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Spring/Summer 1997, Volume 14.2

Book Reviews

 

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, Reviewed by Robert C. Steensma
Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature, Reviewed by Eric A. Eliason
Worth Their Salt: Notable But Often Unnoted Women of Utah, Reviewed by Judy Elsley

Flying over Sonny Liston: Poems, Reviewed by Shaun T. Griffin
Paved Paradise: The Challenge of Growth in the New West, Reviewed by Denise Weeks

 

 

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work by Jackson J. Benson. New York: Viking, 1996, 472 pp., $32.95 (cloth).

Reviewed by Robert C. Steensma, Department of English, University of Utah

For more than a half century before his death four years ago, Wallace Stegner was one of the finest American writers of fiction, essays, and history, a man whose work enriched the spirits of discriminating readers.

Regrettably, however, since his first appearance on the national literary scene with his prize-winning Remembering Laughter in 1937 and despite a long list of distinguished books, Stegner never achieved the recognition given many lesser talents whose works have appeared regularly on the best-seller lists. At present his fiction remains neglected by the mainstream critical and academic establishments while, ironically, he has been nearly canonized by the environmentalists. Back in 1964 he wrote that eastern editors and publishers (and one could say the same of eastern academics) see the United States as "shaped like a dumbbell: New York at one end, California at the other, and the United Airlines in between." (Some years ago I discovered the truth of this statement when I queried an editor of a highly respected journal about reviewing one of Stegner's books and was surprised to learn that neither he nor his book-review editor had ever heard of him).

Nevertheless, Stegner has been honored in numerous ways in recent years. Several western academic conferences on his fiction and his environmental work have been held, and the University of Utah has established a chair and a center on environmental law in his honor. Penguin has reissued two early novels, Remembering Laughter and A Shooting Star, and the University of New Mexico Press has recently published a collection of critical essays, Wallace Stegner: Man & Writer, edited by Charles E. Ranking. And, wonder of wonders, the New York Times even got his first name right in its coverage of his death.

Jackson J. Benson's critical biography of Stegner is the first full-length study to appear since Forrest and Margaret Robinson's Wallace Stegner, published in 1977. Benson says in his introduction: "I shared many of his values, and although I had only sketchy information about his life, on the basis of what I did know I admired him for what he had been able to accomplish coming out of an impoverished background. I respected him as a man who had strong principles and who had lived his life by them, one of those rare people who had never faked it or made excuses. In a world full of blow-hards and show-offs, he seemed to me the real thing—someone a person could really look up to and admire" (ix).

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work is divided into twenty-three chapters prefaced by a fifteen-page introduction which sets Stegner's work in the context of his times and his life. In some ways Benson's introduction is the most important part of this valuable book. He rightly sees Stegner as a writer who "passed beyond the modernist rebellion against Victorianism…by the writers of a previous generation." Stegner seemed to see his task as to "search through the cultural ruins produced by rampant individualism for a solid foundation from which to live a good life in the good society. He found that foundation in responsibility and concern—responsibility for our own actions and concern for the welfare of others and the welfare of our environment. These in turn might lead, he hoped, to a recovery of our sense of community and a realization once again of the importance of cooperation" (4).

Benson's critical reading of the fiction, the biographies, the histories, and the environmental and literary essays is remarkably acute, and his interpretations are both enlightening and refreshing. He clearly admires both the man and his work (a position which angered a Stegner-basher in the New York Times Book Review last November), but Benson's final assessment is clearly right: "By giving so much of himself, risking so much of himself, he bound his readers to him, and it is this quality, above all, that will lead to a wider recognition of his greatness of spirit and the rich vibrancy and continuing relevance of his fictional creations. As an essayist, historian, biographer, and short story writer he was among the very best of our time. As environmentalist his works persist and his words continue to inspire. But it is as a novelist that he would want to be remembered—that was his aim, his delight, his real life's work" (421).

Stegner once told Edward R. Murrow, "I am terribly glad to be alive, and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote, and most of all I am humble before the responsibilities that are also mine" (One Way to Spell Man 4). Benson's biography proves that Stegner admirably fulfilled those responsibilities as a man and a writer.

