Stegner, the Cypress Hills, and an "Impenetrable Foreignness":Still Writing the Wests
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Toward the end of The Wide Open, a very contemporary response by writers and photographers to the landscapes of eastern Montana, Richard Manning offers a key comment. When Lewis and Clark, George Catlin, and Prince Maximilian came into contact with Native peoples during the early decades of the nineteenth century, he writes, "the tribes they found in the plains were already thoroughly engaged in the fur trade. The slaughter and extinction of the bison was well under way, handled by red hands bound by whiskey to a globalized economy" (182). Just after, The Wide Open concludes with four poems by Richard Hugo, among them "Bear Paw," which includes these lines: "V after V of Canada Geese. Silence / on the highline. Only the eternal nothing / of space. This is Canada and we are safe" (195).
Twenty years ago I began The Great Prairie Fact and Literary Imagination (1989) by quoting from Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow (1962) and citing Henry Kreisel's 1968 axiomatic assertion that "all discussion of the literature produced in the Canadian West must of necessity begin with the impact of the landscape on the mind" and Robert Kroetsch's question, "How do you write in a new country?" (3). How, indeed? The five new books under review here demonstrate in their various ways that such considerations, far from being answered, have retained both their allure and their pertinence. Above all else, The Wide Open asserts the ongoing attraction of the prairie as home or personal place—memoir dominates the prose, the photographs are stark evocations of landscapes, and the overarching concern as Manning reveals is with the politics of living on the land, now. Barbara Belyea's Dark Storm Moving West, in some ways a book equal in its gorgeousness to The Wide Open, offers six imbricated essays connected to the central metaphor of the title, as she explains: "the figurative dark storm moving west is the European-American reach across the continent" signified by the fur trade initially and then by Lewis and Clark as official emissaries of President Jefferson (xiii). Drawing upon the records each left—especially the maps—Belyea seeks sternly to correct [End Page 65] the misunderstandings of other scholars. Though primarily Canadian in its focus, Dark Storm Moving West pairs well with Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner's The Cypress Hills: An Island by Itself. This book offers a deep map of the Cypress Hills, a place where geology, geography, and history (cultural, economic, social, and Native) came together, amid the binational swirl of high plains exploration, exploitation, and settlement from the eighteenth century to the present. Among those "settlers" of this "last plains frontier" was the five-year-old Wallace Stegner, whose life and writings are the basis of the other two books discussed here.
Manning's brief evocation of the fur trade with recognition of long-standing Native complicity and Hugo's geese, heading north, still provokes contemplations of mutability and the passage of what small stretch of time each of us has. Hugo's lines also remind of the allure of "crossing to safety" to a place of refuge, a Canada, where things are different—or where we hope they will be. Yet the prairie-plains landscape throws such contemplation into stark relief: "Eternity is a peneplain," Stegner asserts in Wolf Willow (7), and as that book makes very clear in its mélange of history, memoir, and fiction, it probably does so most vividly in Stegner's own prairie-plains place—specifically, the place where eastern Montana ("along the highline"), southwestern Saskatchewan, and southeastern Alberta converge south of the Cypress Hills; where the border drawn by Europeans intersected the Missouri and Hudson's Bay watersheds as well as the lands of the Assiniboine/Nakoda and also the Canadian and American fur trade; where Lewis and Clark paused and gazed north from the Milk River bluffs; where Sitting Bull, the Sioux, and the Nez Perce tried their own crossings to safety in Canada, which faltered; and where between 1914 and 1920 George Stegner tried to homestead with his family along the Saskatchewan side of the Medicine Line, the 49th parallel which ran through his son Wallace's childhood, "dividing [him] in two" (81). After going bust as a homesteader, George Stegner ran bootleg liquor from Canada into the United States for a time before moving his family to Salt Lake City, where Wallace grew up, attended college, and then embarked on his academic and writing careers. In 1939, the year before his father committed suicide in a cheap hotel in Salt Lake, he published On a Darkling Plain, a novel that takes its central character to a homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie as a refuge from the battle of Ypres where he had been wounded. "This is Canada and we are safe" (195). Yet this man is no more safe than anyone else, and the prairie landscape surrounding his Saskatchewan homestead enforces his sense of smallness, of separateness, and of his own palpable need for the society of other humans.1 [End Page 66]
