On Writing, Stegner & Fatherhood
It's a little odd that in all these years of writing about Wendell Berry, the one thing I've never written about is his writing. Odd because while Wendell is many things -- poet, farmer, teacher, famous person, elder, professor -- what he is first and foremost, is a writer. History will remember him for what he's written, and biographers not yet born will study his life and conclude this was a man who wanted to write well, who worked hard to learn the writer's craft, and who made a life's work of refining, appreciating and celebrating writerly excellence.
It's also odd because, as I've said many times in this blog, I share almost nothing in common with Mr. Berry, not being a poet or a professor myself. But I am a writer, though a limited one. And my oldest son is a writer, legitimately and preternaturally. So in this one way, I can relate to my subject. I'm certain that nearly every day over the past 75 or 80 years, Wendell Berry awakened to thoughts about what he wanted to write that day, and later got down to the business of writing. I've had that experience on a select few days in my working life, and I suspect my son has it most days. I'm a good writer who likes writing. Wendell and my son are great writers who love it.
In all of the books and essays, including the poems, letters and short stories, it's impossible to miss the fact that Wendell Berry is a writer. That's obvious I suppose -- even silly to point out. In Walking With Wendell, though, I've seen how much of his writing is a conversation. He writes to speak with other writers, or to speak about them. He writes to engage a conversation with his readers, as often about the writers he's read as about their ideas.
As a young person, Berry figured he'd become a writer, desire and natural giftedness reinforcing each other as they so often do in our formative years. As a young adult, the career path that he could see most clearly was English Professor (same as my dad, incidentally, who was an insatiable reader himself as a boy but who opted instead for medicine). As we all know, Wendell's home and family were Kentucky-bound, making the itinerate academic life an unsolvable equation for him. His professorial career was cut short by his choice to return to Kentucky to make a go of it there and only there.
Something else happened to Wendell as a young writer that I knew about biographically, but which comes vividly to life in his essay "Wallace Stegner and the Great Community" in What Are People For? What happened, basically, is Wallace Stegner.
The essay describes what it was like for Berry to enter the eponymous writing program at Stanford University in 1958 on a Stegner Fellowship. In the essay, we get a glimpse of young Wendell, already very much the man we know -- curious, serious and humbled not only his new teacher's reputation, but by his skill. "...I saw plainly that this man, when he was perhaps my age, had known how to write, and that he had known how much better than I did." By reading Stegner before he ever met him, Stegner had already become Berry's teacher. And what a teacher he was. The essay is primarily an evocation of Stegner's influence, not just on Wendell but on the lengthy and august list of American writers that sat with him through the years at the long table in the Jones Room of the Stanford library.
It's truly eye-popping to see how many of this country's famous writers studied under Wallace Stegner. It's something of a who's who of American literature. But more memorable is the portrait that Berry paints of Stegner over these ten or so pages. The power of Stegner's character is singular; Berry's affection for his teacher, saturating every page, is profound and precisely tuned. Stegner is described as a gentleman -- a quiet and patient listener and practical commenter who knew neither pretense nor doctrine. The authority he commanded arose not from what he said, nor from his estimable appointment, but from what he had already seen and done and written. And from his own commitment to the work of writing. "We felt in him... one who had thought and worked in solitude, in quiet, in the company of the past..."
We aren't surprised to read, therefore, that Mr. Stegner always downplayed his influence on his students -- the likes of Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, nor that Berry considers Stegner his teacher, not only from his Stanford days, but from that point forward. "My awareness of him as a teacher has grown over the years, and I think myself more than ever his student." What Stegner showed Berry, in the main, was how writing came down to workmanship, probably understood by Wendell in late 1950s as in keeping with the proper way to mend a fence, or maintain a garden, or clear an irrigation ditch. "No specific recipe or best way was recommended...What we were asked to be concerned with was the job of work at hand, what one or another of us had done or attempted to do. Our teacher was a writer, he too was at work on what he had chosen to do; he would help us if he could."
I've read Wallace Stegner and this essay makes me want to read more of him. But more than that, it makes me think of parenthood -- of fathering. Wendell Berry's father was a towering figure in both Wendell's life and in the life of Henry County, Kentucky; Wendell did not go to Stanford in need of a father figure. But the Wallace Stegner he found there is the father we all want, and that some of us, myself included, are lucky enough to have. Older than you, patient, with stories and scars both told and untold, and a gentle spirit that carves time and space to allow boys to become what they're supposed to become -- this may be how Wallace Stegner helped make some of America's best writers, but it's how the best men are made too.
What's the difference between art and life, really, when you get to the heart of either? What Wallace taught Wendell about the art of writing is as true of making a life, of raising a child. It's what I'm trying to stay close to in taking these walks with Wendell. It's what I know my father and my son believe, and why the three of us all read and write as much as we do. And it's why, like Wallace Stegner, we hold our tongues when so many other men don't, building up our power instead from partaking of life as best we can, of being a part of what Stegner called the Great Community -- the immense and diverse record of human experience. Not by declaring to know it, but by observing it, allowing for the possibility of error in approaching it, and in reading and writing about it, does a writer become a good writer, and a man become a good man.
Stegner, says Berry, had a reticence that seemed natural, though later in life, Berry decided that it was characteralogical only in part. Berry believes it was a reticence born of respect and generosity toward the teacher-student relationship, ultimately a courtesy toward the art, the process and the personhood of those over whom we have a degree of authority.
"What I began by calling reticence...finally declares itself as courtesy toward past and future; courtesy toward the art of writing, which needs to be carefully learned and generously passed on; and courtesy toward us, who as young writers needed all the help we can get, but needed also to be left to our own ways."
For me, as a father and a boss, an occasional writer and appreciator of the brilliance of others, these are words to live by. Thank you Wallace, Wendell, dad, and Abe, and all the fathers and teachers out there, writers and non-writers alike.