Born a Square--the Westerners' Dilemma
Novelist and short-story writer who spent his boyhood in Saskatchewan, WALLACE STEGNER is well aware of the literary dilemma he speaks of in this paper. As professor of English and director of the Creative Writing Center at Stanford, he has been able to share his perception with young writers who feel as he does about the West.
by Wallace Stegner
THE thesis of this piece is that the Western writer is in a box with booby traps at both ends. By “Western writer” I do not mean the writer of Westerns; I mean the writer who has spent his formative years in the West. When I say he is in a box, I mean that he has a hard time discovering what is in him wanting to be said, and that when he does discover it he has difficulty getting a hearing. His box is booby-trapped at one end by an inadequate artistic and intellectual tradition, and at the other end by the coercive dominance of attitudes, beliefs, and intellectual fads and manners destructive of his own. The fact that these attitudes control both the publishing media and large portions of the critical establishment is more important than the fact that publishing is concentrated in another region. This is not a complaint against Leviathan. It is only an extension of the observation that, since any writer must write from what he knows and believes, a writer from the West finds himself so unfashionable as to be practically voiceless.
For this Westerner — any Westerner, except those who come from a few large cities — is the product of a world still nascent, and therefore hopeful. And though each of the several Wests has developed its own kinds of vulgarity, ugliness, and social injustice, none of these is yet rank enough to stink out the scent of prairie flowers and sagebrush in which we began. The fact is, most Western writers don’t feel at home in a literary generation that appears to specialize in despair, hostility, hypersexuality, and disgust. If only because of their youth, the several Wests continue to represent some degree of the traditional American innocence. They breed more meliorists than nihilists, and they encourage booster clubs, culture clubs, and reform movements more commonly than the despair, decadence, masochism, sadism, self-pity, anger, and the hopeless prick of conscience that are compulsive in many contemporary novelists. If Westerners learn these things, and some do, they learn them in exile and often harbor them in uneasy alliance with a great yearning nostalgia for the health they left behind them. For many, the whole process of intellectual and literary growth is a movement, not through or beyond, but away from the people and society they know best, the faiths they still at bottom accept, the little raw provincial world for which they keep an apologetic affection.
Let us imagine some native white Protestant secondor third-generation-immigrant kind of boy who grows up in Corvallis or Ogden or Great Falls, eating well and getting plenty of air and exercise and being a reasonably healthy animal in an essentially pre-industrial, pre-urban society: in short, born lucky. School, the Army, college, travel, sooner or later give him the taste of a wider life, and it is usually much more exciting to him than home ever was. Still, he retains his loyalty to his homeplace, he brags about it in absentia, he is not easily poisoned against it. What is more likely to poison his loyalty is books which reveal something different, more bitter, less naïve, more knowing, outside.
ASSUME that at home he has been one of the local group of artists and intellectuals and that he has satisfied the hungers of his spirit as he could and has written a novel. Until a few years ago, this was nearly certain to be about his family or his boyhood, or an epic about how his corner of the continent was peopled and brought into the civilized world. Or maybe he has only written a story in a magazine and got a letter from a literary agent asking if he has a novel. Upon such an invitation from the great world, he will get to work on one: about his family or his boyhood or how his corner of the continent was peopled. This is all to the good.
But even the smallest success makes his world too small for him. Opportunity does not lie here. He heads for the nearest Rome, as the talented provincial always has and always will. He goes off to some university to learn or to teach, or he goes to join the literary world in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Paris, veritable Rome. And as he listens to the people around him it slowly dawns on him that his book and the stance from which he wrote it were both embarrassing mistakes. For his novel had a hero, or at least a respect for the heroic virtues— fortitude, resolution, magnanimity. Where it was angry, it was angry at things like incubus bankers and octopus railroads, things remote or irrelevant from the point of view of the contemporary malaise; and where it dealt in the tears of things, its tears were bucolic and unsophisticated, shed for a mother’s death or a father’s failure or the collapse of a strenuous dream. Though they may have lived in a howling wilderness, his characters were incredibly blind to the paralyzing loneliness that both psychiatry and literature say is incurable, and they ignorantly escaped the lovelessness that the same authorities insist is standard. I heir story did not question or deplore life’s difficult struggle, but celebrated it.