Such a sense in western space has been the sine qua non since Euro Americans first ventured into it. Belyea's focus on the archival records of exploration (Captain James Cook and Captain George Vancouver), the fur trade (Peter Fidler and David Thompson especially), and Lewis and Clark's nine-day pause at the Marias in 1805 foregrounds the problems inherent in discovering, mapping, and understanding western space from the 1700s to the present. Trained in eighteenth-century literature, Belyea has made the archival records and published journals of the fur trade her special subject (she has published editions of journals by Anthony Henday and of Thompson, and some of these essays have appeared in earlier forms), yet her work is at some variance from that of other scholars working on the same materials. In its construction and presentation, Dark Storm Moving West is the work of a scholarly iconoclast: asserting that "the fur business was a rapacious force," Belyea offers her essays in what she calls a "questioning format," one that functions as her "attempt to respond appropriately to our complex and troubled past" (xiii, iv). Throughout this enterprise, Belyea's text is illustrated by reproductions of many of the maps she discusses in her essays—but they are not especially well reproduced and often lend additional understanding only for the most dogged reader.
Belyea begins with an essay considering the explorations, assumptions, and attitudes of Cook and Vancouver and also the perennial question of a Northwest Passage through North America. The nub of the issue, she writes in one of the abstracts oddly offered for each essay on the table-of-contents page, is that "science did not defeat the myth; by the late eighteenth century the myth [of the passage] had become a scientific hypothesis" (vii). More than anything else in Dark Storm Moving West, the relations between factual evidence and myth, the influence of published maps on those explorers and traders who used them, and especially the ways Euro Americans used knowledge and maps provided by Natives are overarching concerns. In the second essay, "David Thompson, HBC Surveyor" (for me the best in the book), Belyea examines the business practices of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) and Thompson's position as a surveyor within the company before he left it in 1797 for the rival North West Company. Detailing the HBC's inflexible top-down hierarchy in which a governing committee in London made all substantive decisions, Belyea offers a revealing relation between the governors and the territories they sought to exploit: "Faced with more and more documents from an expanding trade territory, Committee members were often overwhelmed by the amount of information that was sent to them and by its impenetrable foreignness. Yet the power of decision was not delegated in any rational or [End Page 67] practical way to the company's men on the ground" (19). Ultimately, Belyea makes her case that Thompson was personally well treated by the HBC but left its employ because of the ineffectuality of its decision-making processes and its inability to resolve disputes between officers in the field.
As Dark Storm Moving West proceeds, however, Belyea's iconoclastic purpose emerges with greater clarity. In "Decision at the Marias," she examines the intellectual positionings of Lewis and Clark as they paused for nine days at the Marias in order to decide their next direction. She takes on virtually every significant historian who has written on the expedition (though Stephen E. Ambrose is absent and James P. Ronda is far better than the rest). While they have seen the captains' decision to follow the Missouri rather than the Marias as "a triumph of science," Belyea asserts that "science alone, in the form of the recent maps they carried with them and the state-of-the-art instruments they used for their surveys, failed to deliver a dependable verdict at the Missouri/Marias junction" (32, 33). Belyea's account of this decision, rather, is that this is the one significant moment during the expedition when the captains recognized "the insufficiency of their own understanding" and were able "to credit their Native informants with giving reliable directions." She continues here in a passage that is revelatory as to her own rhetorical purpose: "But such moments did not last. Native geographical knowledge was used to fill in the blank space of 'actual surveys,' not to re-think conventional signs or concepts" (47). In her detailed discussions of all this, supported here by evidences of a deep familiarity with idiosyncratic use of archival sources, Belyea ventures also into contemporary landscape values: in addition to science, she sees in Lewis and Clark's decision on the Marias evidence "that geographical features are not so much perceived as imagined" (48).