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Tending the Garden: Essays on Mormon Literature edited by Eugene England and Lavina Fielding Anderson. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996, 219 pp., $18.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Eric A. Eliason, University of Texas at Austin

This is the place! Your one-stop-shop for almost all you need to know about the action swirling around the nexus of the Mormon (LDS) experience and literary criticism. In this slim tome, two of Mormondom's most accomplished editors and essayists bring together six essays on "historical and theoretical perspectives" and nine essays on "criticism of major genres and works." Displaying a wide range of opinions, these essays inspire, challenge, cajole, inform, warm, reiterate, and enlighten.

England's introduction guides the reader on a tour through the history of Mormon writings relating to literary interpretation and/or aspiration. He proposes four periods of LDS literature:

  1. "Foundations" (1830-1880)whose characteristic works include the emergent Latter-day scriptural canon as well as the testimonies and tracts of early apostles—notably Joseph Smith, Jr., and the Pratt brothers.

  2. "Home literature" (1880-1930)set in motion in part by the advocacy of LDS leader Orson F. Whitney. During this time LDS Church leaders' evaporating carte blanche suspicion of novel reading led to fiction being widely regarded as an appropriate medium for religious instruction. However, for home literature writers such as Susa Young Gates and Nephi Anderson, excellence in craft and depth of insight were not ends but handy tools necessary only insofar as they encouraged the right behaviors and doctrines for subjects of God's Kingdom on Earth.

  3. "The Lost Generation" (1930-1970)whose national award-winning authors, such as Maurine Whipple and Vardis Fisher, wrote with varying degrees of condescending Eastern sensibility toward what they saw as the quaint, past-its-prime, sometimes sinister regional/religious culture of their youth before the optimistic days of the late 20th century's dramatic growth in Utah's economy and worldwide LDS Church membership.

  4. "Faithful realism" (1960-present)describes a trend, perhaps more hopeful than actual, in merging the lost generation's high literary aspirations with home literature's advocacy of Mormon religiosity. While many authors continue to write with home literature sensibilities (Jack Weyland and Gerald Lund) or an updated lost-generation style (Levi Peterson and Neal Chandler), others such as Douglas Thayer, Margaret Blair Young, and Orson Scott Card perhaps best personify the successful merger England sees.

Most of this book's essays are jargon free and should be accessible with a little disciplined reading to the "Intro to Mormon Lit" college student readership that will doubtlessly form a major segment of this book's market. The book should also not be overlooked by anyone interested in thinking hard about the issues involved in developing a distinctively Mormon artistic tradition. Those looking for simple answers and consensus will be disappointed; rather, the collection reads like the mid-point of a lively discussion. Some essays are at the jeremiad/diatribe end of the rhetorical spectrum; others are speculative, introspective, or sentimental.

Three articles in this collection struck me as particularly informative and insightful—Edward Geary's "Mormondom's Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s," Levi Peterson's "Jaunita Brooks: The Mormon Historian as Tragedian," and Neal Lambert and Richard Cracroft's "Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith's First Vision."

Geary explains, in graceful prose, the literary sensibility of the Mormon novelists (1940s) who enjoyed more national acclaim than LDS writers of any other period except perhaps for the present. Geary is almost single-handedly responsible for raising awareness of the "lost generation" as an important distinctive phase in Mormon literary history.

Peterson's essay likewise provides a powerful argument for considering criticism itself as a literary genre. Mormons and non-Mormons alike have wrestled with how to make sense of the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the way information about it has been managed since its occurrence. Peterson's short, painfully beautiful analysis of Juanita Brook's treatment of the subject contributes more toward historical understanding, personal peace, and cultural catharsis than any other work.

Finally, Lambert and Cracroft remind readers that the very origin of LDS religion is in a narrative with literary implications trailing its theological juggernaut—the story of a young boy who went to the woods to pray and of an angel with a golden book. To these critics, Mormons' lives become literature as they recapitulate Joseph Smith's search for and discovery of truth.