Our Westerner, writing what he knew, or thought he knew, had filled his book with a lot of naïve belief and health and effort, had made callow assumptions about the perfectibility of the social order and the fact of individual responsibility. He had taken monogamy for granted, at least as a norm; he had kept a stiff upper lip; he had been so concerned with a simple but difficult Becoming that he had taken no thought of Being.
He had had only a little to say about sex, which in his innocence he had confused with love, but until now he had thought that little was definitely good stuff; one big scene had made it quite exciting. He sees now that he should have had some callhouse madam of a philosophical turn of mind convey the message that sex is the only thing that makes a rotten world bearable, the only possible means of human contact, and pretty grubby at that, closer to hostility than to affection. He might have handled sex as theme and variations: nobody yet has seized the opportunity of showing wile-trading in a log cabin, or communal sex in the village schoolhouse as the logical end of a box supper. He regrets all those perversions that he neglected, including those that end, as in Tennessee Williams, in cannibalism. He has thrown away his chances at paternal pimps, jolly Peeping Toms, friendly neighborhood pederasts, and misunderstood boys who, thought queer by their fellows, are revealed in the end to be on their way to sainthood through emulation of the greatest of modern saints, the Marquis de Sade.
These are things our Westerner learns among the literary, who are schooled in the torments, isolations, emptiness, and weary kicks of life. Expatriates, beats, faggots, junkies. Southerners committed to Gothic guilts and erratic violences, Negroes remembering three hundred years of labeled or de facto slavery, Jews remembering a thousand years of ghettos and pogroms — they are all terribly unfamiliar to his rustic eye, and they all speak with appalling certainty and casualness of things he hardly even dares imagine. Sometimes he wonders if the characteristic American novelist of the 1960s won’t turn out to be a Negro of the Jewish faith, born in Alabama and reared in Harlem and expatriated to Paris, where he picks up a living as a hustler in a homosexual joint, wearing beard and Jesus sandals and taking it in the vein and making a devout effort to look, sound, act, and write like something by Norman Mailer out of Djuna Barnes.
It is going to occur to our naïf that he doesn t feel as alienated as he knows he should, and yet to demur at this literary model is to be a square, and who wouldn’t rather have his sex torn out with red-hot pincers than to be one of those? He is ashamed of his naïve inheritance, but he cannot quite accept the alternatives. Even if Mailer suggests he become a white Negro, he doesn’t need James Baldwin to tell him he can’t. Imagine as he may how he might feel if he were a Jew, he knows he is no Jew, doesn’t think like one and can’t feel like one, has neither the cultural stamina nor the special humor nor the special masochism. His experience with most kinds of despair and social injustice is academic and synthetic, and if he has the intelligence I think he has, he knows too much to try to repair his lacks with a notebook.
He can’t share Southern guilt or Southern pride or Southern loyalty, he can’t quite believe in himself as either Victim or Victimizer, he is outside that terrible grapple of love and hate. Homosexuality he has been brought up to understand as an unfortunate illness, not something to be conscientiously acquired or tried out in the spirit of research. And however hard he attempts to be beat, he gives himself away by washing his ankles. He is hopelessly middle-class, parochial, dewy-cheeked, born a square; and when he tries to write like people who are admired for their “honest” and “compassionate” demoralization, he hears the snickers from the wings. The society in which he got his conditioning has known no such demoralization, real or faked.
The world he most feels — and he feels it even while he repudiates it — offers him only frontier heroics or the smugness of middle-class provincialism, and those two things, as he now recognizes, have been the subject matter of nearly every Western novel. So, outgrow this Western limitation? Keep constantly in mind that Mary McCarthy came from Seattle? It is the effort he most consistently makes, and yet it is a doomed effort. The literature that seems important, the literature that gave his crowd in Boise or Spokane its wicked thrill of being Inside with the Outsiders, now shuts him out. It is being written mainly by members of minority groups either wronged by his sort of middle-class world or angrily at odds with it, contemptuous of its limitations. But he himself, God help him, is a sort of majority product, and a belated and provincial one at that, formed by majority attitudes and faiths. In a time of repudiation, absurdity, guilt, and despair, he still half believes in the American Dream.
