By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Around the world, every great institution of higher learning boasts connections to big picture thinkers.
And no wordsmith in recent times gave the American West a louder, more contemplative voice than Wallace Stegner.
Hailed as the “Dean of Western writers,” Stegner coined phrases that convey the spirit and grit of our vast region that geographically extends from roughly the 100th meridian longitude to the Pacific Ocean.
His observations are both astute and resonant. After visiting nature preserves like Yellowstone, Glacier, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, for example, he concluded that “national parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
As a province appealing to the desire Americans have for seeking better lives, he called the West “a geography of hope.”
It may be a little ironic, then, that one of Stegner’s most impactful nights in Bozeman happened on an evening when a huge overflow crowd showed up to hear him speak at Montana State University. But Stegner wasn’t there. His prose thundered and echoed; it pulled at our hearts and lifted us up, though the venerable author had fallen ill with the flu. That night, he was sidelined in the emergency room at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital.
In his stead at Museum of the Rockies, Dr. Gordon Brittan, MSU’s renowned professor of philosophy (now emeritus) delivered a selected reading from Stegner’s formidable canon.
While Stegner’s visit to the infirmary was brief, only a short time later, in spring 1993, he died at age 84 in a tragic auto accident in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The story above could easily have become a fleeting anecdote lost to time. But fatefully, before his passing and owed to deep friendships he forged with Montanans, Stegner consented to having a permanent connection to MSU. He gave his imprimatur to creation of an academic pillar—The Wallace Stegner Endowed Chair in Western American Studies.
The position has proved over the last quarter-century to be a powerful teaching catalyst, reminding that Montana has its own prominent place in a rapidly evolving “New West.”
Dr. Mark Fiege, current Stegner Chair and a scholar who follows in a long line of others who held the post, notes that Stegner’s prose and nonfiction reveal a storyteller who wrestled mightily with what to make of our iconic region.
“The importance of Wallace Stegner is that his observations are still as relevant as ever,” Fiege says. “Stegner had a brief but intense, positive, and very warm relationship with [Bozeman] and it was positioned within his larger fondness for Montana. Here, at the end of his life, the stars sort of aligned. We can rightfully claim our own piece of the Stegner legacy. He saw our West clear eyed and it’s a vision we can learn from, if we’re willing to peer into it.”
Bolstering the gravitas of the Stegner Chair, the MSU Library Archives has a collection of Stegner papers and the university has hosted “Stegner Lectures” nearly every year. The stellar list of presenters is a who’s who of influential writers and scholars trying to make sense of the West.
While the Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Angle of Repose” is the book for which Stegner is most hailed, writing at the height of his craft, Fiege and Brittan point to “Big Rock Candy Mountain” as the work that established his voice.
“Stegner presents the sweeps of history with people coming into the West and how the Great Depression brought a reckoning in which some rural areas began to empty out and die,” Fiege says. “‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ is a bitter book, exposing the desperation of uprootedness, which still exists. This western phenomenon is a subset of a larger American story.”
Despoiling landscapes and exploiting people did not contribute to advancing the American dream, Stegner contended; rather it was a stain on democracy. In essence, he used literature to normalize discussions about issues that contradicted the virtues of colonization. Still, Stegner generally avoided the injustices heaped upon native people and the legacy of a string of broken treaties.
“Stegner was a person of his time, who saw the world through his own white EuroAmerican frame. That doesn’t mean he didn’t create beautiful works that have universal themes. It doesn’t mean his words don’t exude empathy for working class people and those who were exploited and the consequences of that. He did,” Fiege says. “The stories he told came from his own experience and he shouldn’t be judged for being someone he was not.”
Brittan says Stegner anticipated the arrival of Montana becoming heralded for her visual splendor, abundant wildlife and healthy landscapes. If you save it, he believed, people will come from around the world to experience it. He was right. To him, leaving wilderness alone, without humankind imposing its will upon it, was a virtue.
“What is such a resource worth? Anything it costs,” Stegner wrote in a famous letter supporting landscape protection. “If we never hike it or step into its shade, if we only drive by occasionally and see the textures of green mountainside change under wind and sun, or the fog move soft feathers down the gulches, or the last sunset on the continent redden the sky beyond the ridge, we have our money’s worth.”
He added, “We have been too efficient at destruction; we have left our souls too little space to breath in. Every green natural space we save saves a fragement of our sanity and gives us a little more hope that we have a future.”
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He also authored of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.