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J O S E P H M. F L O R A The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Vardis Fisher and Wallace Stegner: Teacher and Student An important a»pect of Vardis Fisher’s autobiographical tetralogy and its revision and expansion as Orphans in Gethsemane (1960) is Vridar Hunter’s relationships with his teachers and later with his students. Fisher first taught English at the University of Utah as a graduate student. He returned to Utah for three years after he received his Ph.D. from Chicago, and then taught at New York University for three years. He also taught two summers at the University of Montana. Fisher’s readers will have little doubt that few of his students could quickly forget their experience with him. His personality seldom—if ever—elicited a neutral judgment. As far as I have been able to learn from reading the Fisher correspondence at Yale University, from correspondence with Fisher, and from an unforgettable weekend visit in the summer of 1963 with Vardis and Opal Fisher at their Hagerman, Idaho, home, the most famous student to emerge from any of Fisher’s classes was Wallace Stegner. Stegner was an undergraduate at Utah enrolled in Fisher’s English class; one would naturally expect a person of Stegner’s talents to have found Fisher of especial interest—as he did. Our conversation turned to Stegner during that 1963 Hager­ man weekend because I had detected certain similarities with Vardis Fisher in a character in a Stegner short story I had recently taught. The short story is “The View from the Balcony,” a story set in an Indiana college town but which really seemed to me to be based on Iowa City, where Stegner had done his graduate work and where, I knew, Fisher had several friends. Fisher told me that he had not read the story. I promised to send him a copy, which I did. Fisher wrote back, not pleased to find himself reflected in the character of Paul Latour but at the same time describing a fight that he had had with Stegner that left no doubt that my hunch had been correct. 122 Western American Literature I call the attention of Fisher’s readers to Stegner’s story not because Paul Latour is Vardis Fisher but because he does reflect a side of Fisher’s complex personality. Nor do I mean in any way to limit Stegner’s story, which is very fine. It is not a factual account but, like most fiction, uses the stuff of reality and trans­ mutes it into something else. The story stands in its own right. However, I think Fisher and Stegner readers will find the story of interest in an autobiographical light, for it indicates what one would have exected—Vardis Fisher was an important influence on Stegner. I think that one would also have to conclude that the portrait is also—in part—Stegner’s judgment on his former teacher. “The View from the Balcony” portrays a married graduate student community living in a converted fraternity house just after World War II. The students in their sheltered present look forward to “the assured future.”1 Their confidence is brought into question when Tommy Probst freezes and walks out of his final Ph.D. ex­ amination. The group decides to go on with the beer party that was to be a celebration and to invite Professor Clark Richards, head of the social science department, and Paul Latour, a psy­ chology professor, to come to help straighten Tommy out. Especially through these characters who were “outsiders, older, with better perspective” (p. 100), Stegner demonstrates that the future is never assured, that even if the students live in a fraternity house, each is "alone, terrified, and at bay, each with his ears attuned to some roar across the woods, some ripple of water, some whisper of a footstep in the dark” (p. 120). When the story ends, Richard’s wife, Myra, is off in a canoe with a student and her husband is very upset; Paul Latour—whose profession emphasizes understanding of emotional needs and fears—has fought so savagely with Charley Graham that the student...


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pp. 121-128
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