He is forced to see everyone except himself fulfilled. Southerners, expatriates, beats, Jews, Negroes, homosexuals, junkies can all achieve the status of Man as Victim. But our Westerner stands unwanted, ashamed, still a rank outsider, and he knows that, incorrigibly wholesome and lifeacceptant as he is, he deserves no better, because an artist is by definition a victim, a martyr, a loser, a self-loather, a life-hater.
A WHOLE series of questions arises the moment one begins considering Western writers as a species. Why, for instance, hasn’t the standard organic process of regional maturation produced in the West a recognizable school, as it did in New England, the Midwest, and the South? Why, when so much of our literature (for example, Hemingway) strikes us as dealing with a present which has no past, should Western books so often strike us as dealing with a past which has no present? Why haven’t Westerners ever managed to get beyond the celebration of the heroic and mythic frontier? Why haven’t they been able to find in their own time, place, and tradition the characters, situations, problems, quarrels, threats, and injustices out of which literature is made? Why in particular do we find in them as a class little of the iron sense of enduring evil and pain that in Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, even Twain, counterbalances the complacent innocence of the New World? Are Westerners so stupid that they don’t believe in evil? Or so smug that they have no personal hells to descend into?
California, it should be said at once, is not part of the West. It is about as much the West as Florida is the South; it is less a region than an extension of the main line. Editors and publishers who come ivory-hunting in these productive jungles know they are coming to another country, and some have the feeling they are coming to a madhouse, and some may even think they are coming to Eden, but they don’t feel that they are coming to the sticks. Their map of the United States is shaped like a dumbbell: New York at one end, California at the other, and the United Airlines in between. California is a nation of in-migrants, and its writers are in-migrants too, either writing about the places they came from or frantically scratching around and reading Sunset to find specifically Californian patterns to which to conform. It is the sticks I mean when I speak of the West — the last of the sticks — the subregions between the ninety-eighth meridian and the Sierra-Cascades, where patterns of local habit and belief have developed in some isolation, where they are clearer, more innocent, less diluted by outside influences, where they are bred into native sons, who later, as writers, find them limited, unusable, or embarrassing.
Anyone who wishes to understand what the West has amounted to in a literary way will have to study, among others, Willa Gather, Mari Sandoz, Bernard DeVoto, H. L. Davis, Vardis Fisher, A. B. Guthrie, Paul Horgan, and Walter van Tilburg Clark. They are good writers, of varying kinds; when I am feeling especially confident I put myself in their company. We have all written books that deal with the settlement and the mythic past, the confrontation between empty land and imported populations, which is the salient historical fact about the West, as about America at large. We have all found it difficult or impossible to make anything of the contemporary West except as articles for Holiday, and when we have finished our most personal books, we have all taken refuge in history, fictionalized or straight.
At the very heart of a novelist’s feeling life must be an awareness of struggle, the sense of a conflict that is real, dangerous, and present. But for complicated reasons the Lord has not seen fit to give us in the West a common conscience, a common guilt, a shared sense of wrong, a Lost Cause, a regional Weltschmerz, but only a common impotence when we step outside our own myth, or outside the history that has been suspended ever since our boyhood. We cannot find, apparently, a present and living society that is truly ours and that contains the materials of a deep commitment, even the commitment of rebellion and anger that binds, say, James Baldwin to Harlem. Instead, we must live in exile and write of anguishes not our own, or content ourselves with the bland troubles, the remembered violences, the already endured hardships, of a regional success story without an altermath.
I know of no Western writer except Wright Morris who has come even close to dealing with his own contemporary regional life, and Morris’ Nebraska gets all its tension from the bleak contrast between mythic past and vulgar present; it is an antisuccess story more devastating than Garland’s or Ed Howe’s. As for history, its questions are all answered, and fiction which asks only the questions it can answer is not good enough. Until some Westerner manages to do for his part ol the West what Faulkner did for Mississippi and discovers a usable continuity between past and present, Western literature is going to stay mired in the past.