The major omission in the collection was an essay on the LDS contribution to science fiction, arguably the largest literary movement in all of Mormon literature from a popular, as well as a literary, standpoint right now. With the publication of the science fiction short story collection Washed by a Wave of Wind (Signature Books, 1995) one can no longer argue that LDS science fiction is limited uniquely to the influential Orson Scott Card.

Mormon literature is a white field ready for critical harvest. Being a first, Tending the Garden has the potential to be a major step in moving Mormon literature out of obscurity.

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Worth Their Salt: Notable But Often Unnoted Women of Utah edited by Colleen Whitley. Logan: Utah State UP, 1996, 308 pp., $37.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Judy Elsley, Department of English, Weber State University.

Over the last twenty years, feminist scholars have established that telling history solely through a male point of view misrepresents the past. In terms of Western history, we can look at the work of literary critic Annette Kolodny, who focused on the way women framed their experience of living in the west, or historians Peggy Pascoe and Patty Limerick who have taught us to look at the margins of the West if we want a whole and accurate picture. This New Western History, Pascoe argues, is a "history of women in the West that is multicultural, cross-cultural, and intercultural"(43). The growing interest in history's under-represented peoples has led to the publication of women's journals and letters, as for example the diaries edited by Lillian Schlissel.

Worth Their Salt, "a labor of love and curiosity and outrage and humor," according to the preface, makes a valuable contribution to the New Western History because of its focus on the part women played in the development of Utah. The aim of the book is to rediscover and honor some Utah women whose remarkable lives have not been documented in the past. The underlying criterion for the selection of the 18 biographies of Utah women was that each woman lived in and affected Utah. Some subjects, such as historian Juanita Brooks, have received biographical attention before, but others have not. Using oral histories, primary sources and researched materials, the writers each tell the life of one woman.

Each essay is prefaced by an author's statement explaining why s/he chose to write about this particular woman, as well as a photograph of the subject. For some writers, such as Judy Dykman who writes about Susanna Bransford Engalitcheff, this is part of a lifelong fascination; for others there's a family connection as with Haruko T. Moriyasu who writes about her mother, and Harriet Horns Arrington who writes about her grandmother, Alice Merrill

Horns. Autobiography and biography blend as contemporary writers record their ancestors' lives. As a mark of their commitment to their subjects, the authors agreed to donate any profits to the Utah State Historical Society.

Diversity was an important shaping element in the collection as the editor consciously included representatives from a cross-section of class, ethnicity, and time. For example, the book records the life of Chipeta, Queen of the Utes; Jane James who was one of the earliest Black women pioneers in the State; and Mother Augusta of the Sisters of the Holy Cross. Although the selections focus primarily on white women, the editor has been careful to include women from Greek, Jewish, Catholic, Native American, and African-American backgrounds. In socio-economic terms, the women range from Elizabeth Ann Claridge McCune who built a Salt Lake City mansion costing more than $500,000 in 1901, to the poverty of the African-American Mormon convert, Jane Manning James, who did domestic work to support her children and grandchildren. Organized in chronological order, the book begins with pioneer midwife Patty Bartlett Sessions who arrived in the Salt Lake valley in 1847, and ends with Helen Zeese Papanikolas, an ethnic historian and national expert on Greek immigrants who herself contributed a section of the book on the Greek midwife, Georgia Lathouris Mageras. All of the women influenced life in Utah, and some were nationally important, such as Ivy Baker Priest who was appointed treasurer of the United States in 1952, and Maude Adams who was considered by many to be the most talented actress in American theater in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The editor accurately describes these biographies as "a highly eclectic set of snapshots" (xi), and like snapshots, the portraits are sometimes frustrating in that the reader wants more than an account of the external events and circumstances of the subjects. How exciting it would be if we could access more of the thoughts, emotions, struggles, and triumphs of each of these women!

