Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Remembering Wally

I could drop a number of literary names in my cavalcade of stars. I’ve been fortunate enough to correspond with some heavies, but only for business reasons (mostly because they graciously provided blurbs for some of our books), so I won’t scatter their names on your carpet. But the big name is Wallace Stegner, whom I knew and wish I’d known better. The timing wasn’t good. I was a “Stegner Fellow” in the Stanford writing program in 1967-68, when the campus, like campuses across the country, was erupting in political protest. Wally had been away in Vermont for months, writing Angle of Repose, and when he came back to Stanford he was dismayed by the change, and especially the lack of civility. He was suddenly considered a conservative by the loudest of the students, even though he opposed the war, had always voted Democrat, and was a strong and vocal champion for the conservation of western wilderness. But he hated students the year I was there. Hated hearing words like “fuck” and “shit” said by pipsqueaks in front of their elders. He was old fashioned. 
Over the years this generous and well-mannered teacher and writer had done more for the quality of writing in America, and more for the individual careers of future stars just starting their careers, than any other literary guide of the mid-twentieth century. He just hated incivility, and he had his dukes up about that, having just published All the Little Live Things, in which he threw down the gauntlet for the rude pipsqueaks to pick up.
So let me tell you about the evening Richard Brautigan came to our seminar as a guest, invited by another Stanford writing teacher, Ed McClanahan, a delightful fellow who was a big pal of Ken Kesey (with whom Stegner feuded, and that’s another story). 
Small room, living-room style, on the top floor of the library, set aside for the Stegner Fellows. Evening, with coffee and cookies. A pack of grungy student writers, reading aloud their Barthelme imitations, boring Wally, delighting Brautigan, and the conversations of critique that followed each of the readings, during which Richard and Wally found a way to square off every time: on word choice, appropriate themes, structure, whatever. And the exchange I best remember:
BRAUTIGAN: I don’t know about you people, but me? I get up in the morning, I eat breakfast, I shit, and I write.
STEGNER: Well, um, yes. Yes, I get up in the morning, I eat breakfast and so on, and I write too. But that’s not really the point, is it?
STUDENTS: snicker snicker snicker...
Wally and I got along okay, because I remained a polite listener and not an obstreperous, intolerant asshole (for which I lost a few points among my fellow Fellows). After the fellowship ended, he arranged for me to be offered a job working for American West magazine, which would have rescued me from my deadly job at Stanford University Press. But when I went to lunch with the publisher of American West, he forced me into a position of either disowning my writing colleagues (many of whom were my friends) or condemning Stegner, the magazine publisher’s hero. I wouldn’t take sides, and I was not offered the job.
In later years, Wally was good to our press, providing a blurb or two and always treating me with distant kindness. He deserved the Pulitzer he received for Angle of Repose, and much more glory than he ever got.