Celebrating Classics: Wallace Stegner
As the University of Nebraska Press celebrates our seventy-fifth anniversary with new publications, we are also revisiting books and authors that readers have enjoyed for decades. Bison Books includes several titles by Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), one of the most important authors of the US and Canadian West.
Recently, Page Stegner discussed his father’s work and twenty-first century audiences with UNP.
Wallace Stegner has been an icon of American and Canadian Western literature for much of the 20th century. How do you feel his work will resonate with readers in the next century?
Obviously that is hard to predict, but in the twenty-three years since his death in 1993 there has been a steady growth curve upward. Virtually all of his books are not only in print, but on the shelves in local bookstores; foreign publication rights continue to grow, and you can now read him in more languages than ever before; and there is consistent interest in film rights from Hollywood and elsewhere. Angle of Repose is on the New York Times list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century, which puts him in some pretty notable company—James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Virginia Wolfe. So I guess I’d say that some sort of literary immortality looks promising.
Stegner was well known for creating a sense of place in his stories about the American and Canadian West, while not engaging in a frontier myth that glorified individualism over cooperation. How do you feel this may appeal to current audiences, if at all?
It seems to me that there is probably very little crossover between the audience for, say, a Louis L’Amour story and a Wallace Stegner novel. I doubt that admirers of John Wayne (Hondo) in L’Amour’s most notable glorification of rugged individualism, would be greatly entertained by Wallace Stegner’s portrait of another “rugged individualist,” Bo Mason, (The Big Rock Candy Mountain) and his slow, sad end into depression, murder and suicide. Of course L’Amour sold a whole lot more books than Stegner, so maybe audiences prefer a tale with a hero who can simultaneously shoot twelve bad guys with a pistol that holds six rounds, kiss his horse, and walk off into the ubiquitous sunset. “Come back, Shane.”
Stegner received numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, none of his books have appeared on screen. Would you mind speaking to this? How well would his work transfer to the visual medium of film?
I’m not persuaded that the reason for the lack of film action has much to do with problems of transference or translation to a visual medium. I suspect it has more to do with content. Many of his novels are dramatically pretty quiet. No car chases, no murders, no on-scene sex, not much violence. The target audience for a Hollywood film these days is fifteen to twenty-five years old—in other words, teenagers and sub-adults, and Stegner’s work is distinctly directed at a more mature audience, a lot of whom don’t go to movies much anymore. They stay home and watch HBO or Showtime mini-series or series. There have been film options for several titles over the years, but none of them (as yet) have made it into production. We’ll see.
Crossing to Safety (Random House, 1987) was recently optioned to Escape Artists as a possible movie. What makes this novel most appealing as a possible introduction to Wallace Stegner’s work for a new audience of movie-goers?
I don’t really know. Crossing to Safety vies with Angle of Repose for Stegner’s most popular novel and continues to have robust sales nearly thirty years after it was written. The lifelong relationship between the two couples in the novel is profoundly moving and in its central character, Charity Lang, Stegner created one of the most complex women I have ever encountered in literature. But a successful movie is going to require a sensitive screenplay and a phenomenally skillful actress, and there aren’t that many Meryl Streeps around. One director who was interested in Crossing wanted to introduce a love affair between Charity and the narrator to give it a little umph. We declined; he backed out. We have much greater confidence in Escape Artists.
Be sure to check out these Bison titles by Wallace Stegner:
Mormon Country (Second Edition)
Page Stegner is a novelist, essayist, and historian who has written extensively about the American West. He is the son of Wallace Stegner and lives in Vermont with his wife, novelist Lynn Stegner.