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J A C K S O N J. B E N S O N San Diego State University “Eastering”:Wallace Stegner’s Love Affair with Vermont in Crossing to Safety Wallace Stegner celebrated his 81st birthday last February, after an incredibly productive career as a writer and teacher of writing and as one of our most honored authors. Although his fiction and non-fiction have dealt with many locations in the United States and around the world, he has become known as a writer concerned with western history, culture, and environmental health—indeed, reviewers have come to refer to him as the “dean of western writers.” Born in Iowa and raised in western Canada and Salt Lake City, he has lived for the last forty years in the semi-rural foothills of the San Francisco Peninsula. Yet Vermont, where he and his wife have had a summer home for several decades and which he describes at length in his most recent novel, Crossing to Safety, is probably the location he loves the best. One day last spring, while interviewing Stegner and his wife, I must admit I was a bit shocked to hear this writer, who has written with such affection about so many western places, tell me that if he had to choose between his house in California and his place in Vermont, he would choose Vermont. His wife Mary added that when the time came, they would prefer to be buried in the town cemetery in Greensboro, Vermont.1For a writer who has put such emphasis in his work on a “sense of place,” such a preference must say something to us about what the West has become in his eyes—perhaps it is a declaration of defeat, a statement that the environ­ mental battle is gradually being lost and that whatever we valued most in the West at one time is now irretrievably gone and can be recovered only in history and nostalgia. That certainly seems to be the message of American Places, a collab­ oration with his son Page which came out in 1981. In talking about the 28 Western American Literature West, but most particularly about crowded California, there is the sense that—to use Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase about Oakland—there is no longer any “there” there: no connectionwith history, no sense ofconnection with one’s neighbors or sense of community, no feeling of connection with the land or reverence for the natural. Stegner has seen it all go, in a growing storm of population growth and greedy exploitation, year after year, and he has made it clear, both in his essays and in such fiction as All the Little Live Things, that it has been a painful experience. The contrast between his feelings as they have developed about Cali­ fornia and those about Vermont, which istouched on in several of his more recent writings and comes to a sort of climax in Crossing to Safety, would seem very indicative of Stegner’s values in general. In brief, Vermont “has watched humanity go by, and has recovered from the visit” (as he puts it in American Places [35]), whereas in California, development has run amok and all that is left are “remnants”—the wildlife is largely gone from the foothills, except for those animals, like the coyote, that can adapt to man and a loss of habitat. Throughout American Places, by the way, he admires most those habitats that have resisted man’s encroachments the most suc­ cessfully—Vermont, where vegetation and animals have come back and where man has won only a stand-off with nature, and the Great Salt Lake, which has been so hostile to man that it remains largely unchanged except by its own cycles of rising and falling. If you come from the land of smog, gridlock, and the constant growl of bulldozers, as I do, one of the things you first sense about New England when driving through in recent years is how empty it is and how quiet it is. In a strange reversal of the western movement, it has become a place to go to find those things that the West was settled for—room...


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