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  • Writer's pictureKenneth Asher

Walking with Wallace

My mother always liked to say “big things come in small packages” – which popped to mind after reading two petite and consecutive pieces in Imagination in Place, both on the estimable writer Wallace Stegner. Just eight pages combined, it’s vintage Berry; profound, loving, poignant.

Stegner was Wendell’s writing teacher at Stanford for a couple years, beginning in 1958. After that, the two men parted, but the teaching went on, and that continuity inspired the first piece, written in 1993, called The Momentum of Clarity. Later the same year, Stegner’s death prompted Berry to pen the second, In Memory: Wallace Stegner 1909-1993.

I’ve read some Stegner. Although it’s been more than twenty years, he’s not a writer one soon forgets. Do you remember the best dinner you had when you were in Europe, or some other culinary capital? Stegner writes like those guys cook – masterfully. “By the time he got to his last two books,” writes Wendell, “his work had achieved an astonishing fluency, the ease of almost perfect artistry. He could say directly whatever he needed to say.”

Stegner’s influence on Berry’s writing is long and lasting. “When I sit at my worktable now I am aware of certain attitudes, hesitations and insistences that I think are traceable to that seminar 35 years ago.” But in reading these two tributes, it’s clear that Berry’s admiration is not principally for Stegner’s virtuosity but rather for Stegner himself, whose influence came to take up residence in Wendell Berry’s own mind and soul over time. It’s a powerful and peculiar thing, this transplantation, and Berry opens the first piece bemused over how such an influence occurs.

“Influence” is a recurring theme in Berry’s nonfiction, and we’ve studied it some here (e.g. Battle Cries for Life, Curating the World, The Long Conversation, With Affection). With Stegner we find ourselves once again looking in on a Wendell Berry-maker – someone who Berry absorbed by fusion, the effect of which was an eventual indivisibility.

It’s the farmer in Berry, I’m sure, that causes him to study influence so meticulously. You can almost see him sifting his memories of Wallace Stegner like a handful of soil, intent on seeing exactly what the man was made of, and how his elemental qualities propagated themselves in Berry and his fellow students.

It’s not difficult to imagine. Stegner was older than Berry, of course, and during those formative years at Stanford, was his professor. But this outer layer of influence was probably the least important. Stegner’s demeanor, Berry reflects, was extraordinary.

He had the look and bearing of a man willing to make choices, and to stand by the choices he made. He did not condescend or court favor…He was not like anyone else. People were different from one another; he acknowledged this by his reserve, and by a humorous, distant glitter in his eyes.

There was something more still. Stegner had a fineness of character that Berry is almost (but not quite, being Wendell Berry) at a loss to describe. Stegner was magnanimous to his students, long after parting ways with them. He was devoted to his wife, and to his home region, the American west. He was self-effacing and dignified. His talent was exceptionally rare.

Of course I’m not looking at Wallace Stegner. I’m looking at Wendell Berry looking at Wallace Stegner, which has me imagining the positive loop gain that happens when a microphone gets too close to an amplifier -- source and receiver combining to create the runaway feedback that obliterates both categories at once. Which is what seems to happen when men like these come together: the largesse of the one becomes the enlargement of the other; the humility of the one humbles the other; the debts of one happily cleared by the other.

You could probably wallpaper your master bathroom with the awards these two men have garnered in their combined writing careers and yet they are staunch in their effort to redirect the light beam on to just about anyone else. It’s mysterious. The gigantically gifted – aren’t they the most prone to self-aggrandizement? Don’t the best among us know themselves to be the best? Or is the ego inevitably eroded through years of artmaking, worn away by the grinding struggle to imagine and create something worthwhile?

And the rest of us – do we emulate the people we most admire, or did admire when we were still impressionable? Are we like Wallace Stegner at all, who was “always a giver of credit, never a taker?” I am only repeating the question that Wendell Berry is asking here, (“how does influence work within a culture?”), and adding an addendum: how does it work within us?

There’s a chicken-and-egg quality to all this: am I, for example, under Wendell Berry’s influence because he is my teacher, or is he my teacher because of the influence he has over me? Is influence objectively proactive (Wendell teaches me) or subjectively retroactive (I seek out Wendell)? Clearly if there’s anything to be taken from the Stegner pieces, it’s that it’s both. It’s the feedback between a source and receiver when each become both. Yin becomes yang. The teacher is a student.

The directionality of the connection, however, is not a loop, and this is the larger point Wendell makes in The Momentum of Clarity. The teaching and learning that go on between minds, and is amplified between them, is not a network (our culture’s fetishized metaphor of knowledge structure) but a flow that one enters by influence (from the Latin influere, i.e. to flow). Flowing toward what? Expanding toward what? Berry is no spiritualist. Toward a steadily augmenting consciousness and conscience toward the land itself, he says. Toward our country – the one beneath our feet.

Wendell Berry credits Wallace Stegner as the first American storyteller who wrote to protect, rather than to merely describe, his native place. For you and me, this observation is interesting, but for Berry it was revelatory. It showed him who he, Wendell, could be and must be if he was going to succeed as a writer. And it’s clear that Stegner never explained this to Berry. A maestro of language -- he must have known the cheapness of words.

My son tells me that I’ve been using the word “gracious” a lot lately, and though it’s just a word, I hope it’s true. I hope it’s an effect of my walking with Wendell. It would then be an effect of his walking with Wallace. It would be evidence of my entering that flow, joining their influence, toward a better country – the one we walk on, first, and vote in, second. That second country seems to have lately lost all sense of how influence works, if it ever understood at all.

It’s worth wondering where influence comes from, and how to enlarge it. To that end, we’d do well to remember Wallace Stegner and the quality of graciousness.

The headwaters are always found in people like him.


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