Invited In

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
On Today’s Menu:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
** Share some birthday cake
for the “Dean of Western Writers.”
** Linger to ponder how absolutely essential friendships are in our lives.
** Savor a last ½ cup enjoying the gorgeous prose of a grumpy writer.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .


First Sip:

There lay the evening before us
Full of promise.
The mere prospect of a square meal
could cheer me in those days, and her
there was much more—light, glitter,

chatter, smilesfriends.

– from Crossing to Safety
Wallace Stegner


Slice of Cake:

Wallace Stegner was a busy guy.
He was a writer, a writing teacher, and an environmentalist.

As a writing teacher,
he taught at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
He’s been called The Dean of Western Writers.6

His students included Sandra Day O’Conner, Edward Abbey, Larry McMurty, and Wendell Berry.
Not all his former students are fans, however.
When Stegner taught future-Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Maxine Kumin,
his harsh critique of her poetry set her career back seven years.7

Stegner loved the landscapes of the West.
Arches National Park
photo by Steve Hardesty 5

As an environmentalist,
he was on the board of directors Sierra Club in the 1960s, and
a founding member of Green Foothills, an environmentalist group in California.1

His environmental work is remembered at the University of Utah,
where, in 2010, they established the Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental Humanities.2
And, near his home in Los Altos Hills, California, there’s a Wallace Stegner hiking trail.
His wife said that he’d been opposed when a hiking path was first proposed,
but later came to enjoy walking on it.
(It was named for him posthumously.)3

I hope I learned something from
knowing intimately the creatures of the earth.
I hope I learned something from looking a long way.
From looking up. From being much alone.

– Wallace Stegner 4

As a writer,
Stegner wrote the kind of prose that makes you remember what reading is for.
His prose is beautiful. Casual. Evocative. Insightful.

He published novels, essays, and histories.

My favorite of his books is the novel Crossing to Safety (1987).
(More about that below.)

Wallace Stegner won both the Pulitzer Prize—for Angle of Repose (1971)
and the National Book Award—for The Spectator Bird (1977).


Happy 111th Birthday
** Wallace Stegner

– born February 18. 1909
in Lake Mills, Iowa


Linger Awhile:

I have heard of people’s lives being
changed by a dramatic or traumatic event—
a death, a divorce, a winning lottery ticket, a failed exam.
I never heard of anybody’s life but ours
being changed by a dinner party.

When the Langs opened their house and

their hearts to us, we crept gratefully in.
Crept? Rushed!
Coming from meagerness and low expectations,
we felt their friendship as freezing travelers
feel a dry room and a fire.
Crowded in, rubbing our hands with satisfaction,
and were never the same thereafter.
Thought better of ourselves,
better of the world.

– from Crossing to Safety
Wallace Stegner


Been thinking this week about how essential friendship is.

Not long after my family moved to Tucson, there was a day—an ordinary school day for my kids—when what we thought would be a routine out-patient visit for my husband turned into emergency surgery.

Thankfully I had a friend I could call.
She said she could pick up my youngest along with her own kids after school,
and he could spend the afternoon and evening at their place, no problem.

And I had another friend
who said, sure, my oldest could bus home with her daughter and stay as long as I needed.

I was so grateful.

But I’d also run out of friends.
There was no one I could then think of to come be with me at the hospital
while I sat in the waiting room anticipating what the surgeon would say.

We’d been in Tucson for less than a year;
I was lucky to know two people I trusted enough to call on for help.

Thankfully the surgery went fine and I was able to go collect my children,
already fed dinner and coaxed through homework by friends who waved away my thanks.
Next time it’ll be me calling you, they said.

That’s how friends are.

When we got back to their big lighted house, it
seemed like our house too. In one evening

we had been made at home in it.

We were so glad to know one another
and so glad that all the trillion chance in the universe
had brought us to the same town
and the same university at the same time.

We were all at the beginning of something,
the future unrolled ahead of us

like a white road under the moon.

– from Crossing to Safety
Wallace Stegner


Me and my best friends
from home
in 1978
and 2019


“Half Cup More”

And speaking of friends…

My favorite of Wallace Stegner novels is Crossing to Safety
a hot-buttered-rum of a book.

It’s about the 1930s. It’s about academia. It’s about strong women and
devoted husbands. It’s about living surrounded by natural beauty.

But mostly, it’s about friendship.
The grown-up friendship of two couples whose devotion to each other spans decades.

The two couples meet in the Madison, Wisconsin during the Depression of the 1930s.
The two women are both pregnant, and the two men teach at the same college,
both trying to get tenure—or at least get hired back for a second year.

It’s incredibly heart-warming to read this writer’s praise of friendship.
And incredibly romantic to hear his view of marriage:
A strong man’s belief in what a strong woman can do for him, for better and for worse.
And mostly for better.

