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J A C K S O N J. B E N S O N San Diego State University FindingaVoiceofHis Own: The StoryofWallaceStegner’sFiction Writers arefar more cunning than the credulous readersupposes. We are all practiced shape-shifters and ventriloquists: we can assumeforms and speak in voices not ourown. We all have to have in some degreewhat Keats called negative capability, the capacity to make ourselves at home in otherskins. —from Wallace Stegner, ‘The Law of Nature and the Dream of Man: Ruminations on the Art of Fiction” (1992) There are many ways to describe a career as long and diverse as that of Wallace Stegner, but one way, certainly, is to see it as the search for an effective narrative voice. What Stegner had to learn, and it took him three decades to learn it, was how to tell a story in his own way, to project a persona that spoke to the reader in a style and tone that was unmistakably his own. As a very private man, he was at first reluctant to risk revealing himself in his fiction and spoke to his readers in an anonymous voice which maintained a considerable distance from both audience and material. What followed, through a veryuneven career in writing fiction, was a slow evolution toward the creation of a fictive personality with a voice which is at the heart of his success in the last, great period of his work when he won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer. It was a voice very personal, yet fictional—as Wallace Stevens might say, “He sang a song ofhimself, yet not himself.” Of course when we use the term “voice,”we are speaking figura­ tively,just as to “speak”or “talk”in writing is a metaphor that assumes a vocalization on some level by both the writer and reader. In his book, Fiction’sInexhaustible Voice:Speechand WritinginFaulkner (1989), Stephen M. Ross provides this basic definition ofhowwe ordinarily use the term: The word “voice” has been employed traditionally as a metonymic designation for the human presence we hear or imagine whenever we read a poem or a story. In its commonsensical way “voice” signifies expressive “sound”in literary speech, those inscribed, per- 100 WesternAmerican Literature ceivable differences among characters’ talking, among narrators’ story telling, and among authors’styles. (4) I am going to refer to voice in terms of style, as well as point ofview and authorial distance. But mainly, as a biographer, I am interested in voice as the artisticallyfashioned expression ofan author—Stegner—which in this case evolved over time to be a more complete expression of the author as it became more personal. At the same time as voice in Stegner’sfiction moved closer to becoming a more accurate expression of the author, it became more effective as a literary expression—most notably in its increased credibility, in its forcefulness of presentation, and in its power to intellectually challenge the reader and entertain him/her. John Fowles has said, ‘The long evolution of fiction has been very much bound up with finding means to express the writer’s ‘voice’—his humors, his private opinions, his nature—by means of word manipula­ tion and print alone” (Ross, 6). As we know from such studies as Ian Watt’s classic The Rise oftheNovel (1957) and Lennard J. Davis’sFactual Fictions: The Origins of theEnglish Novel (1983), the earliest novelists— Samuel Richardson and Daniel Defoe—sensed the importance of mak­ ing their fictions credible and did so by pretending that they were real documents—-journals, diaries, or letters. By assuming the guise of a particular voice, they wanted to persuade their audiences that a real person had recorded real events. Butwith the appearance on the scene of Henry Fielding, the reportorial voice was replaced by the authorial voice, a voice that convinces by its tone and colloquial syntax that a real storyteller exists behind the story. So convincing was it that, in Joseph Andrews and Shamela, Fielding used the latter voice to make fun of the former and its reportorial pretensions. We are taken up by a personal­ ity—by an author pretending successfully to be someone (by sounding like someone), rather...


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