Author and historian Wallace Stegner, who sought to capture places in his writing that spanned the entire American West, died 25 years ago this spring. For Utah readers of the Pulitzer Prize winner, some details from seven decades of creative writing, essays and interviews on a region so vast might seem familiar, even personal.
That's because despite all the places he'd been, Stegner's time in Utah as a teenager and University of Utah student, then professor, was never far from his mind.
Stegner experienced both happiness and despair in his 14 years in Utah (1921-30 and 1934-37), according to the U.'s Wallace Stegner Center. Teenage years lived in Salt Lake City provided "images for a lifetime of nostalgia," but complicated family matters from his youth made his memories of some of the city's places "bleak," the center noted.
The Deseret News reported in 1995 how Stegner called Utah "home" in his essay "At Home in the Fields of the Lord" despite spending most of his adult life away:
"I have always envied people with a hometown. … That is why I have been astonished, on a couple of recent trips through Salt Lake City, to find a conviction growing in me that I am not as homeless as I had thought. At worst, I had thought myself an Ishmael; at best, a half stranger in the city where I had lived the longest, a Gentile in New Jerusalem. But a dozen years of absence from Zion, broken only by two or three short revisitings, have taught me different. I am as rich in a hometown as anyone. …"
Although not all quite as poignant, Stegner's other Utah-related musings found in the Deseret News archives (particularly the nonfiction collection "The Sound of Mountain Water") touched on cornerstones of living in the state — from conservation to Mormonism to art's place in Utah and, broader, the West.
Twenty-five years after his death, here are some of Stegner's memorable observations about the Beehive State.
Salt Lake City
Stegner's adulthood returns to Utah's capital included conversation on the political and physical changes since the early 1900s. In fact, his novel "Recapitulation" sees the protagonist — a young diplomat who comes back to Utah after years — "thinly disguised" as Stegner.
The author "selected" Salt Lake City as his hometown in part due to the "comfortable, old-clothes" feel, the Deseret News noted.
An East High graduate, Stegner studied literature and creative writing at the U. He also wrote his first short story, finished his first novel and "fell in love for the first time and was rudely jilted for the first time" in the city, he wrote in "The Sound of Mountain Water."
Stegner opined in the same book that few cities transition "so naturally and easily into fine free country" as Salt Lake City.
"Up in the Wasatch is another world, distinct and yet contributory, and a Salt Lake boyhood is inevitably colored by it," he wrote.
Stegner wove the history of Mormon pioneers who settled Utah into larger points on the West.
Elder Marcus B. Nash, a General Authority Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, quoted the author during a 2013 observance of the annual Days of ’47 celebration.
The Mormon pioneers "differed profoundly from the Oregon and California migrations," Nash quoted from Stegner:
"These were not groups of young and reckless adventurers, nor were they isolated families or groups of families. They were literally villages on the march, villages of sobriety, solidarity and discipline unheard of anywhere else on the western trails."
In "The Sound of Mountain Water," Stegner wrote that the Mormons were the first settlers in the West to understand that "people live on water as much as on land."
He explains "how the Mormons were another kind" further in the book's introduction.
"On their very first day in Salt Lake Valley they made their peace with one of the West's inflexible conditions — they diverted the water of City Creek and softened the ground for a potato field, and thus began Anglo-American irrigation on this continent, admitting what Indian and Spaniard had already had to learn."
The folklore of the early West was "comically at odds" with what it took to build thriving communities in the frontier, Stegner wrote in "The Sound of Mountain Water." So he admired the "suffering, endurance, discipline, faith, brotherly and sisterly charity" of pioneers on the trek to, and the early days in, Utah.
The Deseret News noted that while Stegner, a non-Mormon, wouldn't shy away from criticizing the LDS Church, he held a "fondness and nostalgia for the Mormon culture and admiration of its pioneers."
Stegner respected one subset of early Mormons in particular.
"Especially their women. Their women were incredible," Stegner wrote in the book "The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail."
"That I do not accept the faith that possessed them does not mean I doubt their frequent devotion and heroism in its service," Stegner wrote.
Literature in Utah, the West
A Deseret News interview with Stegner yielded numerous observations and predictions on the state of literature in Utah and the West at large.
"The luck of the draw" and Westerners feeling "inferior and unappreciated" might've had something to do with the lack of first-rate Mormon novelists at the time of the interview (1980), Stegner told the publication.
But what would LDS fiction look like when it emerged?
"My guess is when Utah fiction arrives at its full stature, it may be less orthodox than some in authority would like. But I don't expect decadent fiction. This is a very moral state and even in its rebellion it's going to be moral … but fiction, by the kind of truths it has to get at, has to risk a lot. And when you're working from within a faith, you have to be willing to risk a little bit."
Stegner continued that "family quarrels" and "discontents" generally make strong fiction and those would be the themes, rather than epic writing.
Among the list of Stegner's titles was conservationist.
According to The Wilderness Society, Stegner joined the conservation movement while fighting the construction of a dam on the Green River in the 1950s; a letter he penned in 1960 on the "importance of federal protection of wild places" was used to introduce the 1964 Wilderness Act.
And he rarely abandoned the topic as an author.
The collection "The Sound of Mountain Water" is packed with vivid passages on the scenic side of Stegner's Western journeys — but lines of grave reflections about human-nature collisions were also prominent.
"The Sound of Mountain Water" includes descriptions of the "serenely beautiful" Glen Canyon (located in southeastern Utah) of the past. Then in 1963 the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell — raising the water level several hundred feet to flood Glen Canyon.
Stegner acknowledged the impressiveness of the structure and the accessibility to the public it provided; however, "in gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable," he wrote.
Compelling passages on well-known — and obscurer — places in Utah appear throughout Stegner's work.
The author called Antelope Island the "only oasis on the Great Salt Lake."
Stegner also wrote of a "love affair" with Heber Valley in a Vogue magazine article:5 comments on this story
"I did not know it then, but the Wasatch takes second to no place in America, even Vermont, in the splendor of its fall colors. The slopes of Snake Creek Canyon were a wash of yellows from lemon to red-gold, sometimes on the same tree, but always in great masses from the aspen's habit of growing in groves. Light came off the shimmering leaves until the very air was gold."
Stegner described a dirt-road pass in south-central Utah en route to Salina as a place "that in the late mountain spring was so paved with flowers that a man could walk twenty miles and never set his foot down without trampling them" in "The Sound of Mountain Water."
Starting a trip in Mexican Hat was to "start off into empty space from the end of the world," Stegner wrote in the same book.