THE AMERICAN WEST AS LIVING SPACE; By Wallace Stegner; University of Michigan Press; 89 pages; $10 or $18 for text edition.
Utah readers should be familiar with Wallace Stegner for his "Mormon Country," a portrait of Utah and her people, as well as for his history of the Mormon Trail, "The Gathering of Zion." His novels, set mostly in the West, have gained wide readership as well as a Pulitzer for the monumental "Angle of Repose."Behind this most recent offering, a series of three transcribed lectures, is his lifelong struggle to render the West-as-it-is. A careful condensation, it gracefully documents painstaking study and thought, along with a power to seize on significant facts and unite them into a telling argument.
In the preface, he says, "I decided that I would rather risk superficiality and try to leave an impression of the region in all its manifestations, to try a holistic portrait, a look at the gestalt, the whole shebang . . . ." What results is a deeply engaged set of descriptions that is also engaging, even as it kicks the props out from under large portions of Western myth. It's never slick, rings true, and will make both native Westerners and pilgrims conscious of the West's difficult heritage and future.
"Living Dry" defines the territory and the term. Stegner follows Powell in letting the landscape and dryness be the starting point; from there he ranges through history, popular illusion, governmental fallacy and other relevant areas and ends with a leading question:
"And what do you do about aridity, if you are a nation inured to plenty and impatient of restrictions and led westward by pillars of fire and cloud? You may deny it for awhile. Then you must either adapt to it or try to engineer it out of existence."
"Striking the Rock" deals with the history and consequences of the latter choice. In this diverting lecture, Stegner skins politicians, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the BLM and subsidizing agriculture with tight-lipped charm. In doing so, he provides a view of the authoritarian tendencies of the Western water establishment and the inevitability, given faulty premises, of boom-and-bust economics. His conclusion finds little solace in open spaces:
" . . . the West is no more the Eden that I once thought it than the Garden of the World that the boosters and engineers tried to make it; and that neither nostalgia nor boosterism can any longer make a case for it as the geography of hope."
The third lecture poses cultural and personality against the landscape, in a reexamination of ideas on American character familiar from Crevecoeur's much-quoted "Letters from an American Farmer." Stegner's character sketch shows a society poorly adapted to its own land and striving in several unfortunate directions.
He surveys the literature of the West, starting with a cool portrait of Owen Wiser's Virginian as a hired assassin, and proceeds to the present with a series of hawklike swoops. His literary values - which include integrity - are clear in this pointed essay, which ought to be required for anyone intending to write about the West.
Stegner's essential case is that we Westerners have been blindfolded by what we choose to believe about ourselves and our region, with the help of a nation that still needs the frontier myth to feel good about itself.
Social critics - and this book is social criticism - are often accused of tearing away at our institutions while offering nothing in return. "The American West as Living Space" proposes a practical idealism based on truth, never the easiest balance to achieve. Stegner serves up a bitter cup in this book, but there's not a drop of poison in it. Like medicine, it tastes harsh, but helps us get well.
* Chip Rawlins is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford. He is currently writing poetry and riding the range testing acid rain.