August 23, 1998
All points of the compass have their own mystique. For most Easterners and many Europeans, that of the American West is the most potent. The land and the life there, we imagine, are everything they are not in the East and in Europe: free, not minutely regulated; wild, not exhaustively cultivated; self-sufficient, not intricately interdependent; wide-open, not crowded; big, not cozy; mobile, not stable; new, not burdened by millennial traditions.
Like most myths, this one is in large measure true. But inevitably, after the mythmakers -- the Owen Wisters, Mark Twains, Zane Greys, and D. H. Lawrences -- come the explainers, less ardent and visionary, more patient and scrupulous. In our time, the best explainer of the West, in both fiction and nonfiction, has been Wallace Stegner.
Stegner was born in 1909 into a family that moved around a good deal. When he was six, his father tried homesteading in Saskatchewan, but gave up after five years. The family returned to Montana, then moved to Salt Lake City, where Wallace passed his adolescence and attended college. (He also, though not a Mormon, contracted an abiding interest in Mormon history, about which he wrote two fine books.) Then came graduate school at the University of Iowa and teaching at Utah, Harvard, Wisconsin, and Stanford, where he founded and directed one of the country’s best-known writing programs. He published thirty-five books -- fiction, history, biography, essays -- which won nearly every honor in American letters, including a Pulitzer Prize for the novel Angle of Repose (1971) and a National Book Award for the novel The Spectator Bird (1976). He died in 1993.
Stegner’s two previous essay collections, The Sound of Mountain Water (1969) and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), are full of acknowledged classics: recollections of a Western childhood, episodes from Western history, vivid portraits of Western places and writers, troubled meditations on the Western future. Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, another stellar assemblage, brings together twenty-two essays on the same themes, most of them previously uncollected, as well as Stegner’s longest and (according to his son and editor, the novelist Page Stegner) most accomplished story.
The book’s first hundred pages are sheer delight. They move from childhood on the “lovely, lonely, exposed” Saskatchewan prairie through an adolescent year in the frontier town of Great Falls, Montana, to coming of age in Salt Lake City, to grown-up ramblings around the Great Salt Lake, Glen Canyon, the Escalante, and the back roads of the high Southwest. All ten of these pieces are gems, especially “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” with its exquisite observations about the meanings of “hometown,” and “Xanadu by the Salt Flats,” a hilarious and poignant evocation of the Mormon lakeside resort, Saltair.
Pleasure and wisdom are always intermixed in Stegner’s writing, which is why he became such an effective environmental advocate. In the middle section of Marking the Sparrow’s Fall, the balance shifts toward argument, though still laced with memories, just as the earlier recollections were laced with reflections. The section begins with his 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” which, as Page Stegner observes, is “one of the central documents of the conservation movement” and “one of the greatest statements of an environmental ethic ever written.” The arguments and sentiments in this section -- about the West as “the geography of hope,” about “the wilderness idea” as “a resource in itself,” and so on -- are mostly familiar now, though they received, in some cases, their first and/or best formulation here or in other essays by Stegner. But there are harder-edged and less familiar truths, too. There is, for example, a sustained polemic against the Western “states’ rights” movement,” or “Sagebrush Rebellion,” including a useful reminder that “in its relations with Washington the West has been subsidized, not victimized; the land managing bureaus have more often been patsies than tyrants.” And there is this blow to the heart of one perennial, self-serving anti-government myth:
“It is true that the West’s history is punctuated with the lives of rugged individualists ... but they built such things as railroad empires, land empires, and the Anaconda Copper Company. Who built the West as a living-place, a frugal, hard, gloriously satisfying civilization scrabbling for its existence against the forces of weather and a land as fragile as it is demanding, was not rugged individuals but cooperators, neighbors who knew how to help out in crises, who could get together to build a school and figure out a way to get the kids there, pool their efforts to search lost cattle or lost people, and join in infrequent blowouts, dances, and fairs. It was rugged individualists who raped the West, some successfully, some not.”
As it happens, the book concludes with a story that (among other things) illustrates this very theme. “Genesis” takes place in lower Saskatchewan around the turn of the century. Rusty, a genteel but plucky young Englishman, has come out to Canada looking to rough it. He joins a cattle roundup: eight men who ride out to gather a ranch’s herd from the open range and bring them in for the winter. Rusty has a self-pitying streak, though he grows up by the story’s end, in spite of himself. The other cowboys are a hoot: at once as colorful as curses and as prosaic as cow dung; while the foreman is a pillar of wry, quiet virtue. There is not a word or a thought of politics in the story, yet it is a remarkable picture of a cooperative commonwealth.
The story’s chief character, though, is the winter: early, unexpected, terrible. The third blizzard in a week leaves the men stranded miles from base camp, their tent wrecked, horses and cattle dispersed. Their trek to shelter is an ordeal, unsparingly rendered, arduous even to read about in Stegner’s driving, relentless prose. It’s a superbly realized story. To limn the heroism of the ordinary in a setting of awesome beauty and power, as Stegner does in “Genesis,” is, you might say, the manifest destiny of the art of the American West.
Not many American writers have inspired as much or as deep affection as Wallace Stegner. Those who already know his work will welcome Marking the Sparrow’s Fall. Those who don’t couldn’t ask for a better introduction.