An Ode to Wallace Stegner, 1909-93

I sketched this from a black-and-white photo I found online.
I sketched this from a black-and-white photo I found online.

First must I admit I’m writing this blog principally because I wanted to accompany the sketch of Wallace Stegner I drew last night while passively watching the Boston Red Sox get pummeled by the Seattle Mariners again. My pride in this sketch enabled me to get through my almost nightly disappointment in the Red Sox. I’m not an artist. I just started trying to teach myself to be mildly competent, oh, maybe, last fall. This sketch gives me the fanciful notion that I’m getting better.

But why Wallace Stegner? In the short term, it was because I’d completed one of few Stegner books I hadn’t previously read, The Spectator Bird. I never knew who Stegner was while he was alive. I stumbled across him while exploring the Beat Generation, which is funny because Stegner was about as anti-Beat as it got. I stumbled across him because of his influence on and affiliation with many authors – Tom Wolfe, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane, Edward Abbey, et al. – while teaching at Stanford. Specifically, I got interested in Stegner because he and Kesey did not get along.

The first Stegner novel I read was The Big Rock Candy Mountain, which moved me deeply. It made me realize how many people fail because they live their lives as hustlers, forever shooting for the big break that never comes. I saw a lot of that in my father, just as Stegner obviously did in his old man, and a little in myself. I went on a Stegner jag – Angle of Repose, All the Little Live Things, Joe Hill, Remembering Laughter, Crossing to Safety – and came to view him as the most underrated novelist of his time, which, in terms of published fiction, lasted from 1937 through 1987. It makes perfect sense that he was a great teacher because his own style was so meticulous and faultless.

The older I got, the more I could relate to Stegner’s point of view. That’s because the older Stegner got, the more obstinate he became. He saw literature growing ever weirder, more frivolous, and trivial, and his late novels, in particular, reflected a gallant rebellion.

While I was writing about NASCAR, Tom Wolfe visited Bristol Motor Speedway to commemorate his 1965 Esquire profile, “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” At the end of the media conference, as Wolfe was being hustled out of the room, I asked him about the mutual antipathy of Stegner and Kesey. Perhaps because he was astonished at having a sportswriter ask him about such a subject, Wolfe stopped and chatted for a few minutes. I may remember those couple minutes more vividly than any of the roughly six hundred major races I described in print over two decades.

Read Stegner, “the Dean of Western Writers.” He’s much more than that.

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2 thoughts on “An Ode to Wallace Stegner, 1909-93

  1. Wolfe’s visit to BMS happened to fall on the weekend of the first NASCAR race I ever covered. What struck me that day was Wolfe lamenting the death of regionalism. He seemed awed by the spectacle at BMS, but I got the sense he didn’t see any reminence of the magic that crackled and hummed in North Wilksboro back in 1965. There is little that lies beyond our collective imagination anymore, and whether that’s a sign of how much we’ve gained or how much we’ve lost is in the eye of the beholder.

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