Vulgarity and complacency are plentiful enough, and some Westerners have made novels of their hatred of them; but vulgarity and complacency are tepid antagonists. We need some of the passion that animates the best Negro novelists, especially Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. We could examine Western life for the estrangement and isolation that afflict Saul Bellow’s dangling or seizing or wanting heroes. If only we could discover some way in which Western society and the Western individual were entangled, we could even benefit from the study and transplantation of the hermetic grotesques of Eudora Welty and Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor. It may well turn out that more than any other region the West abounds in that characteristic American figure, the symbolic orphan, but he remains to be discovered and recognized Perhaps, eventually, we shall agree that the Wests share a common guilt for crimes against the land that is only less bitter than the guilt of the nation for crimes against the black race, but this too is still to be discovered.
IN THESE directions, or others, Western writers will have to look. Meantime there is the temptation to imitate, to borrow the wrongs and hostilities and despairs of others, and that temptation is fatal. For one thing, by no means all of the disenchantment and spitting in the eye of the moral universe that we find in contemporary novels is as legitimate as it may seem. Or let us say that it is legitimate only for those to whom it is compulsive, an honest reflection of their deepest experience; for others it is only a fashion. No one in his senses would try to deny to any writer the materials and the methods he finds compelling, yet I am pretty sure that some part of our most advertised recent fiction is sick, out of its mind, and out of the moral world, worshipful of Moloch, in love with decay and death. Another part is simply the corrupt answer to a corrupt demand, which is in turn cynically promoted. I do not mean “dirty” words or forthright scenes, sexual or otherwise; I speak of a necrophilic playing with despair, which is nothing to be played with.
Phis last sort of book is often described in its blurbs as “savagely funny,” or praised for its “venomous” tone. Here is a representative sample:
This collection of stories marks the emergence of a vigorous and highly distinctive new talent. . . . In them, a young . . . writer explores man’s will to sell-destruction in many guises. In the title story, he tells of a macabre family of sisters living a desolate lile on a ruined estate in South Africa, spilling their melancholy and venom on one another, until the eldest slips matterof-factly into the river to die.
Suicide is again the theme in an allegory of modern Germany, which sketches a strange German woman who, with a young British lover in tow, wanders through the British Isles in search of some sort of Lebensraum, until she destroys herself in the sea. Not so allegorical, but written with venomous savagery, is the story of a Nazi profiteer who drowns himself in animal lust. And, in the closing story . . . a frustrated antique dealer flings himself one night on his servant’s flesh, “a brown bay into which he was about to east himself and be drowned forever.”
Clearly the reader’s response to this jacket copy is supposed to emulate the antique dealer’s — he is supposed to fling himself upon these stories and be happily drowned. I find mysell, instead, desperately treading water. Though any single situation in them is, I imagine, possible, the whole lot of them together are a symptom of disease, and their enthusiastic promotion entirely in terms of their sickness is a sign of cynicism in their publisher.
The usual justification for much literary demoralization, whether it involves the death wish or social disintegration or the transformation of love into an irritable twitch, is either honesty or compassion — what Edmund Fuller calls the New Compassion.” But indiscriminate compassion, which has been a shibboleth in literature at least since Zola, can end by dissolving all moral discrimination. Pitying others indiscriminately, we are pitying ourselves, and there is no more romantic and dangerous kind of moral obfuscation than pity, or sell-pity, gone out of hand. To understand all had better not mean to forgive all, or we shall find ourselves remembering poor Eichmann, or even poor Hitler, with tears in our eyes.
