Novelist Jane Smiley introduces Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner’s masterpiece about the lifelong struggle of two couples to come to terms with the trials and tragedies of everyday life
If there is a representative late-twentieth-century American author, perhaps Wallace Stegner is the one. Stegner wrote and published for six decades - novels, short stories, essays, works of biography and history (thirty in all). His career took place at a time when American writers were busy rethinking the meaning of the discovery and settling of the United States, and I think of him as the anti-Henry James, a writer for whom the questions of how society grows out of the undeveloped landscape - how towns are founded and built, how leisure and culture are supported and paid for, how wealth is made, and how people retain their human complexity in the most primitive conditions, but also how nature retains its integrity against the carelessness of human onslaught, are the ones that are perennially interesting.
Stegner’s life was paradigmatically American in many ways. Born in Lake Mills, Iowa, in 1909, he migrated as a boy to North Dakota, Saskatchewan, and other spots, finally settling in and growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah, as his father tried over and over again to make a fortune by means of one scheme or another. Stegner, like many other ambitious Americans, cast his lot with education, and he remained in the embrace of the American university system for his entire adult life, first receiving his MA and PhD from the University of Iowa in 1935, then teaching at Augustana College, in northern Iowa before moving on to the University of Utah, the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and, finally, Stanford, in Palo Alto, California. In 1964, he founded the program in creative writing at Stanford (not the first in the US, but almost immediately one of the best) and administered it for many years. He mentored such younger writers as Edward Abbey (best known for the eco-resistance novel The Monkey Wrench Gang), Wendell Berry, and others. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for Angle of Repose, a novel of intensely and expressly American themes, in which a maimed and disappointed historian attempts to reconstruct the lives of his grandparents as they once made their way in California, Colorado, Mexico, and Idaho not only exploring, but exploiting, not only observing, but extracting wealth, not only living in the west, but experiencing its complex contrasts with the East Coast. He won many other awards as well - among them, the National Book Award (for The Spectator Bird and the Commonwealth Club Gold Medal (for All the Little Live Things). He was twice a Guggenheim Fellow and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In person, Wallace Stegner was tall, forthright and healthy, a lover of the west and of the outdoors. He was convivial and collegial, with many friends and associates of all types and tastes. He participated - he served for several years on the citizens’ advisory board for the national parks and monuments, and on the governing board of the Sierra Club and the governing council of the Wilderness Society. He self-consciously embodied a certain dignified but unpretentious democratic, individualistic ideal: having one’s say, getting ahead, going one’s own way, maintaining one’s integrity rather than seeking the approval of others, but at the same time fulfilling one’s social obligation to preserve what must be preserved and to nurture the aspirations of others.
Crossing to Safety was Stegner’s last novel, published in 1987, when he was seventy-eight years old. It is the story of a long adult friendship between two couples, the Langs and the Morgans, who meet in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1930s and who remain best friends even as their circumstances diverge over the course of the next four or five decades. Like Angle of Repose, it takes as one of its central subjects the nature of long-term marriage, but instead of exploring a single marriage in the nineteenth-century mould, as Angle of Repose does, it explores two marriages in the twentieth-century mould, one without money and one with money. The Langs - Sid and Charity - personify old money and new. She is the daughter of generations of self-sufficient and well-educated New Englanders; he is the son of industrial entrepreneurs from Pittsburgh. The Morgans, Larry and Sally, personify self-help. Larry, who is from Arizona, loses both his parents in an accident when he is still a teenager and must get ahead on his own. He does so with single-minded, and touchy, pride. Sally’s family are Greek immigrants. Crossing to Safety thus subtly and almost surreptitiously, takes up issues of class and conformity while purporting merely to report upon, and in some sense to eulogize, a valued personal relationship. Stegner’s talent for meticulous discussion of many subjects at once, which is so evident in Angle of Repose, is equally evident in Crossing to Safety.
