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R U S S E L L B U R R O W S Northwest College Powell, Wyoming Wallace Stegner’s Version ofPastoral A great deal of the vitality in Wallace Stegner’sfiction derives from his use of pastoralism. In some part, Stegner’s pastoral impulse is traditional; he draws on the sensibility that so interested Wordsworth, who spoke of the human heart recoiling from the “world [that] is too much with us,” and certainly his settings are often pastoral. Some settings in his novels suggest Gail Finney’s definition of the pastoral garden, where events run “counter to the progressive tide of time, social norms, [and] urban civilization” (12). But Stegner also builds on tradition. His version of pastoral is, as Renato Poggioli says of modern pastorals generally, “self-conscious” and “inverted,” so much sothat one might say Stegner’s gardens offer “a bucolic aspiration only to deny it” (33-34). Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964), a benchmark in pastoral scholarship, clarifies Stegner’s ambitions with the pastoral theme, for Stegner’s major works are funda­ mentally concerned with the juxtaposition of machine and garden in the American landscape. These terms are best read with wide meaning, of course: the machine in Stegner’s work signifies the various technologies of cultivating land, including irrigating, fertilizing, and planting, and also comes to mean all manner of building and general land development; the garden stands for reclamation or reformation of land in the sweeping sense of Jefferson’s agrarianism. The garden is thus a blanket term for fields, orchards, city parks, and even suburban yards, so long as they reflect ideals of land use. Within this framework, Stegner writes a modem, critical pastoral, in the sense that he entertains for a time the prospect of the machine’s actu­ ally gracing the garden. His characters’ hopes are all in that direction as they set out to improve nature (and thus their lives) with technology. However, the ultimate thrust of Stegner’s writing is that this meliorist 16 Western American Literature pastoral dream is often flawed. Even though alluring, the idea of improv­ ing on nature may only reveal human hubris. What emerges, then, is an understanding of land that is decidedly ecological. Stegner brings his char­ acters to see that land, especially dry, western land, cannot tolerate the idealized pastoral design. Stegner’s conception of man in the landscape appears to depend a great deal on an experience related in his autobiography of 1962, Wolf Willow. This work, in fact, serves as a capsule statement of the complex of pastoralist ideas appearing in the novels. In Wolf Willow, he shows himself trying—at the very limits of his strength of character and intellect—to hold both nature and technology in some sort of complementary balance. After nearly half a century of living away from his boyhood home, he returns to Whitemud, Saskatchewan, where he walks in search of traces left by his once having worked with his father to make the wild prairie garden-like. In a sense, he is embarked on a pastoral quest, looking for his identity in the evidence of improved land. Yet unexpectedly the land has gone back to prairie, and as Stegner wanders over what had been the family farm, he finds reason to give up the search for the footings of barns and the outlinesoffence rows. In their place, he finds that the delicate smell of wolf willow, which had never before recommended itself to his notice, transports him. For the moment he feels himself removed to a realm where “reality ismade equivalent with memory, and a hunger is satisfied” (19). With that subtle reassurance of a connec­ tion to the land, he no longer feels compelled to recover the farm. He can let it lie buried. The significance of this experience isthat it helped Stegner decide how he would thereafter treat land. Ultimately, if he had to leave marks, they ought to be no deeper than the foot paths he made as a boy. It came to him that the feel of “wearing” paths into “the earth’s rind” was somehow “an intimate act, an act like love . . . denied to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 15-25
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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