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Tracking Wallace Stegner's footprints in Vermont's earth

The author is known for his depictions of the American West, but he spent summers contemplating and writing in neighborly Greensboro.

April 08, 2012|By Mike Ives, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Caspian Lake stretches across the countryside on the outskirts of neighborly Greensboro, Vt., which provided a yearly getaway for California-based writer Wallace Stegner and his wife, Mary.
Caspian Lake stretches across the countryside on the outskirts of neighborly… (Daniel Henderer )

Greensboro, Vt. — — Wallace Stegner wrote books about the American and Canadian West, so it's understandable that people consider the longtime California resident a Western author.

Stegner, a prolific novelist, essayist, conservation advocate and professor at Stanford University, was born in 1909 in Iowa and grew up in Utah and Saskatchewan, Canada. Today he is chiefly remembered for his fictional portraits of steely homesteaders and his musings on the American wilderness.

But Stegner lived in Vermont most summers from the late 1930s until his death in 1993, and he considered the small Vermont village of Greensboro his home away from home. Two of his novels concern fictionalized versions of people he knew here, and some of his best-known Western works, including the 1972 Pulitzer-winning "Angle of Repose," were written partly in his Greensboro study.

"For some writers, it's easier to particularize a place at a remove," said Jay Parini, a Vermont poet, novelist and literary critic who has written biographies of Robert Frost, John Steinbeck and William Faulkner. Vermont, Parini told me, was Stegner's "emotional base" for his Western imagination.

I was drinking coffee with Parini on a sunny July morning in Middlebury, a college town in central Vermont about 300 miles north of New York City and half that distance south of Montreal. I had traveled here to begin my exploration of Stegner's Eastern literary legacy.

Middlebury was an appropriate first stop because it had a formative effect on Stegner's early career. Every August, Middlebury College hosts the nationally known Bread Loaf Writers' Conference at its nearby mountain campus. Stegner first attended it in 1938, and Steg-

ner biographer Jackson J. Benson says the writer's early experiences here helped him to develop confidence and hone his literary voice.

Bread Loaf was a major change of scene for the young Stegner. As a precocious teenager, he had attended the University of Utah while working odd jobs and covering amateur sports for a local newspaper. It wasn't until Stegner was earning graduate degrees at the University of Iowa in the early 1930s that he began to imagine himself attending Bread Loaf and hobnobbing with Ivy League literati.

Stegner's initial application to Bread Loaf was rejected, but he later spent eight summers strolling its meadows and talking books with such writers as Eudora Welty, Truman Capote and Vermont poet Robert Frost, who lived in the nearby village of Ripton. As Steg-

ner later recalled, the days were filled with lectures and manuscript swaps, the evenings with bourbon and laughter.

Frost was known as a curmudgeon, but he liked Stegner, and, according to Benson, it's likely that the younger writer's encounters with Frost suffused Vermont with a "special glow" in his mind. Stegner also took the title for his novel "Fire and Ice" (1941) from an eponymous Frost poem; his novel "Crossing to Safety" (1987) riffs on a line in the Frost poem "I Could Give All to Time": "But why declare / The things forbidden that while the Customs slept / I have crossed to Safety with?"

If Ripton was Frost's Vermont muse, Greensboro was Stegner's. Starting in the late 1930s, Stegner and his wife, Mary, drove cross-country nearly every summer in a station wagon packed with books, dishes and a typewriter and stayed in their weathered Greensboro farmhouse until early autumn, when teaching commitments typically pulled Stegner back to the foothills of Palo Alto.

Such tranquillity

Greensboro, about 90 miles northeast of Middlebury and a stone's throw from the Canadian border, lies deep in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, an impoverished area that has partly eluded the waves of gentrification that have swept Vermont. In the 1930s, the village no doubt appealed to Stegner's Frost-inspired vision of an ideal American town: a place where honesty is king and ordinary people make do in the face of hardship.

Stegner also liked Greensboro for its palpable sense of community. "I grew up without history and without the sense of belonging to anything," he wrote in the preface to the town's 1990 history. "From the first day I saw it, I responded to Greensboro because it had what I lacked and wanted: permanence, tranquillity, traditional and customary acceptances, a stable and neighborly social order."

As I drove to Greensboro from central Vermont on the radiant July morning, the landscape was a fusion of no-frills Americana and urban-tinged sophistication. Two miles after passing a sign that said "We Buy Used Guns," I ducked into a café that displayed posters for contemporary art exhibitions.

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