Some Classics Revisited

by Carolyn Dane

Thanks to my book discussion group for "assigning" me stuff I wouldn't have been reading otherwise. Because of the group, I realized a year or so ago that I had somehow missed reading anything by Wallace Stegner (1909-1993). Since beginning with his volume of essays, Where The Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, I've been catching up on that grievous omission in my literary education and richly enjoying his graceful prose.

Stegner's father was what he called a "boomer," always looking for the next big thing, the way to get rich by getting in on the beginning of a new town or a new industry. He dragged his young family all over the west, from Saskatchewan to Washington's logging country to Salt Lake City. Stegner senior was a harsh, sometimes brutal, disciplinarian, and Wallace's mother left him once for that reason. It was a cold, hard childhood, described poignantly in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. Wallace and his mother both longed for a place to settle down, and when Wallace finally settled in at Stanford in 1964, inaugurating the writer's program there after a few short academic stints elsewhere, he never moved again. His students there included Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, Wendell Barry, Larry McMurtry, and Ernest Gaines.

Stegner loved the west, and was an environmentalist before anyone had heard the term. Here's a sample of what he wrote in The Wilderness Letter in 1960:

"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it."

Stegner wrote 30 books, about equally divided among fiction, history, and essays. Although I haven't read them all yet, I haven't come across anything of his that I can't recommend heartily, with the possible exception of One Nation, 1945, a plea for racial tolerance, which is quite dated, although of historical interest. I particularly enjoyed Crossing to Safety, a semi-autobiographical story of the long friendship between two academic couples, one significantly older and richer than the other. Significant histories include Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West and Mormon Country.

Stegner's life and work are all of a piece, and my admiration for him is a mixture of appreciation for his personal integrity and for his literary skill. His marriage lasted 59 years. He enjoyed drinking and parties, but, unlike so many authors, rarely overdid it. He was enormously generous with his time and personal help to his students and others. Without his ever saying anything about morality, somehow he leaves the impression that he would walk barefoot over glass shards before he would break his word.

There is a wonderful biography of him by Jackson Benson.

Benson also wrote a fine biography of John Steinbeck, who won the Nobel Prize for literature while Stegner never did, an injustice if ever there was one.

I recently reread East of Eden, which seemed to me a different book from the last time I read it, undoubtedly because of the passage of time and my own growing up.

I have much in common with Steinbeck. We both grew up in Salinas, California, went to the same schools and to St. Paul's Episcopal Church, hung out at the same library, and even both took piano lessons from Miss Edith Brunoni. East of Eden contains a lot of real Salinas history. The names of the characters Sam Hamilton and Olive Hamilton are the real names of Steinbeck's grandfather and mother. The Trasks were also a real family, whose name was changed to avoid libel (but telling their story made Steinbeck persona non grata in Salinas for much of his later life).

East of Eden was the book he waited all his life to write and he considered it his best, although many of his critics thought The Grapes of Wrath was his masterpiece. I can't claim to get enough distance from East of Eden to render an objective opinion, but I do still think it's one heck of a good story.

Another classic that nearly everyone has heard of but few have read (outside of my book group, of course) is Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee with photographs by Walker Evens. As a snapshot of a moment of the Great Depression, it has no equal.

It arose out of an assignment by Fortune magazine for Agee and Walker to find and live with some of the poorest of the poor sharecroppers in Alabama, and to document their misery.

Agee was outraged at the very idea of that early example of prodding toward in-your-face journalism, but he couldn't afford to turn down the job. And so he transformed it into a paean to human dignity discovered or evoked in the most miserable people he could find. He loved and respected the tenant farmers and their families, and he told their story in prose that reads like poetry.

Henry Luce wouldn't publish the piece. It languished for several years before finally finding publication as a book in 1941, complete with Agee's eloquent expression of rage at the intrusion on the families' privacy as prefatory material.

I've never gotten far into it without tears. Agee has been one of my favorite authors ever since I read A Death in the Family, his semi-autobiographical account of his father's death. Agee also wrote reviews of classic movies (he considered film "the art form of the century,") collected in Agee on Film as well as screen plays for The African Queen and The Night of the Hunter.

If you've never read the famous passage from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men that begins "All over Alabama, the lamps are out," I suggest you google it to sample Agee's magical way with words. It's only one page. For reasons I've been unable to discover, but which I presume to be reservation of copyright by Agee's heirs, it is not included in the newest edition of the book, but it is findable on-line.

Return to Port Of Call Home Page
Return to August/September 2006 Table of Contents