I’ve used the word ‘memoir’ 65 times here, one-third of which have been since registering for Lynn Stegner’s class

I will have to look into this.

I remember it well.

You wore blue, the Germans wore black.

He said, “but my wife is not in a wheel chair”.

Distribution of word “memoir” in Plastic Alto, by year:

2019: 15, (in 51 days)

2018: 12

2017: 0

2016: 1

2015: 6

2014: 15

2013: 3

2012: 7

2011: 5

2010: 1

POINT REYES STATION, Calif. — Mostly, they called him Wally. The use of Wallace Stegner’s nickname was in keeping with the familiar, almost familial tone of last weekend’s gathering of writers — mostly Western writers — seeking new relevance in the work of this protean author some 15 years after his death and a month after what would have been his 99th birthday.

But the use of Stegner’s nickname, and the informal look of the down vests and jeans worn by many of the speakers and their audience of 250, could not dispel the sense of religiosity that hovered over the gathering.

Wallace Stegner wrote mostly in and about the West. Before World War II he embarked on a quiet campaign of tearing down the dime-store myths fostered by 19th-century Currier & Ives prints and 20th-century Zane Grey novels. He also chronicled the environmental consequences of ideas like Manifest Destiny. The land was almost its own character in much of his fiction.

As the author Barry Lopez put it, “One of the great things he made us understand was that history and geography were part of the story.”

Heirs of Western landscapes, like those who gathered among the elongated green hills and the ranches along the Northern California coast here, seemed to regard him as speaking for them.

Or, perhaps more precisely, speaking for them and their land. The weekend conference, sponsored by the store Point Reyes Books, was called “The Geography of Hope.” The phrase comes from a 1960 letter Stegner wrote in support of the Wilderness Act, which Congress passed four years later. In the decades since, it has been widely quoted, and the words hung, like a truncated Bible verse, over the speakers at the West Marin School gym, where much of the event took place.

The event was partly a discussion of Stegner’s works, particularly the novels “Angle of Repose” and “Crossing to Safety” and the biography of the explorer John Wesley Powell, “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.” It was also partly a homage to Stegner by writers he influenced, like Mr. Lopez, the author of “Arctic Dreams.” And it was a statement that Western writers must create their own settings for the discussion of their craft.

“There is no 92nd Street Y in the American West,” said Philip L. Fradkin, the author of a new biography of Stegner (“Wallace Stegner and the American West”), as he sat outside the school. The conference marked the appearance of two new Stegner-related books: Mr. Fradkin’s biography and a collection of Stegner letters selected and edited by the writer’s son, Page Stegner.

Mr. Fradkin lives in a small town, Inverness, just north of here in western Marin County, as does Robert Hass, the former United States poet laureate. With Steve Costa, one of the proprietors of Point Reyes Books, they organized the conference in connection with local and national land conservation groups like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust.

The sense of the West and its people as a world apart, reduced to a cardboard fantasy by Easterners who had never been there, and the parallel hunger of Westerners, like Stegner himself, to drink in the Eastern culture that they had missed in childhood were ideas that came in and out of the discussions.

Stegner’s daughter-in-law, the novelist Lynn Stegner, said that the title of “Crossing to Safety” “echoes the same theme he was always interested in — the East, the West, the orphaned Westerners being taken in and taken care of by the cultured Eastern family.” But Carl Brandt, Stegner’s former agent, said that Stegner was “identified as a Western writer in a way that’s partly unfair.”

“You look at the fiction, and it’s not Western,” he said. “It’s truly about people. It could be done as well in Vermont.”

The East’s perceived dismissal of Stegner’s Western-ness was another leitmotif during the conference. Mr. Fradkin made repeated references to the failure of The New York Times Book Review to publish a review of “Angle of Repose” — and the dismissive column about it in The Times (“a Pontiac in the age of Apollo, an Ed Muskie in the fiction sweepstakes”) written by John Leonard after the book was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Stegner was, however, embraced by many of the writers he worked with as students or fellows in the creative writing program he founded at Stanford, which produced authors like Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey and Robert Stone. The exception was Ken Kesey, with whom Stegner had a bitter falling out. Kesey-like figures and the drug-centric, elder-bashing 1960s, which helped speed Stegner’s departure from teaching, are the subjects of withering commentary in later novels.

If the Eastern literary world and the ’60s youth movement were burrs under Stegner’s saddle, they did not distract him from a central theme of both his fiction and nonfiction: the way the West works, in fact, not in myth. Often his work gave early voice to ideas that are now conventional wisdom, like the centrality of water politics to the region.

Mr. Hass said he learned from Stegner that “the basic fact of life in the West was aridity, was dryness.”

“All Western politics are water politics in the end,” Mr. Hass said, “as all politics will be water politics instead of oil politics in the future.”

Remarks like these ensured that the conference never strayed too far from its overarching environmental theme. Near the end there was a reading of Stegner’s Wilderness Act letter, which ends: “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”

edit to add, Wednesday 6:40 I am adding to this as class meets, discussing John McPhee “Draft Number 4”. Good to go to dictionary, which parses more than Roget’s, she says.

 

and1: Heather, who wore a Ramones shirt to class, recommends Elizabeth Gilbert TED:

Screen Shot 2019-02-20 at 6.52.15 PM

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About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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