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  • Wallace StegnerA Passionate and Committed Heart
  • Nancy Huddleston Packer (bio)

I began to read the work of Wallace Stegner in the middle1950s, just at the time I was starting to try to be a writer. At that time Stegner was publishing wonderful short stories in the Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s. I especially admired one, “Pop Goes the Alley Cat,” and I tried to write it two or three times.

When I married into the Stanford community in 1958, I got to know Wally socially. That fall he let me sit in on the graduate fiction-writing class that he and Richard Scowcroft took turns teaching. The class was chockful of fine writers, including Wendell Berry, who was writing Nathan Coulter; Ken Kesey, who was writing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Ernest Gaines, who was writing his wonderful Louisiana stories; and a very good writer who was caught pinching books as he passed through the rare-book room on his way to our classroom. I was so impressed with the group that it took me about two weeks to so much as open my mouth.

Two years later Philip Roth, who was twenty-eight and not yet famous, was supposed to come to Stanford to teach fiction writing, but something intervened; Wally and Dick had by then become accustomed to my face, and I was hired.

At that time the department was so cramped for space that no office was available for me, and Wally set up a desk for me in his rather large office. I overheard all his conversations with publishers, editors, students, and faculty members. I think I learned at least as much about him as a valet would have, warts and all. There weren’t many warts, but there was scar tissue.

Wallace Earle Stegner was born in 1909 in Iowa, the second son of Scandinavian immigrants, George and Hilda Stegner. The family was destitute, and for a short time Wally and his brother were put into an orphanage. Once reunited, the family moved to Saskatchewan where George thought he could make a killing as a homesteader. In an interview Wally said that he had grown up [End Page 208] “on the tail end of that frontier—the very last demoralized end . . . when the homesteading and small farm, free-land frontier came to a kind of dribbling end, not with a bang but a whimper.”

It was a primitive life. Wally said he did not see a toilet or a bathtub until he was twelve years old. Those years in Saskatchewan permeate Wally’s adult thinking and writing. In Wolf Willow he writes:

I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I can say to myself that a good part of my private and social character, the kinds of scenery and weather and people and humor I respond to, the prejudices I wear like dishonorable scars, the affections that sometimes awaken me from middle-aged sleep with a rush of undiminished love, the virtues I respect and the weaknesses I condemn, the code I try to live by, the special ways I fail at it and the kinds of shame I feel when I do, the models and heroes I follow, the colors and shapes that evoke my deepest pleasure, the way I adjudicate between personal desire and personal responsibility, have been in good part scored into me by that little womb-village and the lovely, lonely, exposed prairie of the homestead.

Although that place was very important to Wally, he once wrote he would not live there again for a thousand dollars an hour. It was a frontier culture made up of rugged individualism, cruelty, and intolerance for difference or weakness. The frontier was, in his words, “a predominantly masculine fact” based on “a predominantly masculine dream.” As a boy Wally was a bit of a runt and suffered in the male culture run riot.

Using a poker image long before poker became the darling of television, Wally said that for “men of a certain gambler kind, [the frontier] opened up into the future with the triumphant certainty of a pat flush, picked up card by...


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