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The Stegner Graves

October 14, 2019

Engagement with place always forms the bedrock of Wallace Stegner’s books. In his two autobiographical novels, the huge The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and its contemplative sequel, Recapitulation (1979), he follows his alter-ego Bruce Mason through a fictional version of his own journey, chapter by chapter, from Saskatchewan to Montana to Utah and beyond. Before moving on to found the writing program at Stanford and to win the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize, Stegner spent his adolescent and college years in Salt Lake City in the 1920s and ’30s. And it’s in Salt Lake City that I intersected his life.

 

When I moved to Salt Lake City more than thirty years ago, the first book I read was Stegner’s Recapitulation, the story of Bruce Mason’s nostalgic return as an adult, decades after he grew up here in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. In Mason’s memories lies all of Stegner’s affection for Salt Lake City—both writer and character revisiting their youth in the pages of this book, published when Stegner was seventy.

 

In his essay, “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” Stegner at mid-life felt the need to select a hometown. He sifted through the many places he had lived and, to his surprise, he chose Salt Lake City. Stegner ranged far, but he always carried special warmth for this desert valley embraced by an extraordinary salty lake and the splendid peaks of the Wasatch.

 

In this essay, Stegner circles with some wonderment around his choice, playing his own devil’s advocate, examining the heart of this odd and lovely place. He finds that what made the city home was living here with “complete participation.” When we live with complete participation, we become part of a place. The more we know about that place, the deeper our participation. In his concluding words, “Home is what you can take away with you.”

 

Recapitulation concludes in the Salt Lake Cemetery, where Bruce Mason buries the last survivor of his family—just as Stegner buried his mother, father, and brother there before he was thirty. After the funeral, Bruce Mason looks out from this sweep of green space perched on the terrace of the urban valley—“where new raw houses were being erected on new raw streets for the living of new raw lives”—and watches the storms whirl through, just as Stegner surely did, and just as I have, for I lived for 25 years in an Avenues home three blocks from the city cemetery.

 

The graves are still here—brother, Cecil Stegner, who died in 1931 shortly after he married, downed by pneumonia at 24 after helping a stranded motorist in a blizzard, leaving behind both wife and child. Mother, Hilda, gone from cancer just two years later, and finally, the father, George, too—a suicide after murdering his girlfriend in a sordid scene in a downtown hotel in 1939. Though Stegner himself chose never to place a marker over his father, he was able to write that gravestone into fictional reality at the end of Recapitulation.

 

Stegner never left behind the emotional complications of his chaotic relationship with his alternately charming and abusive father. He laid out his life challenge in The Big Rock Candy Mountain: “If a man could understand himself and his own family . . . he’d have a good start toward understanding everything he’d ever need to know.”

 

In 2009, the centennial year of Wallace Stegner’s birth, I co-taught a class on “Wallace Stegner and Western Lands” at the University of Utah. My co-professor, Bob Keiter, and I took our students to the cemetery on the first day of class and read aloud that last scene in Recapitulation as we sat on the grass of the Stegner family plot.

 

One of the students said feelingly that it would have been lovely if Stegner had gone ahead and placed that stone, as his character Bruce Mason chose to do at the end of Recapitulation. I know one Stegner devotee who contemplated finishing the task himself and paying for a grave marker for George Stegner. I have to admit, I think it’s a bad idea. Wallace Stegner hated his father, and he swore to leave his grave unmarked. We know who lies under that blank patch of grass. We need to grant Wallace Stegner the last word.

Writer, photographer, and teacher Stephen Trimble has revered Wallace Stegner’s writing ever since working as an Arches and Capitol Reef national park ranger in the 1970s. In 2009, he was a Wallace Stegner Centennial Fellow at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center. Steve makes his home in Salt Lake City and in Torrey, Utah. b. 1950

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