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Wedded to Wallace: The Stegner Marriage

Mary Stuart Page Stegner died last month. Her obituary (http://www NULL.sltrib NULL.com/D=g/ci_15120021) ran in a few newspapers, but it came to my attention as a blip in my Twitter stream, tucked appropriately between posts lamenting the destruction of nature in the BP oil spill.

The fact that she was still alive gave me pause as much as her age. At 99, she’d outlived by 17 years her husband Wallace Stegner (http://www NULL.wallacestegner NULL.org/), who died after a car accident in 1993 on his way to give a lecture in Santa Fe. Their 60-year marriage was a “personal literary partnership of singular facility,” wrote Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in The Geography of Hope, A Tribute to Wallace Stegner, a partnership in which he did the writing and she enforced the writerly environs. He brought her breakfast in bed; she fed him new interests and fended off distractions. The end of that partnership was like something out of Stegner’s own novel Crossing to Safety. Marriage and longevity. Loss, and carrying on.

Stegner is best known for his environmental writing, which has influenced generations of conservationists, and for his novel Angle of Repose (which won the Pulitzer (http://www NULL.pulitzer NULL.org/bycat/Fiction) in 1972), as well as his creative writing program (http://www NULL.stanford NULL.edu/group/creativewriting/stegner NULL.html) at Stanford University. But my point of entry to his work was Crossing to Safety, published in 1987. I first read it in my early 20s and have returned to it several times, moved by its incisive portrayal of two couples over decades, two interconnected marriages and friendships that unfold with tenderness and tragedy. Because of this, Stegner is to me first and foremost a chronicler of marriage, and a mourner of the lost mother.

Just before his 80th birthday, he wrote a heartbreaking essay, “Letter, Much Too Late,” of his own mother who’d died young:

“My name was the last word you spoke, your faith in me and love for me were your last thoughts. I could bear them no better than I could bear your death, and I went blindly out into the November darkness and walked for hours with my mind clenched like a fist… Your kind of love, once given, is never lost. You are alive and luminous in my head….You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.”

I read that essay only last year, in a collection of Stegner’s works given to me by my husband on my birthday. But twenty years ago, what struck me about Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s proposition that character remains constant through life: We might become more pliable or more brittle over the years, but essentially, we are who we are—for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, and so on. There in the novel was the perky wife with just a whiff of control freak, doomed in the end by her own stubbornness; there was the solid, sensible other wife, locked by fate in her fortitude. In my 20s, world as my oyster and luck changing daily, I was wide-eyed at the suggestion that we were shackled to our unchanging natures.

Years later, when I read All The Little Live Things (1967), I felt a jolt of recognition. Here was the clear predecessor of the two characters—the earnest manipulator, as well as her foil, the training-wheels version of the solid, bemused partner. My surprise was naïve, but exhilarating: writers revisit their terrain! writers try out themes and prototypes that won’t stop yanking their chain, and return to them until they get them right! I wanted to talk about it to anyone who’d listen. My boyfriends in those days mastered expressions of polite interest.

One isn’t supposed to make assumptions about a writer’s own life based on his characters, but I did wonder. Mary Stegner, it seemed, was of the solid-bemused end of the spectrum. With characteristic wry humor, here’s what Stegner said of her in James Hepworth’s 1998 book Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner:

“She has had no role in my life except to keep me sane, fed, housed, amused, and protected from unwanted telephone calls. Also to restrain me fairly frequently from making a horse’s ass of myself in public, to force me to attend to books and ideas from which she knows I will learn something; also to mend my wounds when I am misused by the world, to implant ideas in my head and stir the soil around them, to keep me from falling into a comfortable torpor, to agitate my sleeping hours with problems that I would not otherwise attend to; also to remind me constantly (not by precept but by example) how fortunate I have been to live for fifty-three years with a woman that bright, alert, charming, and supportive.”

Rest in peace, Mary Stegner. May the two of you again amuse and restrain and agitate one another, lasting presences always, every wound healed.

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6 Responses to Wedded to Wallace: The Stegner Marriage

  1. Pingback: Escribir la dicha | El blog de GLI (http://elblogdegli NULL.com/2013/04/01/escribir-la-dicha/)

  2. Chrystine Denney says:

    Just picked up a copy if where the bluebird sings….. and although being an Australian I’ve spent a fair bit of time visiting the west. The joy stegner brings to what is essentially landscape painting in words makes the west beautiful to me. Now to admit I needed to shown that in print.to fully appreciate it.

  3. Debra Lee says:

    Thank you for affirming my speculation that Charity was taken, at least in part fro Wallace’s wife Mary. So rich a character must be drawn from real life into the creation process. What a joy to discover this writer in “Crossing To Safety”, and be able to look forward to reading all his books

    • NicholeBernier says:

      I believe it’s the saint-like Sally he modeled on his wife! Charity was such a complex but controlling character….I’m not sure Mary would have been flattered by that! 🙂 Thanks for reading and reaching out. Consider Angle of Repose — it won the Pulitzer for fiction in 1971!

  4. Mark Weiss says:

    I met Stegner shortly after Crossing came out and I asked him something about it being semiautobiographical and he bristled and said it was not and said “my wife, you can see, is not in a wheelchair!”.
    Maybe he was still working that out.
    In the essay he references his mom as the model for the mother in Big Rock Candy Mountain.

    ps I bought the book today, Bluebird, at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto, a signed first — bringing my total to three such. I heard about the essay from Wayne Horvitz who wrote music to a performance of such, featuring Reggie Watts, that was performed just once in Seattle.

  5. Mark Weiss says:

    oops, my bad:
    I bought a first edition of the 1992 collection of essays “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs” and a signed copy of a really cute pocket version of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” that is signed. (And the books are thematically linked, both in one’s title alluding to the previous, and in the essay, I was seeking out, about his mother’s passing).
    Faith Bell had several other cool editions, including other signed ones. She said that a confidante of the family had parted with them. Previously, while taking Lynn Stegner’s memoir course at Stanford extension in 2019, I bought a unique Poloroid print of WS doing a signing, presumably with the same provenance.
    I was Stegner’s neighbor for about half my life, 400 yards as the crow flies but on different streets, different neighborhoods. When I got out of Dartmouth as an English major and budding journalist to be, an elder down our street set up my meeting with Wally. He signed my copy of “Crossing” “to my neighbor” and then after I saw him in SF for “Collected Stories” he wrote “for my ex-neighbor”.
    https://markweiss86.com/2020/09/10/mom-listen/ (https://markweiss86 NULL.com/2020/09/10/mom-listen/)

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