I Never Called Him Wally

I knew him for a dozen years, from the early 1980s until his death in 1993, but I never called him Wally.

Wally was Wallace Stegner, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize (Angle of Repose) and the National Book Award (The Spectator Bird).

He had a long career, publishing into his 80s, even publishing a superb work of fiction, Crossing to Safety, written in his late 70s.  He wrote both fiction and nonfiction.  Many believe he should have been awarded the Pulitzer for biography for his 1954 work on John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

He was a master of the short story.  Read his The Blue-Winged Teal, The Chink, The Colt, A Field Guide to the Western Birds, Genesis, Carrion Spring, and my personal favorite, Two Rivers.

He was an outstanding professor, having started the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1946 teaching the likes of Evan S. Connell, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, Ernest J. Gaines, Ed Abbey, Tillie Olsen, Thomas McGuane, and a plethora of other “name” writers.

Wally was often called “the Dean of Western Writers,” but it might be more appropriate to say that his writing was often about Place.  That place was often in the West where he made his home most of the time.

Photo by Leo Holub

Photo by Leo Holub

He may have been as well known as an environmentalist and conservationist.  On Dec 3, 1960 he wrote what has become known as The Wilderness Letter to David E. Pesonen at the Wildland Research Center, UC Berkeley, who was working for the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission.  That letter remains a rallying cry for the preservation of wilderness.

He had a contentious relationship with the New York Times.  The Times, in an article about writers pictured Stegner in a photo, but referred to him as “William.”  It didn’t even review Angle of Repose which went on to win the Pulitzer.  Huh?

His first book is a legendary rarity, Clarence Edward Dutton, An Appraisal (1935), although most think it is his first novel, Remembering Laughter (1937) which won the Little, Brown novelette writing contest.  It was considered the best of the 1,340 manuscripts submitted from all over the world.  It earned him $2,500, a fortune in those days.  He told me he used to money to ride bicycles with his wife, Mary, in Belgium.  He went on to write his “big” book, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wolf Willow, and All the Little Live Things which won the Commonwealth Club’s gold medal.

I first Met Wally in the very early 1980s.  He had agreed to sign a beautiful copy of Remembering Laughter that I had found while still a rookie bookseller.  I may have been green, but I had chosen wisely.  From then until his death a dozen years later I would come to his home for him to sign books for me.  He was not a reluctant signer, but I can assure you that not everyone who wanted his signatures came to his home as I did about every nine months or so.  I came first with just that one book.  Next time it was three books.  Later is was half a banker’s box.  Then a full box.  Last time I saw him I had nearly three boxes full.  He and I would sit at his kitchen table.  I would feed him books one by one.  He would sign and then hand them back to me, but occasionally he would stop to tell me a story about the book, like the Armed Services Editions version  of The Big Rock Candy Mountain.  This big, rambling, story-filled book needed to be condensed.  Wally said he did about 15% of the cut job with the rest done  by Louis Untermeyer and Philip Van Doren Stern.  Once I handed him a copy of Prize Stories of 1942 edited  by Herschel Brickell.  Stegner had won second place in the volume for his Two Rivers.  He chuckled a bit and then sang a ditty in which he rhymed Brickell’s name with butter brickle ice cream.  Priceless.

Stegner in his home in Los Altos Hills, CA

Stegner in his home in
Los Altos Hills, CA

Look closely at this photo I took in his home.  See anything wrong?  Spoiler alert.  He lost the ring finger on his left hand to a football injury while a teenager.

One of the many joys I experienced with Wally was the way in which he and his wife, Mary, treated my daughter, Tracy, who first came to visit them with me when she was two years old.  On one visit when she was eight, we were driving to their home when she told me she had been working on a story for school.  It was in October and the assignment was to write a horror story for Halloween.  She said she liked her story, but that she was having trouble with the ending.  I told this to the Stegners when we arrived.  Mary, who was a world-class editor, took my daughter into the back of their house while Wally and I sat at their kitchen table.  By the time we finished with our assignment, Mary had helped Tracy solve the dilemma with her story’s ending.  We both went home smiling.

On one of my last visits I kidded Wally about the encroachment of civilization around his home which once had been quite a country setting.

“Why don’t you sell this place and buy a condominium?” I asked with a grin.

He grinned right back at me.  “I prefer to be on a first-name basis with my flowers,” he retorted.

When I first met Wally he was in his early 70s.  He looked maybe 55.  He was handsome and robust.  He had an excellent head of slightly wavy white hair.  Like John in All The Little Live Things, Stegner’s countenance was one “of sobriety, responsibility and masculine resolution.”  At the same time he was very charming and had a twinkle in his eyes as if he knew something I didn’t.  He certainly did.

My last visit with him was bittersweet.  Wally liked to write in the mornings, so my visits were usually in the early afternoon.  His finished signing all the books I brought and as he walked me out the back door to where my car was parked, he was in a talkative mood.  This was no longer him servicing an eager young bookseller.  This was just him and I talking, man to man.  I was thrilled to have this real conversation.  I actually thought my IQ went up every time I visited him just from being in his presence and experiencing his intellect.  But in those days I had a regular paying job in addition to my chores as a bookseller.  I had to fight commute traffic to get back to my house and get ready for my job.  If I didn’t get going I would be late for work.  Wally still wanted to talk, and I surely wanted to continue our conversation, but eventually I had to excuse myself.  He understood and waved me good-bye.  I drove home kicking myself for having a job interfere with my real work.  I never saw him again.  He died a few months later from injuries received in a car accident.  That was 21 years ago now.  I still experience that bittersweet pang of guilt, but I prefer to focus on the gifts through experience he gave me.  I try to emulate his giving nature and share the joy.


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