(Stegner himself married at age 25, and he and his wife Mary were
together for 59 years, which was the rest of his life.)

There’s another thing I noticed:
Reading Crossing to Safety, plus a couple of his earlier novels, left me with one very distinct impression:
Wallace Stegner was a grumpy old man who wrote about grumpy old men.

But each of these grumpy old male protagonists lights up for one—and only one—
young woman in each novel.

It isn’t necessarily a love interest.
In All the Little Live Things, it’s a young neighbor who charms both the old narrator and his old wife—
a wife to whom the narrator remains unquestionably faithful.
In Angle of Repose, it’s the narrator’s grandmother, whose adventures as a young woman
he devotes his grumpy old age to chronicling.

She is one of Willie Yeat’s glimmering girls,
with apple blossom in her hair, and
I admit to a pang.
God knows what it is—maybe envy that someone
is lucky enough to have such a daughter.

I am old-fashioned.
I believe the human face was made for expression,
and I like the way every emotion shows
on this girl’s mouth and in her eyes.

And all the time I am being captivated I am annoyed
at her sentimental cry over the death of a pest.

– from All the Little Live Things
Wallace Stegner

If you’re lucky, more than half the chapters are devoted to the young woman’s story
and you get only brief interruptions by the grumpy narrator. (That’d be Angle of Repose.)

If you’re unlucky, the narrator holds forth for a third (okay a sixth, but it feels like longer) of the novel before the ray of sunlight enters, lights up the story, then dies, leaving you to a narrator who’s grumpier than ever. (That’d be All the Little Live Things, not one I’d recommend.)

“All you need is one pretty girl to speak to you,
or one boy to act respectful, and you melt.”

“Was she pretty?
In that getup, who could tell?
But okay, you’re absolutely right. I’m a pushover.
Just let them beware of undermining my self-esteem,

that’s all.”

– from The Spectator Bird
Wallace Stegner

If you’re beyond lucky, he meets this incandescent young woman early in the novel,
while the narrator himself is still young; they marry, she survives,
and the whole novel glows with her light. (That’d be my favorite, Crossing to Safety.)

Light or dark, Wallace Stegner’s writing is a thing of beauty.

Here are a few more quotes from Stegner’s novels.
Let me know what you think of his unique voice and multi-hued prose…

The days dripped away like honey off a spoon.

– from All the Little Live Things
Wallace Stegner


There are two big live oaks
alongopen meadow in which, last fall,
I sowed two hundred daffodils by throwing the bulbs broadcast
and digging them in where they fell

I was looking across them toward the moon.
There was not enough light for them to show yellow;

their bowing heads gleamed palest
silver-gilt above the pale grass.

Out of the shadow of the oak,
individual blossoms grew luminous,
like big exhausted fireflies.

– from The Spectator Bird
Wallace Stegner


“Sid says you two have got to know each other
at school,” she was saying. “And he
brought home ‘Story Magazine’ with your story in it.
We read it aloud in bed. It’s splendid!”

My God. An audience.
Just what I’ve been looking for.

Pay attention to this delightful young woman,
she is obviously someone special.

Her husband too, evidently. Sid Lang.

Do I know him?

With difficulty, while murmuring
false modesty to his enthusiastic wife,
I tracked him down in my mind:
spectacled, sober-suited, fair-haired, soft-high-voiced,
friendly, forgettable,
undistinguished by song, plumage, or
nesting habits from a dozen others.
At least not one of the snooty ones,
and obviously a man to cultivate.

– from Crossing to Safety
Wallace Stegner


Then Oliver hoisted his eyebrows at the fire,
and said…with the edge of sullenness in his voice,
“Maybe you think I’m going to recommend against him
because he fell in love with you. That isn’t so.”

“Oh, fell in love!”

“Of course he did.  At first sight.  Bang.” 
He turned his sleepy face.
“Why wouldn’t he? So did I.”

It was precisely the right thing to say.
It absolved him of jealousy and spread
balm on her irritations and
reassured her that she had not the slightest regret.
If Thomas Hudson himself were available,
she would still choose Oliver Ward.

They sat up together—close together—
by the open fire until the coals had fallen into ash,
and all was reaffirmed and renewed.

– from Angle of Repose
Wallace Stegner


Take-Away Box

Back when I first started reading Wallace Stegner, it took me a while to figure out that I had his name mixed up with other writers with very similar names:
I’d sometimes been confusing Wallace Stegner with
Wallace Stevens, William Stevenson, and William Styron.
(Imagine that.)

Here, I’ll share with you
the crib notes I worked out for myself:

William Styron (1925-2006) an American novelist and essayist.
He wrote:
** The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) about the leader of a slave revolt in 1831, and
** Sophie’s Choice (1979).

