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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Glances at Wallace Stegner

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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