Worth Their Salt is a timely book that commemorates and celebrates some remarkable women. It stands, too, as a reminder of the many Utah women who lived courageous and noble lives, often in the face of tremendous adversity, but whose stories have been lost or never recorded. Let's hope this worthwhile book will open the door to the retelling of many more Utah women's lives.

 

Kolodny, Annette. The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984.

____. The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1975.

Pascoe, Peggy. "Western Women at the Cultural Crossroads." Trails: Toward a New Western History. Ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick. Lawrence: U of Kansas P, 1991. 40-58.

Schlissel, Lillian. Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey. New York: Schocken, 1982.

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Flying over Sonny Liston: Poems by Gary Short. Reno: U of Nevada P, 1996, 80pp., $10.00 (paper).

Reviewed by Shaun T. Griffin, Writer, Virginia City, Nevada

Not long ago, a beloved music teacher in the small northern Nevada town where I live tragically lost his life in an abandoned mine shaft. At the reception following his memorial service, I heard a story of when he was a boy "teaching ducks to sing." The story echoed a familiar sound, but I could not remember its origin until I read Flying over Sonny Liston. This story is central to Gary Short's poem "Psalm," the first poem in this collection. A young boy goes on a hunting trip with his father and, riding home in the pickup bed, presses the fallen abdomens of the birds and, later, gently blows into their beaks to make them sing. It is a story laden with natural humanity. The tone is quiet and filled with timorous longing, like the music teacher who lives on in the poem.

These poems gather us like a Sunday service; they welcome the reader in but work their magic in slow, deliberate lines: "Her breath, / a quivering cell on the cold glass, / grows and then shrinks." This image, like so many in the book, is crystalline and yet, rooted in the simplicity of our lives. That seems his secret: he is able to articulate in very clear language the most direct and abiding emotions.

Many of these poems reflect his upbringing, seeing the world through the eyes of a child—his parents, their scuffles, family outings, early love. In each of these small portraits, there is hunger, and it has no bounds. As with so many poets writing in the tradition of Whitman, the words do not deceive, and yet from the appearance of love comes the ordeal of young birth:


I am sixteen,
I don't understand
anything. The taste of her kisses
is sweet & deep, but not like apples.
In the backseat
under a leaf of moon,
she takes my hand
to her belly & makes me trace
the scar of the C-section
where seven months before
the boy was slipped out—one first & last look
at the baby, slick & shining with her blood,
before they took him away.

It is the scar we remember, not the night of passion months earlier. All of us recall adolescence; he recalls the terror of missing out on it altogether. This is when he is strongest—peeling the layers of human emotion with each successive line—until finally we are left with the seed, the grain that moves us to recognition. Of his contemporaries, William Stafford and Charles Wright are clearly two poets who come to mind. And of his ancestors, I think of the Chinese masters, Han-shan and Su Tung-p'o.

His landscape poems illumine Nevada with everything from dust to light. He is never reckless in his estimation of our failings there. This place he calls home is at a crossroads. He is the prodigal one, but his house, neighbors and community are changing. And he insists on their presence in his poetry, no matter how small: "I could walk out / in the jeweled cold / & follow / the split-heart tracks of starving deer. Or this image from the poem "Dust": "a sun-bleached dust furs cow skulls."

What is remarkable in these poems is they intimate more than the human voice will allow. They say it with restraint; they chisel at the well-spring of emotion with careful attention to detail. You have only to look beyond the covers of this book to find the source of his desire: in Nevada there are few boundaries, save those of earth and sky. The poet must abide these and open space. In a word, he is vulnerable. It is to Gary Short's credit that he has captured this isolation on paper. How much easier it would have been to avoid such choices: to write the straight-ahead narrative poem with no sense of place, to keep the land at arm's length. But he did not remove himself from the land. Instead the poems shift and move like the mountain of sand near Fallon, to give the reader a portrait of Nevada and its citizens' fragile co-existence.