William Stevenson (1924-2013) a Canadian historian and journalist.
He wrote:
** A Man Called Intrepid (1976)
** Kiss the Boys Goodbye: How the United States Betrayed Its Own POWs in Vietnam (1990)
** Spymistress: The Life of Vera Atkins, the Greatest Female Secret Agent of World War II (2006)

Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) an American poet who wrote the poem The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand Man, which begins:

One’s grand flights, one’s Sunday baths,
One’s tootings at the weddings of the soul
Occur as they occur…

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) an American novelist, essayist, historian, and environmentalist.
He was also a professor at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin, Madison—
and the subject of this post.

I was charmed to find that
Stegner’s typewriter (one of them anyway)
was exactly like the one
I inherited from my dad.

University of Utah Special Collections
(To see my Dad’s, click on
‘Front Parlor…’ in the black banner box above.)

Thank you for reading!
Kelly J Hardesty

Thoughts? Questions?
Scroll down to the endand you can leave me a note!
Always so lovely to hear from you.

You Can Read More…


notes & footnotes

A recommendation:
The novel Crossing to Safety jumps around in time.
In fact, if you have trouble getting into the first chapter,
just skip to chapter two.
Chapter two starts when they’re all young
and it goes along chronologically all the way through chapter 13.
(After that, chapter one will mean more.)

Green Foothills
3921 E Bayshore Rd, Palo Alto, CA 94303
Since 1962, Green Foothills has been
protecting open space, farmland, and natural resources
in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties
for the benefit of all through advocacy,
education, and grassroots action.

The Universtiy of Utah’s
Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental Humanities

The Wallace Stegner hiking trail
in Los Altos Hills, California
seems to not be super easy to find.
Though it does, in fact, exist.

Wallace Stegner A Writer’s Life
a Stephen Fisher Productions
narrated by
Robert Redford

Photo courtesy of my brother
Steve Hardesty
Thanks, Steve!

Montana State University’s
Wallace Stegner Chair in Western American Studies
was established in 1997 to honor
the man often called the dean of Western writers.

This is poet Maxine Kumin‘s 2014 obituary
in the LA Times.
The comments about Stegner are in paragraphs 1, 2, 3, and 12.

Side Note:
To admire an author
is not the same as approving everything he’s said and done.

In one of Stegner’s last novels, Recapitulation, the protagonist
revisits his hometown (Salt Lake City, as it happens).
In remembering his past,
he describes a friend named Bailey.

Even without a 21st century MeToo viewpoint,
the actions and attitudes of this character would
be horrifying.

The protagonist may call this pal ‘troubling’
but that’s an example of condoning with vague reproach.

I’ve read only about a third of this one,
but so far, it doesn’t seem the author understood that
this character isn’t just ‘troubling,’ but criminal.

Last quote:
(so as not to end on a ‘troubling’ note…)
As I said above, Wallace Stegner married young and for life,
which is probably why he wrote so humbly about good marriages.
Here’s an example…

From our front walk to
where the drive turns down the hill is two hundred feet.
Thirteen round trips make just about a mile…
It is rather like walking the deck of a ship,
for the hilltop is level and high and exposed to the stars.

My absurd tears were dry after a lap or two,
but I did not feel like going back in.
I didn’t know what I would say to Ruth,
or how I would act…
If truth be told, and I suppose it better be,
I wanted to be alone for a while with that
possibility I had renounced, or been made to renounce,
twenty years before and
carried around with me like cyst ever since.

What was it? Did I feel cheated?
Did I look back and feel that I had
given up my chance for what they call fulfillment?
Did I count the mountain peaks of my life
and find every one a knoll?

Well, the hell with it…
It has seemed to me that
my commitments are often more important

than my impulses or my pleasures…
There are choices to be made between better and worse,
bad and better, good and good.

Then why cry over it, twenty years later?

…I would hate to have a recording
of that conversation I held with myself,
lurching up and down the moonlit drive.
It would sound like the lecture of a scared graduate assistant,
taking over the philosophy class in the professor’s absence.

The walking did me more good than the thinking,
even though my toe joints had me wincing…

I kept on walking, lap after lap,
leaving my shadow behind me as I turned at one end,
finding it still with me when I turned at the other…
I must have been on at least my fortieth lap when,
turning at the far end,
I heard heels on the asphalt back by the house, and
saw Ruth’s shadow coming toward me
as if through silver, settling dust.

When we were fifty feet apart, she stopped.

I came on.
‘Hi, darling,’ I said,
as casually as I could…

‘I didn’t know where you were.’

‘Just walking. Want to?’

I thought there was gratitude in the way she took my arm…

‘I’m sorry,’ Ruth said.

‘I’m the one to be sorry.’

– from The Spectator Bird
Wallace Stegner


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© Kelly J Hardesty 2024

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