The novel’s antagonists are Larry Morgan, who narrates, and Charity Lang, who reveals herself almost at once to be the headstrong and opinionated but open-handed power in the other couple. It is clear early in the novel that Charity rubs Larry the wrong way, and that probably the two of them would never be friends without Sid, whose intelligence and manly grace Larry is drawn to, and Sally, whom Larry dearly loves, and who loves Charity. Over the years, Larry witnesses the Langs’ marriage, and especially Charity’s habit of dominating her husband, with considerable disapproval; the implication on the other side is that Charity recognizes that Larry is not her ally, but she elects to ignore that fact. With him as her audience, she gives her natural self-will just a bit more rein, and makes her manner just a bit more defiant. Crossing to Safety is by no means a valentine from the Morgans to the Langs, it is more the complex depiction, sometimes light but often dark, of the multiple compromises involved in three marriages—that of the Morgans, that of the Langs, and that between the Morgans and the Langs. Its materials are simple, but I can think of no other novel quite like it, because, in fact, few marriages in novels are as permeable and yet as permanent as those of the Morgans and the Langs.
In this sense, too, that the relationship between men and women is constantly shifting and therefore constantly in question, Crossing to Safety is paradigmatically American. Stegner was only ten years younger than Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but at least in his late novels he dispensed with both Hemingway’s fantasy of solitary masculinity and Fitzgerald’s fantasy of romance. Charity and Sally are active women with authentic aspirations, even while they have ostensibly traditional roles in their marriages (neither have careers of their own). Charity is so energetic and ambitious that she must expand her role. At first she wants lots of children, but then even lots of children aren’t enough to fulfill her - she goes on to build her family a compound, to micromanage her children’s and husband’s lives, and to take on a larger social role in her community. Sid, by contrast, is happy reading, teaching, and puttering about, and Charity becomes chronically dissatisfied with his lack of ambition.
Sally, who begins as Larry’s equal and companion, contracts polio (as a result of a wilderness expedition that Larry thinks Charity mismanages) and requires constant care. The Morgans’ marriage, and Larry’s march toward professional and economic success, end up being shaped by what become perennial questions of dependence and independence, exactly the issues that Larry, who seeks self reliance above all things, and Sally, who has skills and talents that do not get realized, are most sensitive to.
Stegner, of course, is best known for his exact delineations of the landscape of the American West, but Crossing to Safety takes place in the East, at the northern New England summer compound of the Langs, where Larry and Sally are welcome and familiar but a little out of place. Stegner brings to this setting his astute talent for simultaneously depicting the broad landscape and the exquisite natural detail. Almost effortlessly, he places the Langs and the Morgans on their dark green, humid, and northern stage, where the light is always filtered through the trees and the grass is green throughout the short summer, where wildness is more subtle than it is in the west, but no less alluring and, in some ways (as on the camping trip the two couples take), no less dangerous.
One of the best things about Crossing to Safety is that it is a bulletin from a very unusual place for the novel - old age. Many, if not most traditional novels, end when the protagonist finds his or her vocation, or his or her spouse. Even Henry James, who wrote his last novel in his sixties and in his fussy narrative voice as well as in his photographs seems to define late maturity, never truly tackles the actuality of having made a life decades in the past, and then experiencing its results and ramifications as it comes to a close. Novels are usually about beginnings. But Stegner, who died at eighty-four as the result of an automobile accident, and who was vital, healthy and productive his whole life, grew more and more interested in the ills and limitations of old age. His protagonist in Angle of Repose, Lyman Ward, reflects upon not only his researches into the early period of his grandparents’ marriage, but also on what he remembers of their old age. He suffers from a debilitating medical condition that has left him an amputee, confined to a wheelchair, dependent on a hired nurse and his son for every daily service. The effect of his condition on Ward’s moods and general outlook form the frame for his narrative of his grandmother’s adventurous life. The occasion that initiates Crossing to Safety is a reunion of the Langs and the Morgans that Charity plans in order to mark, or perhaps, to ritually celebrate her imminent death from cancer. The .rst chapter of the novel focuses on the dif.culties, for the Morgans, of visiting the Langs’ rustic compound - Larry’s sense of his age and of his wife’s infirmity are carefully described. The two of them and Charity and Sid as they are in old age, are explicitly contrasted with who they had been when they first met. As he sits on the porch of his cottage, he thinks that their original plan had been to “Leave a mark on the world. Instead, the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us . . .” (p. 12), but he remembers vividly how they began: “This English instructor [Sid] in his Balkan or whatever it was shirt, standing by his beautiful wife and crushing the hands of his guest, was by Michelangelo out of Carrara, a giant evoked form the rock . . .” (p. 33). With their money, beauty and style, the Langs once made the Morgans feel themselves valued, and even “elected”. After a party during which it became clear that the Langs seemed warmly drawn to the Morgans, Larry recalls, “I felt guilty and triumphant. There we were, still in the warmth and light and grace of that room, while those who didn’t belong, those who hated and envied, those who were offensive to Athena, went out into the chilly darkness.” (p. 44). Charity remains a goddess, and Sid remains a god, but their world fills up with ungrateful and rebellious subjects - children, grandchildren, in-laws. Simultaneously, Larry fulfills his promise by successfully publishing his work and winning grants and prizes. Through his success and Sally’s fortitude, they seem to achieve a sense of peace that eludes the Langs, while the Langs continue to luxuriate in a sense of ease that eludes the Morgans. The fates of the Langs and the Morgans are not the theme of the novel, but rather the idiosyncratic stages by which they all arrived at this spot in the woods, on this day in 1971. As this day unfolds, that is, as Larry narrates both what is happening and what he is reminded of, it turns out that Charity simply cannot, even for the sake of her husband and children, relinquish control over her circumstances, thereby calling into question all the various notions of love that the novel has depicted.
