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University of California, Santa Cruz F O R R E S T G. R O B IN S O N Wallace Stegner’s Family Saga: From The Big Rock Candy Mountain To Recapitulation We can make closer contact in fiction than in reality; more surely than we know the secrets of our friends we know how this writer who is something like ourselves looks upon himself, how he fronts his life, how he, another waif in a bewildering world, has made out to survive and perhaps be at peace. Wallace Stegner, The Writer in America I It is one of the few really glaring contradictions in Wallace Stegner’s work that he has been hostile to fiction of the “confessional” stripe and at the same time preoccupied, in much of his very best writing, with the intimate details of his own life.1The dramatic focus of this autobiographi­ cal impulse has been the triangular relationship between the novelist’s fictional double, Bruce Mason, and his parents, George and Hilda Stegner (Bo and Elsa Mason). The story first surfaces in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Stegner’s widely acclaimed classic of the American West. Here, in what he has characterized as “family history reasonably I have a debt of gratitude to Margaret G. Robinson, my collaborator on several Stegner projects, for her very valuable suggestions and encouragement during the making of this essay. 1In The Uneasy Chair (Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday, 1974), for example, he applauds the fact that Bernard DeVoto was “more inclined to think than to throb, more inclined to consult fact and experience than wishful theory, more interested in communication than self-expression, exhibitionism, or public confession” (128). 102 Western American Literature straight,”2Stegner shapes the sharply polarized figures of his parents into a kind of template for the measurement and understanding of western American history. On one side is the father, Bo Mason, restless, energetic, independent, the socially irresponsible pursuer of the main chance in the wild, wide open West. On the other is the mother, Elsa Mason, the embodiment of home, the family, continuity, culture — civilized forces inimical to the headstrong individualism of her husband. The chronicle of their historically representative struggle gives way, in the novel’s later chapters, to the emergence of their son, Bruce Mason, into early adult­ hood. As yet not fully formed, Bruce is nonetheless the living receptacle of the polarized forces that have shaped him. Indeed, at the novel’s close, as he stands beside his father’s grave, young Mason takes it as his principal task in life to oversee the blending of parental energies that will combine in his own destiny. Perhaps it took several generations to make a man, perhaps it took several combinations and re-creations of his mother’s gentleness and resilience, his father’senormous energy and appetite for the new, a subtle blending of masculine and feminine, selfish and selfless, stubborn and yielding, before a proper man could be fashioned. He was the only one left to fulfill the contract and try to justify the labor and the harshness and the mistakes of his parents’ lives, and that responsibility was so clearly his, was so great an obligation, that it made unimportant and unreal the sight of the motley collection of pall-bearers staggering under the weight of his father’sbody, and the back door of the hearse closing quietly upon the casket and the flowers.3 Since 1943, when The Big Rock Candy Mountain was published, Stegner has made periodic passes over the familial territory that he first surveyed nearly 40 years ago. Memories of the site and circumstances of his childhood turn up in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969), and a brief but very candid discussion of his parents appears in Wolf Willow (1962). Meanwhile, his fiction, reflecting Stegner’s belief that “we are born to write one story,”4has circled back time and again to the cluster 2Forrest G. Robinson and Margaret G. Robinson, Wallace Stegner (Boston: Twayne, 1977), p. 18. 3The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1943), p. 515. Hereafter the pagination of quotations from this volume is indicated in the text. 4Forrest...


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