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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Updated: Apr 15

                                                                                               

That early August morning in Vermont, a lean, long-haired young woman refilled my coffee cup.  She was wait staff at the Bread Loaf, which meant a scholarship recipient to this old and esteemed writer’s conference.  Printed material I’d received the afternoon before identified the writers who would be waiting tables. I knew from a photo and bio of her that after the conference she was headed to Stanford University as a Stegner Fellow. A big deal and highly competitive, I knew. My friend and mentor, Wayne Johnson, had been one, and this fact was largely why I selected Wayne’s writing course in 2010 at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. His guidance and help are the main reason that in 2012 I received the Donald Axinn Fiction Scholarship to the Bread Loaf.

Now three years later, I offered congratulations to the young woman, adding, “What an honor to be a Stegner Fellow.” She thanked me and turned to leave. “Don’t you love Stegner’s fiction?” I asked.

“I’ve never read him,” she said. “Too old school.”

I sat there and felt dismay. I had not forgotten my cocky and arrogant youth. Yet by the time I graduated USC as an English major, I was acutely aware of my ignorance; and I recognized the need to have a solid foundation in the classics, and a deep understanding of the historic progression of a genre like the novel.  I also left college determined to read both the old and the new. Which is to say it appalled me that someone honored with a Wallace Stegner scholarship would deem him too “old school” to read. Did those two words describe Mark Twain, Willa Cather, William Faulkner, Henry James, George Eliot (female), and Charles Dickens?  My list of “old school” might form a long literary parade. Did this young woman know how many summers Wallace Stegner spent at the Bread Loaf in earlier years?  Was she aware that he started the Creative Writing program at Stanford in 1945 and didn’t leave the university until 1971?  Did she realize that four of his five later novels were written when his official teaching days ended? And what about Stegner’s two collections of short stories, or the twenty non-fiction books he wrote? Was his environmental activism also “old school” when he joined the Kennedy Administration and worked with Secretary of the Interior, Stuart Udall?

 

A voice just said, that’s enough for now, Gail.  Here are six Stegner novels worth reading!








 Until next week and more on Wallace Stegner…

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

This week on April 13th marks the 31st year since Wallace Stegner died in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He had gone there to accept an award that mandated the winner’s presence. His fate was to have an automobile accident at night, followed by complications in the hospital, and his later death. His wife Mary was uninjured and lived into her late 90s. Yet from Stegner’s 68th year until his 84th, his accomplishments as a writer and human being were extraordinary.



 

This May I will be teaching a course on memory and aging in three of Stegner’s novels. The three characters who will be discussed are Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird, Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose, and Bruce Mason in Recapitulation. The third character’s story was told in Stegner’s early and successful novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain. In this big book, Stegner used his imaginative eye and mind to give form to the story of his childhood and youth.  In Recapitulation, Bruce Mason, a retired ambassador, revisits Salt Lake City and relives in memory those years from decades earlier.

A few years before Stegner’s death, he was working with Robert Redford on a documentary of his life. It can be found on the internet at Wallace Stegner: A Writer’s Life on YouTube. This Sunday morning, I spent a pleasurable hour re-watching the film; and yesterday I reread three Stegner interviews in Stealing Glances by James R. Hepworth.  What a pleasure to hear Stegner’s voice in my head, and then this morning to hear him speak throughout the hour-long documentary. When I read fine fiction, I read slowly, silently vocalizing, which speed reading does not allow. Try this as you read the following words from Stegner, spoken in a seminar at Dartmouth College.

“Largeness is a lifelong matter. Sometimes a conscious goal, sometimes not. You enlarge yourself because that is the kind of individual you are. You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t, its teeth grow long and lock…If you are a grower and a writer as well, your writing should get better and larger and wiser.”

This is true of Wallace Stegner and so beautifully shown in his last novel, Crossing to Safety.

Next week:  Stegner continued…

 

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I value Commonweal, a monthly magazine I’ve read of and on since the 1970s. This Saturday afternoon I listened to a Commonweal podcast with Marilynn Robinson and Christian Wiman, a poet I’ve long admired, whose articles appear frequently in the magazine.


After the podcast, I located one Wiman book in my library but could not find the other. He Held Radical Light: The Art of Faith, the Faith of Art. Where is the book, I wonder?


Yet inside My Bright Abyss, I found two thick articles from Harper’s, a short piece from the WSJ, plus a letter I’d written to Wiman at Yale University about a Commonweal piece he wrote on a poet & prisoner. (I’ve mentioned before that my filing system is in books!)  And what was on the back cover of My Bright Abyss? A Marilynn Robinson testimonial:





“The thing that is exceptional about My Bright Abyss, aside from its intelligence and language, is the quality of theological reflection. It is lucid and not at all simple, a book in the great tradition of truly serious thought.”


Which is to say, the day before Easter, I listened to thirty minutes of serious thought between Marilynn and Christian. I learned that Wiman read Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, in his youth (1980s) and felt the influence of its beauty. The novel presents a whole world, alive with the mysterious and divine, in ways not easily understood. If you haven’t read Housekeeping, its setting is a remote Northwestern town (Fingerbone) on three glacial lakes in the 1950s.

During the podcast, Wiman said he approaches the Bible as poetry, or otherwise he finds scripture a stumbling block. In contrast, Robinson reads the Bible for instruction, feels its authority, and says that whatever she does not understand… only makes her read more. “Though not as a rationalist,” she said.  Her latest book is on Genesis, and she hopes to complete another on Exodus. She reveres the Bible for its recurrent questions, its beautiful literature, and for the abiding safety she feels from trusting in Providence. Yet Robinson asks, What will end God’s patience?”  I could answer this question with a quip related to last week’s blog on the Inferno and Fraud. But I won’t!

I do recommend a review of Robinson’s Genesis in The New Yorker’s March 11, 2024 issue. “Had to Happen,” is by James Wood, a fine literary critic, who does not share the paradoxes of Robinson’s religious tradition, especially regarding John Calvin (think Predestination).  But Wood regards Robinson as a great novelist. At the end of his review, he says of her: “This is one miracle that, having seen it with my own eyes, I’ll happily believe in.”

If you have not read Robinson’s literary quartet of Gilead, Home, Lila, and Jack, the four novels are worth reading, and more than once.  


Next week I’ll begin writing about a writer I love, the late Wallace Stegner, and the subject of my May course.

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