Inevitably, a novel about marriage and old age must question and probe the nature of love and the nature of vocation and Stegner’s simple materials and very meticulous style allow him to do so without seeming grandiose or overbearing. He focuses on something ordinary that most people are familiar with - two couples, four people, who have divergent, specific and fairly ordinary lives, but who remain faithful to one another and to their original aspirations. He discovers that the grand, though hazy, ideas that they envisioned in youth have not worked out. They expected above all “to contribute”, and in fact they do contribute, but in retrospect their contributions feel like so much “tinsel”, as Larry puts it, compromised in Larry’s mind by the contingent and self-centered circumstances that shaped them. What remains real and valuable is their sense of connection to one another and to their offspring; their original ideas have not been fulfilled, but they have been superceded by reality. In this sense, any novel written
from the perspective of old age, but especially one written by a stylist as precise and eloquent as Wallace Stegner, is the ultimate “realist” novel because it not only takes the materials of the world as its subject, as other realist novels do, it explores the end of fantasy and even of idealism.
In his 1987 conversation with James R. Hepworth, Stegner was circumspect about the sources of Crossing to Safety. His general remarks, though, reflect the mind of a thoughtful novelist who has contemplated his sources of inspiration. These sources, he suggests, are more geographical than personal: “. . . the book just grew, more or less, through a lot of personal experience in Vermont and, to a smaller extent, in Wisconsin, and to a small extent, in Italy. Those places seemed to me places where what was gradually developing in my mind could find a home.” (p. 77). In an amusing and telling
response to a question Hepworth asks about form, he says, “I knew from the beginning it was going to be a book. You have that feeling. It’s like having a fish on. You know when it’s an old boot and when it’s a fish.” (p. 77). Three years later, though, he is more explicit when quoted in an article by Patricia Rowe Willrich, “I was trying to get some friends of ours down where I could understand them. It turned out to be a novel because I invented a whole lot more than I intended. I was going to do this one right straight from life but I can’t do that. I’m not to be trusted with life; I keep inventing it . . . There was a
Charity. She is dead. But I wanted to get her said. All of her children suffered from her inordinately because she bore down on them. She couldn’t do anything except in her own way.” But this last can be said, equally, of Larry, and Sid, and even Sally. That is one of the lessons of old age, patently apparent in Crossing to Safety.
Ironically, of course, in spite of Larry’s doubts about where the Morgans and the Langs have come to by the day in 1971 when they meet for the last time, Wallace Stegner did make “a contribution”. In many novels, essays, and non-fiction books, he asked how America as it was in the twentieth century had come about, and he asked what the best way to shape America and the American landscape for future generations would be. Stegner was above all a moralist, but he understood the complexities of morality, feeling, thought and desire. In his life as a teacher and a mentor of young writers, he forwarded literature, and in his life as a colleague and a friend, he made sure that writers and artists he knew, such as Bernard De Voto and Ansel Adams, were not forgotten or misremembered. He used congenial forms of literature to explore the world, and his sensitivity to the details of the world informed and illuminated the literature he produced. His voice is sane, and in some sense quiet, but his vision is none the less profound for that.