The intrusive past: history and identity in the novels of Wallace Stegner
Jones, Dan R.
Isle, Walter W.
Master of Arts
Wallace Stegner believes in history, and one gets the impression from reading his books that he wishes more Americans did. A protagonist of one of his novels declares that "I believe in the life chronological, not the life existential,’’ which aptly reflects Stegner's own conception of time. Only by making ourselves aware of the past may we become fully aware of the present, he contends. Much of his fiction is an attempt to explore the relationship between America's past and present, particularly that of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in an effort to establish what he calls the "pontoon bridge" of history. He concludes that awareness of tradition is the only adequate basis for identity, cultural or individual. In this formulation, individual identity is defined by its association with corporate history. This definition is similar to the concept of corporate sainthood, as defined by Puritan theologians. For Stegner, the affirmation of selfhood is accomplished not through religious salvation, but by perceiving one's place in the corporate historical continuum. Ideally this continuum may be perceived as a series of dialectical operations in time. Two early novels, The Big Rock Candy Mountain and A Shooting Star, are structured around the process of affirming personal identity by the enlightened perception of the dialectical flow of corporate history. In later novels, this view of time comes to be regarded as naive and simplistic. In All the Little Live Things, the forces of disorder in the world axe found to be greater than the ability of man to base his self-awareness on a strictly rational view of the world. Angle of Repose translates this finding into the chronological realm. Lyman Ward discovers that he is unable to force history into dialectical molds. The Spectator Bird encapsulates the process of re-examining the myth of corporate* chronological identity. Stegner concludes that an awareness of the chronological structure of history cannot serve, by itself, as an adequate basis for personal identity, since it does not always complete describe all of the processes of history.