Wallace Stegner was probably the greenest fiction writer of the late 20th century. His literary reputation rests on his short stories and novels such as Crossing to Safety and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose.
But he had a second fame as a historian and environmentalist who believed people were destroying the West or, as he wrote in his 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” allowing “virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases.”
Nancy Huddleston Packer writes in the Spring issue of The Sewanee Review that Stegner was already involved the conservation movement when she began sharing an office with him at Stanford University. She adds:
“One theme that ties his novels and his nonfiction together is the importance of taking care of the natural world. The bad characters in the fiction are those who exploit and destroy the land, such as the blithely destructive hippie Jim Peck in All the Little Live Things. … Even the good guys can be destroyers. In All the Little Live Things Joe Allston attempts to construct an eastern Eden out in the western Los Altos Hills. To do so requires a good deal of killing, of gophers and aphids and snails and indeed all the little live things. This novel is in a sense an argument between Allston, the manipulator and in some ways destroyer of the earth, and Marian, a sensitive, loving, dying young woman who wants to preserve the natural even red in tooth and claw. In the end Marian wins the argument.”
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
[Note: The just-named finalists for the 2008 Man Booker Prize include The Northern Clemency by the influential English editor and critic Philip Hensher. I haven’t seen the novel, which Knopf will publish in the U.S. early next year. But I have long admired Hensher’s spirited reviews for the Spectator, which are as entertaining as they are erudite. An excerpt from one of the most recent follows my introduction below. Jan]
Annie Proulx’s fiction is an acquired taste that I have not acquired despite several painful attempts at force-feeding that nearly turned me into a literary bulimic. But I enjoyed Philip Hensher’s review of her new Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 (Scribner, 240 pp., $25) in the Spectator, which included this passage:
“This new collection is pretty clearly divided into stories which don’t work at all and ones which seem to create something marvellously new in most unorthodox ways. When she ventures out of her familiar territory, the results can be fairly awful. I admit to being allergic to all narratives of prehistoric life, and this one is straight out of some terrible creative writing class.
“‘Night after night the thready monotone of [the shaman’s] prayers and invocations had formed the solemn background of the band’s dreaming’
“There are two stories set in hell with the Devil as the hero, apparent attempts at humorous topical satire which I beg Annie Proulx on bended knee not to repeat. And I was quite enjoying one story of frontier life until I realized that it was all about a serial-killer tree. These ventures into magical realism traduce the possibilities of Proulx’s oddness by settling into the conventionally odd — trees which kill, the Devil’s view of life on earth and grunting romances about stone-age communities were all totally old-hat for mildly ambitious pulp writers like Isaac Asimov 40 years ago.”
Read Hensher’s full review at www.spectator.co.uk/the-magazine/books/1736251/the-peculiarities-of-a-realist.thtml.
Read the Man Booker Prize announcement about Hensher and The Northern Clemency at www.themanbookerprize.com/prize/books/366 and a lively discussion of the novel on the Asylum blog at theasylum.wordpress.com/2008/09/01/philip-hensher-the-northern-clemency/.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.