Lamenting that all that can be done "now is to reconstruct a tentative, one-sided account of [Lewis and Clark's] efforts to assimilate Native knowledge into their own image of the West" (49), Belyea moves to what is perhaps her clearest purpose in Dark Storm Moving West: after the first four essays, which (while problematic in a variety of ways) achieve something of the rhetorical questioning of accepted knowledge that she is after, the final two pieces are little more than screeds—the first an attack on historians' construction of fur-trade society in feminist or class terms, the final essay another (by now quite familiar) dismissal of early anthropologists' work focused on Native cultures. Ironically, Belyea sees these other scholars as being too selective and imposing their own values on their materials. Quite apart from the question of whether any person can do otherwise, Belyea's manner and mien lacks generosity. Rather than debating other scholars, she often tries merely to correct them—as such, she is unlikely to [End Page 68] convince.2 Even so, there is a force to Dark Storm Moving West that ought not to be lost: an iconoclast and something of a gadfly, Belyea nevertheless poses some challenging questions about accepted understandings of exploration and fur-trade texts and history.
Deep in a note in Belyea's book is an observation which catches something key. Writing of Meriwether Lewis's reaction to the space his party traversed, Belyea quotes Michel Foucault's Les Mots et les choses (1966) on the primacy of the sense of vision in science and continues to see Lewis as trapped by his aesthetic acculturation in the picturesque and the sublime: "Lewis was dissatisfied with his own picturesque descriptions but could not see western topography as other than a series of landscapes" (148n15). Belyea is certainly correct here, since Lewis's dissatisfaction with his landscape descriptions is evident throughout the Journals, and that feeling was likely amplified by river travel which transformed topography into passing vista. Yet the aesthetic question Belyea is speaking of here is perhaps the central element in Kroetsch's question, "How do you write in a new country ?" Put another way, and quite evident in Belyea's apt phrase "in its impenetrable foreignness," is the more elemental "How do you see a new country, how do you understand the West?"
Belyea's book traverses the early years of Euro-American discovery of the northern prairie-plains, and by including Lewis and Clark in her calculations, she crosses the frontier between Canada and the United States. Similarly, Walter Hildebrandt and Brian Hubner focus on the Cypress Hills—described by the Assiniboine/Nakoda people as "a warm place in the north that is an island by itself" (120–21). These hills have been a place that has had a symbiotic relation with the Nakoda. In Wolf Willow, Stegner has Lewis and Clark atop the Milk River bluffs "looking down the imperceptible hill that led to Hudson Bay" (42) toward the Cypress Hills. As such, he deftly recognizes the intertwined histories of the Canadian and United States Wests, offering the same sort of bifurcated vision found in Belyea's discussion of Lewis and Clark at the Marias and throughout The Cypress Hills. There, while Hildebrandt and Hubner detail the geologic and cultural history of the Cypress Hills, it is evident that its history, however seen, is entwined with that of adjacent Montana and the Dakotas. They cannot tell their story without whiskey traders from Ft. Benton, American wolfers tracking stolen horses north, or Sitting Bull and his Sioux fleeing across the Medicine Line after the Greasy Grass/ Little Bighorn battle. Especially, they cannot tell their story without the North West Mounted Police, the very existence of which owed to incursions into Canadian territory from the United States. Thus, Stegner and these Canadian scholars offer what I have recently called the contingent [End Page 69] duality of the Canadian point of view.3 That is, while the history and myths of the West have largely been seen as a closed entity from the "American" point of view, no Canadian imagines seeing Canada's West without reference to that of the United States.
