Photo courtesy of University of Utah Wallace Stegner Gallery
“The West does not need to explore its myths much further,” wrote Wallace Stegner in a 1964 essay, “it has already relied on them too long.”
Since our last presidential election, we’ve all learned that hope can sometimes be an audacious thing. Yet, long before the audacity of hope, there was Wallace Stegner’s “geography of hope,” the American West. To Stegner, the West truly was the last best place, so long as Westerners were able to take a good, hard look at themselves and see it as such. Too often, according to Stegner, this was not the case. In truth, no other Western writer, before or since, has influenced the literary landscape as thoroughly as Stegner, who was a novelist, historian, environmentalist and teacher. His students included Barry Lopez, Wendell Berry, Ivan Doig, Larry McMurtry, Terry Tempest Williams and Ken Kesey. He won almost every prize a writer could win, including a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. His legacy remains a powerful one and his words about the future of Western literature—some sixteen years after his death—remain unerringly prescient.
The centennial of his birthday last week marked as good a time as any to revisit Stegner’s legacy, and his words on Western literature.
“Though each of the several Wests has developed its own kinds of vulgarity, ugliness, and social injustice,” Stegner wrote in a 1964 Atlantic essay (“Born a Square: The Westerner’s Dilemma”), “none of these is yet rank enough to stink out the scent of prairie flowers and sagebrush in which we began.”
The paradox seems typically Stegnerian. In the same essay he wrote that the Western writer (as distinguished from the writer of “Westerners”) is trapped by his or her “squareness” in a peculiar box. Getting out—finding an audience and a way of writing—has its own difficulties. The box is booby-trapped at one end because the West doesn’t give the writer an adequate intellectual and artistic tradition within which to work. It’s booby-trapped at the other end because the artistic and intellectual traditions that lie outside the region—and might offer a substitute—are inconsistent with the experience of the West and potentially destructive to the writer’s art. To escape the dilemma, Stegner urges writers to go away from the West, if only to become aware of the West’s cultural and intellectual limitations and then look back to the West without becoming lost in its history or myths, or too carried away by its scenic landscapes.
“The West does not need to explore its myths much further,” Stegner wrote in the same essay, “it has already relied on them too long. It has no future in exploiting its setting either, for too consistently it has tried to substitute scenery for a society. All it has to do is to be itself at the most responsible pitch, to take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured—been used to obscure. The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it. The West as a whole is guilty of inexplicable crimes against the land: admit that too. The West is ruthless, culturally half-baked. So be it.”
While an argument can be made that the West has caught up culturally in the last half decade, it may also be said that Western literature in general, and perhaps some of Montana’s in particular, remains too mired in the mythology of the West. While those myths continue to inspire writers for any number of reasons—and perhaps should, as writer and scientist Jeffrey Lockwood argued in these very pages (see “Cowboy Up: Why the West needs its mythic figures now more than ever”), it can also be said that Western writers continue to overly romanticize the last best place.
The danger of an over-mythologized Western literature, at least according to Stegner, was a literature so deeply rooted in the past, its present was forgotten. The past can be, and often has been for Western writers, a sanctuary. The danger of constant return to the past, however, is that a literature may become self-congratulatory instead of self-revealing. For Stegner, the future of a Western literature was a past inseparable from the present: “Until some Westerner manages to do for his part of the West what Faulkner did for Mississippi and discovers a usable continuity between past and present, Western literature is going to stay mired in the past.”
While he criticized the West for its literary weaknesses, and while we might still learn from these criticisms, we might also learn from his love for the West: “Let us remember [the West’s] strength: It is the New World’s last chance to be something better, the only American society still malleable enough to be formed.”
Just as there are plenty of reasons why Western writers still find their subject in the myths, there are more—and perhaps better—reasons why writers who flock westward still need to heed Stegner’s advice. Hope seems to be the word of the era right now and in Stegner’s “geography of hope” the Western writer might find a connection between past and present: “If [the Western writer] lived and wrote his convictions,” wrote Stegner, “he could show the hopeless where hope comes from...This is not exhortation, neither is it prophecy. It is only, since I am from the West and incorrigible, hope.”