In this, his second book of poems, Gary Short has laid claim to the refuge of sky, sun, and soil. These are the subjects around which he ties the frail economy of words—and of people who are never really finished or refined. His characters are the flawed icons of Western imagination—the down-on-their luck but hoping-things-will-change people. This he confides in their every breath: "What do they have planned / for this mountain? my father asked. / Mack's hands / slipped to his lap. / 'Tear it all to hell,' he said."

I hope the Western States Book Award for poetry conferred upon this book brings it the attention it so richly deserves. Gary Short is a poet of rare imagination and joy. These hidden qualities should pry even the most cynical from their couch to a nearby library or bookstore. The journey to this book will be worth every step.

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Paved Paradise: The Challenge of Growth in the New West by Raye C. Ringholz. Photographs by K.C. Muscolino. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1996, 206 pp., $14.95 (paper).

Reviewed by Denise Weeks, Department of English, Weber State University

Paradise Paved appropriately recalls Joni Mitchell's 1970s song "Big Yellow Taxi." But Ringholz' study attempts to forestall the song's unhappy conclusion: "Don't it always seem to go / That you don't know what you've got / Till it's gone / They paved paradise / And put up a parking lot." Ringholz alerts us to the problems western states (Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada) are facing, but does not throw up her hands in despair. She reminds us of what we still have, and presents a number of examples of communities that have successfully worked to preserve their western homes.

The book treats specific cases whose beginnings will sound familiar to anyone who has lived in the west or has made it a vacation destination. From Park City area's Snyderville Basin Community Association to Santa Fe's Morris Udall, the groups and individuals Ringholz discusses are all concerned with preservation: with holding on to what they value. The problem is that not everyone values the same things. "Perhaps there has been no greater contest between personal and societal interests," Ringholz writes, "than that between those who work the land, those who deign to protect it, and those who legislate its use. The Chapter of Individual Rights is written according to whom you talk to" (178).

Talking more to environmentalists than "traditionalists," Ringholz presents a casebook on citizen action. Solutions the book presents provide models that others might follow. Among these solutions are the tax Boulder, Colorado citizens agreed to pay to purchase open space around their city; the successful work of a Eugene, Oregon resident who encouraged local businesses to support each other in a kind of Tao of economics; and the "wish list" that Kremmling, Colorado residents compiled to serve as the basis of a plan to attract appropriate small businesses and steady tourism.

None of the cases Ringholz presents is closed, however, and not all of the solutions are mutually satisfying. In Moab, Utah, for example, a search for a "little tourism" to revitalize the economy has resulted in Moab's becoming a crowded tourist attraction. The people, along with the film and commercial production companies that converge on this desert city, strain its resources and damage the fragile terrain that attracts visitors in the first place. Similarly, in other western towns, solutions may result in a community's economic rebirth, but the revitalized city looks nothing like the original. Colorado's Black Hawk, Central City, and Cripple Creek, for example, were "resuscitated" by gambling, but jobs and revenue have been accompanied by increased traffic, an influx of national chains that replaced local businesses, and a general disruption of the old patterns of living.

Organized thematically rather than chronologically or geographically, Paved Paradise covers a lot of ground, but this wide coverage sometimes results in abrupt transitions. With no index, either, the book is a difficult resource. Ringholz states in her preface that her primary intent is to "stimulate interest and problem-solving ideas" (ix). She does stimulate ideas, but she might also have considered the value of this book as a reference tool. Considering how often the issues she treats make the news, the book might have helped readers educate themselves on the background of some of these local and national debates if it had a more helpful layout and organization. The story of Escalante, Utah, for example, is of immediate relevance. In 1996 President Clinton created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in this town's backyard. Knowing about this town's decline after the 1991 closure of the Skyline Lumber Company, along with its conservative interest in jobs the extractive industries would bring, would help one gain a more balanced understanding of the controversy that surrounded the President's declaration.

Despite its organizational shortcoming, the book informs and challenges by showing how we are all implicated in the problems facing the west. Whether natives, newcomers, or visitors, we all contribute to the degradation of our communities' resources, and we all must voice opinions on how we want our region's growth to be managed. What Ringholz stresses is that we all have responsibilities, and the first of these is communication and education.

 

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