As they essay their subject, Hildebrandt and Hubner offer a focused yet comprehensive treatment, one which is particularly good in its use of information from Native and archival sources. After treating the geology and early history of the Cypress Hills, they concentrate on the period of Euro-American/Native contact during the nineteenth century. Thus, the book focuses on whiskey trading across the border, the Cypress Hills Massacre of Native peoples by wolfers in 1873, the coming of the N.W.M.P. the next year, the arrival of "American" Natives fleeing the US Army, Sitting Bull and Sioux most prominent, and the 1885 North West Rebellion led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont to the North. Throughout, the authors—both of whom have worked at the Fort Walsh National Historic Site and so are possessed of a detailed personal knowledge of the region—keep the "island" of the Cypress Hills ever in sight. Earlier in this essay, and following William Least-Heat Moon, I called this book a deep map—it is that, a precise and well-informed regional study which demonstrates, as the authors write in their introduction, that "what has taken place in the Cypress Hills is not necessarily a progression of history; perhaps in our times we are witnessing more of a cycle of history than a linear advance. As agriculture declines on the prairies, the grasslands may once again return and along with them the buffalo" (13).
This same sensibility and hope permeates The Wide Open, as my opening quotation from Richard Manning's essay, "Instructions from a Misanthrope's Paradise," suggested. In interesting though not especially well-informed ways, The Wide Open mirrors The Cypress Hills. Each book offers a rapt present-day appreciation for the role of landscape in human history; as Hildebrandt and Hubner write when speaking of the hills, the northern prairie-plains "have been part of the full cycle of invasion, conquest, colonization, exploitation, development, and expansion that characterizes the market economies … of today" (13).
In fact, what is most striking about The Wide Open is what might be called its daunting presentism. A beautiful coffee-table-style volume which contains stunning black-and-white photographic portfolios by Lee Friedlander, Lois Conner, and Geoffrey James, respectively, the bulk of the text is made up of short pieces by largely well-known contemporary writers who have in some sense made the region their own. An opening section, "Home on the Range," offers memoirs from Mary Clearman Blew, Judy [End Page 70] Blunt, Thomas McGuane and others, an excerpt from James Welch's The Death of Jim Loney, and other pieces. In their introduction, the editors write that the "challenge of this anthology has been to explore what to some is a depleted and threatened landscape and to others is a repository of great natural and personal resources" (13). This is apt and fair enough. A second section, "Hunting and Gathering," contains the best writing in the book—the pieces by Barry Lopez, Rick Bass, William Kittredge, and especially that by David James Duncan, are fine indeed, as is Jim Harrison's "Don't Fence Me In" in a third section called "Travels across the Plains." The fourth and final section, "Natural History," offers three essays—by Dan Flores, Peter Matthiessen, and Manning—surveying some of the region's cultural and literary history. The first two are breathtaking in their too swift dealings with the nineteenth century (rather like the prairie fire at night in Richard Ford's "Empire" in the previous section, the only landscape reference in that story about people on a train heading east across the plains). Flores uses Audubon's 1843 visit to the plains as a way of tracing species decline, and Matthiessen does much the same, but Manning's essay is the best of the three as it treats the history of settlement in Montana and asks, toward his essay's end, "Or is the land itself misanthropic?" His answer, offered immediately after, might well be broadened to the West as a whole, north and south, east and west, from beyond the wide Missouri: "The prairie, through all its history, has only thrown people off when it has been abused. The land is not so much attempting to abuse people as to teach them" (190).
The introduction to The Wide Open includes a glancing mention of Wallace Stegner and, not at all surprisingly given the books under review here, I found myself thinking of Stegner often as I read this book. Of all the pieces included in it, only one contains any explicit references to any other publications. Otherwise, these writers allude casually to their influences—McGuane makes a reference to Willa Cather and Nebraska that he gets wrong (36), Matthiessen does not know that the title of Washington Irving's 1835 book is A Tour on the Prairies, and there are other small lapses. This is what I mean by the daunting presentism of this book, and while there is much in The Wide Open to inform and make readers think, I see little to suggest that any of these writers, despite their evident imaginations and felicities, offer a presence even remotely akin to Wallace Stegner's.
