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K E R R Y A H E A R N Kansas State University The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Angle of Repose: Trial and Culmination The hallmark of literature in the first half of our century has been stylistic innovation as a means of rendering the complexities of human psychology, and if this were really the only significant method of approaching the raw material of art, then Joyce’s notion that Ulysses brought us to a culmination and made further fiction unnecessary might be undeniable. Yet I think myth and stylistic one-upmanship and the various permutations of the “dark” tradition of American letters have been overemphasized by critics, and this has in part explained why Wallace Stegner has not received the recognition he deserves. When Angle of Repose won a Pulitzer Prize in 1972, skeptics pointed out that the committee has always seemed on the watch for the Great American Novel from the West, and that in the past, such as The Travels of Jamie McPheeters or Honey in the Horn have unaccountably profited. The National Book Award committee for 1972 ignored Stegner. Of course, book awards themselves are no reliable index to the state of our nation’s literary tastes, but in Stegner’s case, the different responses of the “nationalistic” Pulitzer and the “Brahmin” National Book Award judgments hint at what a survey of Stegner criticism would show: an unwillingness by the nation’s highest arbiters to admit him to the front rank of American novelists. As Robert Canzoneri noted in his excellent essay, Since in Stegner’s work neither style, method, nor form is exotic, doctrinaire, distorted, violent, or romantic, and since none of his fiction depends upon myth, symbol, current psychology, or neo­ theology, what is there to write about, teach about, or talk about? 12 Western American Literature These characteristics . . . have tended to leave him invisible to cults and coteries.1 Many critics, I think, are lukewarm toward Stegner for reasons not easily dealt with in a review of conventional length: stylistic matters. They find his prose correct but not inspired. He seems to them too much in the realistic stream of American fiction, controlled and rational. True, Stegner cannot be called an innovative stylist like Faulkner or Nabokov (though I find his prose, on the whole, every bit as fresh and vivid as that of Bellow, Malamud, Updike, or Barth). There are times when I wish his ear had been listening harder for repetition; too many phrases like “a painful mouthful,” “a kind of giggling liking by teasing her,” or well-intended but postured attempts like “the receding reach of the room,” and “special sin of sensation and excitement” impede the prose and upset its norm, though they are notably absent in his essays and in the fiction dealing with the interior West, his congenial material. Style is often mentioned in reviews, but never at length. In Stegner’s case, its importance can easily be exaggerated; he once wrote, in what sounds like self-defense, that Serious fiction is not necessarily great and not even necessarily literature because the talents of its practitioners may not be as dependable as their intentions. . . . The work of art is not a gem, as some schools of criticism would insist, but truly a lens. W e look through it for the purified and honestly offered spirit of the artist.2 The question here is not with Stegner’s talents, which are obvious, but with something beyond the “gift of words.” Stegner has always sought to give us a look at life; his most ambitious works distinguish themselves from the rest in terms of their temporal and spatial scope, for life reveals its truths by accretion, and Stegner’s novels reflect that process. For him, intentions are of crucial importance: the artist (as in some foreign tradi­ tions, African, for example) sees himself as a speaker of and to his society, and so more responsible and responsive to it. His fiction should be judged on those merits. In a truly seminal essay on the subject of American literature and Western experience, “Born a Square,” Stegner describes the situation of the serious Western writer with the image of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 11-28
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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