The West, Stegner, Mormon Lit

I live once again in the western United States. I have shortly lived elsewhere, two years in Brazil, two years in Maryland, but the west is home. I knew this for certain crossing the plains by car last fall. Around the same time, I read Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain. “He was a westerner, whatever that was,” Stegner wrote, at once describing something similar to what I feel and Harry Mason’s thoughts as he journeyed toward Utah from Minnesota. “The moment he crossed the Big Sioux and got into the brown country where the raw earth showed, the minute the grass got sparser and the air dryer and the service stations less grandiose and the towns rattier, the moment he saw his first lonesome shack on the baking flats with a tipsy windmill creaking away at the reluctant underground water, he knew approximately where he belonged.”

Stegner is not Mormon literature (he was raised for a time among Mormons, he clearly had affection for Mormons, and Mormons were his occasional subject: see particularly Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation and his light early Mormon histories). But he is a neighbor and a potential model. First, he wrote the West in a compelling and acutely perceptive way. To the extent that Mormon literature takes as its setting the western United States (certainly this is not necessary–the possible settings for Mormon literature obviously expand along with the church), Stegner is an influence to be reckoned with and hopefully exceeded.

But there is something else in Stegner, something more universal, that I with my Mormon view of the world find deeply stirring: his portrayal of relationships over long periods of time. I would like to draft an extended essay using various examples (I would pull them from Remembering Laughter, Angle of Repose, Big Rock Candy Mountain, Recapitulation, and perhaps Crossing to Safety). But other commitments compel me to do much less: I offer only my impression of Stegner’s portrayal of the central relationships in these books. Stegner portrays people–husbands and wives, parents and children, friends, and so on–injuring each other, sacrificing, coping with differences, and (sometimes) forgiving and encountering something like joy or stillness together.

In portraying these relationships, Stegner rarely employs brilliant gimmicks. I do not come away from reading one of his novels with the feeling that he is a freak with an enormous brain and few friends (yes, from some authors I do get that vibe). On the contrary, I come away with the feeling that Stegner has an enormous heart and a keen eye–immense sympathy for and understanding of people and the skill to match.

The suffering Stegner illuminates in his characters’ relationships means something. He does not cast it in spiritual terms, but I can’t resist seeing something holy there: consecration. Indeed, although there is nothing expressly Mormon in Stegner’s fictional relationships, they touch me in places where Joseph Smith shined a bright light of revelation: the eternal family and the centrality in the gospel of friendship. In short, Stegner has a lot to teach us about telling stories that capture the spiritual significance of our families and friends.

8 thoughts on “The West, Stegner, Mormon Lit”

  1. My first (only?) encounter with Stegner was listening to a collection of his essays while taking a long distance drive. He wrote about life and wildlife in the West, and about his youthful years in Salt Lake City. It was fun to hear someone not LDS write nice things about Utah without, at the same time, complaining about Mormons. 

    Posted by Dave

  2. I have yet to read Stegner.

    But the ideas of relationships over time, consecration and family make a lot of sense to me as being a key way to tell stories that are attuned to the Mormon experience.

    Thanks, Shawn. 

    Posted by William Morris

  3. Thanks for this post, Shawn.

    In short, Stegner has a lot to teach us about telling stories that capture the spiritual significance of our families and friends.  

    The impression I get from Stegner is that he had a facility for the give-and-take that occurs in healthy relationships, which in his case often included relationships with Mormons. He noted and praised that which he considered notable and praiseworthy. He learned from Mormons. I appreciate your suggesting that we can learn from him!  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. BTW, about this:

    In portraying these relationships, Stegner rarely employs brilliant gimmicks. I do not come away from reading one of his novels with the feeling that he is a freak with an enormous brain and few friends (yes, from some authors I do get that vibe).  

    Intriguing! Care to explain?  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  5. P.G.: The quote you extracted tempts me to pursue a false dichotomy (cold brilliant innovators on one side, warm and wisely character-sympathetic authors on the other) that I never intended.

    But there are tendencies I notice: some authors seem more concerned with flashy, innovative, complex (and so forth) story-telling. The ultimate impression is that the author wants to show off, impress, and seem as inhumanly virtuousic as possible. To the extent that writing and reading is social interaction, a conversation between author and reader, such authors strike me as socially inept.

    Others tend to subordinate technique to the story itself. Not that such authors cannot be virtuousic in their own way. But they convey a sense of humility, of virtuosity controlled and put to work to enrich the story. This nexus of achievement and social grace adds up to good company. 

    Posted by S. P. Bailey

  6. Others tend to subordinate technique to the story itself. Not that such authors cannot be virtuousic in their own way. But they convey a sense of humility, of virtuosity controlled and put to work to enrich the story. This nexus of achievement and social grace adds up to good company.  

    Whew! Pass the cranial calipers, please!

    Kidding aside, and the principle of charity invoked, I will assume that your “big-brained freak” statement does NOT mean that if you, S.P. Bailey, can’t connect with an author it follows that said author cannot be connected with. Rather you’re talking about those authors who employ language to distance themselves from their audience for whatever reason.

    I agree this happens. For instance, one of the biggest complaints I continue to hear about the LDS poet Clinton Larson, even from his literary-minded colleagues, many of whom are themselves writers, is that his writing is “incomprehensible.” If you remember, as recently as the February AML, someone on the panel called Clinton’s dramas “unplayable and mostly unintelligible.” I don’t hear such criticisms as dismissals of his work so much as a laments, the unstated question running through them being something like, “Why wouldn’t you come and be among us? We wanted to be with you; you wouldn’t let us.”

    But also I’ve seen plenty of simple language and clear storylines calculated to widen gulfs or humiliate or browbeat readers.

    Like you, I believe that writing is a way of “being with” others and ought to satisfy community needs one way or another. I believe it’s a lot more, too–good writers help the communal consciousness in its struggle upwards to its next best level. Given these ideas about writing, which I know not everyone shares, writers who deliberately use language as an obstacle course might be considered anti-social. Readers–people in general–crave good language and if it can be delivered to them in a voice that expresses interest in them, the readers, they’ll know it and return the interest.  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  7. Bad news, Will. The two-year statute of limitations for accuracy in literary-character-referencing in a blog post ran out sometime last year. But thanks anyway!

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