Among the various tributes published just after Stegner's death from injuries suffered in an auto accident in April 1993 was one by the Saskatchewan writer Sharon Butala. She was living near Eastend, [End Page 71] Saskatchewan, and leading the successful initiative to purchase for a writer's retreat the house in town that George Stegner built for his family, where they lived when they were not on their homestead on the Saskatchewan-Montana border. To this end, Butala had exchanged letters with Stegner and spoken with him on the phone, but she had never met him. That was to have happened in June 1993, when Stegner planned to return again to Eastend for the dedication. In her tribute, called "The Night Wallace Stegner Died," Butala responds to Stegner's early short stories and writes:
Stegner had a Saskatchewan soul, never mind his more than forty years in California, never mind that he left this place over seventy years ago. The vast sky, the constant wind, the short yellow grass, the sage and cactus and greasewood are forever embedded in his consciousness, providing the base which supports his world. He is wry, self-deprecating, sparing of words, clear-eyed, humble and strong of character as only landscape like this can make a man.(23)
This account is accompanied by excerpts from Paula Simons's July 1992 interview with Stegner for a CBC radio "Ideas" documentary broadcast just after his death. There, speaking of Wolf Willow, Stegner asserted wryly, "I'm the Herodotus of the Cypress Hills. Without ever knowing I was going to be or intending to be I started to write that perfectly personal book and found out that there was just no history at all in that country, practically none" (29). This notion of absent history is easy to dispute, of course, just as Butala's assertion of Stegner's "Saskatchewan soul" is, but there is no question that in some very fundamental sense Wallace Stegner wrote the Wests in ways that no one had before him—"Herodotus of the Cypress Hills" indeed. Only Willa Cather's evocation of Virgil in My Ántonia (1918) might be seen as coequal—"for I shall be the first, if I live, to bring the Muse into my country"—yet their Wests were very different ones (256). They complement each other for that.
Philip L. Fradkin's Wallace Stegner and the American West joins Jackson J. Benson's Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work (1996) as full biographical studies; together, they are augmented and supported, and perhaps even sometimes supplanted, by Page Stegner's Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner. When Benson's book appeared—close to Stegner's unexpected death—it was seen by reviewers as something of an exercise in hagiography or an attempt to elevate Stegner the novelist to the pantheon of the American greats by arguing stridently against those who doubted the notion (see reviews by Kincaid and [End Page 72] Thacker). However such matters are seen now, Benson certainly slighted Stegner as a western writer. A decade having passed since his biography and other volumes published in part as elegiac tribute to Stegner, complemented now by the Selected Letters, Fradkin's biography is the first of (what will probably be) a succession of revisionist biographies and critical reappraisals (see Rankin, Stegner and Stegner). Stegner's interests and involvements were too numerous, his presence too deeply felt, his times too raucous—he is a figure who will attract a succession of biographies. He should.
In some sense, he already has. Fradkin, an environmental journalist with ten previous books to his credit, very consciously positions his construction of Stegner against—though not in opposition to—the literary analyses of Benson and of Forrest G. and Margaret G. Robinson, who published a Twayne volume on Stegner in 1977. Drawing from their work, especially Benson's interviews with Stegner, Fradkin incorporates these materials within his narrative. He was also in touch with Page Stegner as he was assembling the Selected Letters, and they kept each other informed as new material was discovered.
The key to Fradkin's treatment of Stegner is in the second part of his title: … and the American West. As he asserts in his introduction, he seeks to "use the life of Wallace Stegner as the vista from which to gaze upon the panorama of the American West in the twentieth century, for his time spanned the transition from prairie frontier to Silicon Valley." Or, as he puts it too, his "is a book about a man and the physical landscapes he inhabited and how they influenced him. Within that framework it is also the story of a quintessential westerner who eventually could not deal with the wrenching changes that are a constant of the American West" (xi).
