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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

A Letter to George Saunders from the Northern Neck of Virginia

To: George Saunders

From: Gail Wilson Kenna

A student, one of those who took my course on your book, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain (of Chekhov short stories) is taking my latest course on Wallace Stegner.

She was one of those who wrote you a note after the “Swim” class met in an extra session to discuss your novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. You read the notes that students wrote to you about the Chekhov book, and then gave us helpful advice for reading Lincoln in the Bardo. I know enough about Wallace Stegner to say that he, like you, made time for students and readers until his death at age 84 in 1993.


In my current class, we are reading three Stegner novels with aging narrators: Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird, Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose, and Bruce Mason in Recapitulation. In the first class I discussed how Stegner’s fictional realism can be traced to his life and his historical interests, and that he was often at odds in the 1960s with those who distained his realism. One student, during a break, asked if I thought Stegner would appreciate the wildly experimental Lincoln in the Bardo.


I believe this first novel of yours would have amazed Stegner, and that by book’s end, it would have deeply moved him, as it did me.  At some point in your years of teaching, you might have used the 1982 Stegner essay, “Fiction: A Lens on Life.” At the beginning he asserts, “It is fiction as truth that I am concerned with...fiction that reflects experience instead of escaping it, that stimulates instead of deadening.” He goes on to say the writer tries with every piece of fiction to “create a world.” Which is what you did in Lincoln in the Bardo.

The essay concludes with words that Stegner might have written to you, George.  “The work of art is not a gem… but truly a lens. We look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist. The ghosts of meaning that flit past the windows of his fictional house wear his face. And the reward of a lifetime of reading is a rich acquaintance with those gentle or powerful or rebellious or acceptant, those greatly mixed and humanly various but always greatly human ghosts.” 


What Stegner accomplished between 70 (Joe Allston’s age) and 1993 when he died, included two brilliant novels, Recapitulation and Crossing to Safety, plus non-fiction. Lucky you (and us) that you are only 66, and keeping alive the genre of the short story, and inspiring so many of us to write.


 Next week I’ll have some thoughts on why Stegner deserved the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird.




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