "None of us is going to replace him, and it's just about as doubtful whether any half-dozen writers and thinkers at this end of the country can produce a combined rainbow of work to equal his."

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