As with compassion for the victim and the victimizer, so with other aspects of the novels which purport to interpret life’s underworlds to the upper air. It would be the ultimate in priggishness as well as stupidity to deny that many are victimized, that we all need compassion and understanding, that life for nearly everyone is more dark than light, and for some nearly unrelieved dark. But let us keep our criteria; let us not, either as writers or as readers, make easy identifications between some unfortunate individual and Modern Man. Zoo animals, we are told, develop in captivity exacerbated sex impulses and an inordinate hostility. They are not so different from Modern Man as some of our novels present him. But Modern Man lives in the upperworld as well as in the underworld, and sometimes he is a reasonably healthy animal and not an animal in an urban zoo. There is no reason to turn misery, perversion, oversexed hostility, and hatred of life into a rule of the universe, the norm of human experience. These are only a part of it. The rest is what keeps us alive.
Our Western naïf, born as lucky as he was born square, probably understands that. He would do well to hang on to his basic hopefulness, instead of giving it up for a fashionable disgust; and he would do well to remind himself that for all the beating they take in literary circles, the conventions of his middle-class society have something to do with making hopefulness possible. Anarchy is its own punishment; despair, like evil, is self-corrective, self-destroying; and disgust, no matter how total, must have in it some seed of the reforming impulse which puts it on the side of the culture clubs and the do-gooders. Working itself out of its own agonized kinks, our serious literature of angst and guilt will have to come straggling back from its bleak outposts, and when it does, it will both disfranchise its shoddy imitators and help make possible the hope that it once thought impossible.
And our Westerner — does he then sing his smiling sunny song and tell his Pollyanna stories about noble pioneers and win book awards with them? Hardly. I have already said that he needs a present to come home to, even if his present is only his identity as an orphan with an inadequate tradition. But he must discover that the full range of doubt, magnanimity, pettiness, the abrasive grind of class and caste struggle, the generation of all the sorts of power needed to run the future, even the full measure of alienation and a fullerthan-average measure of hope, are as native to Salt Lake City or Idaho Falls or Minot as to Saul Bellow’s Chicago or Baldwin’s Harlem or Camus’s Oran or Faulkner’s Oxford. The Western writer should go away and get his eyes opened, and then look back.
But not back into history. The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long. It has no future in exploiting its setting either, for too consistently it has tried to substitute scenery for a society. All it has to do is to be itself at the most responsible pitch, to take a hard look at itself and acknowledge some things that the myths have consistently obscured — been used to obscure. The West is politically reactionary and exploitative: admit it, instead of pretending to be the last brave home of American freedom. The West as a whole is guilty of inexpiable crimes against the land: admit that, too. The West is rootless, culturally half-baked. So be it. To deny weaknesses is to be victimized by them and caught in lies forever. But while the West is admitting its inadequacy, let it remember its strength: it is the New World’s last chance to be something better, the only American society still malleable enough to be formed.
The West’s own problems are likely to be more to the Western writer’s purpose than any that he can borrow, especially when in borrowing he must deny his gods. In a pluralist country we are bound to be of many kinds. Hemingway preaches the stiff upper lip, Saul Bellow specifically and angrily and repeatedly repudiates it. But the frontier American tradition of stoicism neither invalidates nor is invalidated by the Russian-Jewish tradition of emotional volatility. With the highest respect for Bellow, I have to throw in with Hemingway, at least on this issue, because I grew up in stiff-upper-lip country. We have the obligation to be ourselves even when it seems we are squares.
This Western naïveté of strenuousness, pragmatism, meliorism, optimism, and the stiff upper lip is our tradition, such as it is. Any Western writer may ultimately be grateful to his Western upbringing for convincing him, beyond all chance of conversion, that man, even Modern Man, has some dignity if he will assume it, and that most lives are worth living even when they are lives of quiet desperation. The point is to do the best one can in the circumstances, not the worst. From the Western writer’s square, naïve point of view, the trouble with Modern Man, as he reads about him in fiction, is that Modern Man has quit.
Just possibly, if our Westerner lived and wrote his convictions, he could show the hopeless where hope comes from, like Aesop’s frog which, drowning in a bowl of milk, in the destructive element immersed, swam so desperately that it churned up a tittle pad of butter on which to sit.
This is not exhortation, neither is it prophecy. It is only, since I am from the West and incorrigible, hope.