As it happened, I read Fradkin's book and then moved immediately on to the Selected Letters, which I found while I was reading the biography and which was not, initially, one of the books to be reviewed here. Sensibly, the order should have been reversed, although individual letters regularly sent me back to Fradkin's versions of context and the letters, in their greater extent, filled in those contexts. Page Stegner's volume of his father's letters is strong and very full—as an editor, the son does not intrude overmuch, preferring to direct or explain briefly through well-placed footnotes. The letters themselves are arranged thematically, with sections given over to "Origins," "Biographers and Critics," "Reflections on the Works," "Special Friends and Family," "The Literary Life," "Stanford: 1945–1971," "On History and Historians," and "Conservation." Given the range of Stegner's interests and involvements, this is certainly better than a straight chronology, although it does lead, at times, to occasionally jarring leaps [End Page 73] from point to point in Stegner's life—the handy chronology which closes the book helps with these leaps. Throughout the Selected Letters, a reader is struck by Stegner's wit, his many deep and thoughtful connections, and his wryness—he was indeed, as Butala wrote, "self-deprecating, sparing of words, clear-eyed, humble and strong of character" (23). But he is also strong-willed, at times cranky, and often sees slights and bears a grudge. In short, a human being of deep commitments, clear sight, and considerable fervor.
This is what emerges from Wallace Stegner and the American West, certainly: a whole sense of a full life lived—but by no means a "complete picture"—of a man who worked hard, habitually and persistently, his entire life to define, articulate, and animate a relation to the physical world through words. Fradkin closes his book by returning once more to considerations of his own personal discovery of and relation to Stegner and his legacy; he writes that what Stegner "found in Vermont," where he summered for years, "as he had in Eastend, was a convergence of nature and human history." He goes on to note that just before he died, Stegner asserted to an audience that "people's living is conditioned by the place" where they have been born and are (323).
For Wallace Stegner—whether in Iowa, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, Utah, California, or Vermont, and these are but the most prominent of the places he came to know well in his peripatetic life—place was, as Fradkin says, a matter of "nature and human history" (323). Steeped in the Wests as deeply as he was, ever open to the allures and starknesses of their landscapes as he came to know them intimately, recognizing the symbioses which developed between those landscapes and the people who lived there and of whom he was one himself, Wallace Stegner was a person who understood what Belyea describes as the "impenetrable foreignness" of the Wests at the most visceral level. Knowing the place as deeply as he did, Stegner created in his works—through history, biography, fiction, and nonfiction—a "geography of hope," for which he advocated tirelessly. In Wallace Stegner and the American West, Fradkin details and celebrates the whole man and his work in a balanced, focused, and sensible construction. The Stegner who emerges from this biography is a presence to be reckoned with, just as he was in life. Emerging from the "last great plains frontier" north of the 49th parallel, moving all about the region and coming to know it deeply, heading east to come to know its relations, Stegner studied his Wests and articulated their essences broadly and powerfully. No longer "impenetrably foreign," the Wests still teach us their ways and demand still to be written. [End Page 74]
Robert Thacker is a professor of Canadian Studies and an associate dean at St. Lawrence University. A past president of the Western Literature Association, he has served as Executive Secretary/Treasurer since 1999. Recent publications include Alice Munro: Writing Her Lives (2005) and, coedited with C. L. Higham, One West, Two Myths II: Essays on Comparison (2007).
1. This discussion takes as axiomatic the intertwined cultural and literary histories of the "Canadian" and "United States" Wests. As I have argued elsewhere, scholars have long limited their analyses to one country or the other, preferring to construct a nation-based story when no such homogeneity is possible, really. See Higham and Thacker; in particular, see David Williams's discussion of Wolf Willow which, among other things, offers a salient discussion of the Canadian predilection for "prairie" over "plains," the preferred usage in this country.
2. Space precludes a more detailed discussion of problems in Belyea's presentation, but I would refer interested readers to other reviews of Dark Storm Moving West, especially those by Ens and MacLaren.
3. See my "No Catlin without Kane." It grew from my 1999 Past President's Address to the Western Literature Association, "Crossing Frontiers, Riding Point." See also my "Erasing the Forty-Ninth Parallel."