Was This 'Discovery!' Meant to Be Found?

The 1972 Pulitzer winner was hired in 1958 by Aramco to write what would become
The 1972 Pulitzer winner was hired in 1958 by Aramco to write what would become "Discovery!" (1979 Associated Press Photo)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 29, 2007

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner, who died in 1993, has a new book out this fall -- but it's one Stegner's son and his literary agent say should never have seen the light of day.

"Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil" was published in September by the tiny, California-based Selwa Press. It resurrects a narrative history Stegner was hired to write, in the mid-1950s, by the Arabian American Oil Co., a consortium of American firms commonly known as Aramco.

A Selwa press release called the book "a lost classic." But Carl Brandt, who was Stegner's agent and who continues to represent the Stegner estate, said yesterday that the text published by Selwa was a company-edited version intended only for internal Aramco use and that its publication violated Stegner's contract with Aramco.

"It was not what Stegner wanted the world to see," Brandt said. "A bowdlerized version of what Wally wrote is being fobbed off on the American public."

"It's been considerably modified," said Page Stegner, the author's son, who called what Selwa had done "unethical." Material critical of Aramco was cut, he said, and anything that in the company's opinion might have offended its Saudi partners was also removed.

Both men cited a 1958 contract under which Wallace Stegner and Aramco would each have to approve any version intended for publication in the marketplace -- unless it appeared without Stegner's name attached.

Selwa publisher Tim Barger, who was in Washington yesterday to give a talk about "Discovery!" at the Library of Congress, denied that he had done anything unethical in publishing the book.

Barger is the son of an Aramco geologist who rose to run the company. (The elder Barger is a character in the Stegner book.) He said he had requested and received permission from Saudi Aramco, the state-owned oil company that resulted when the American consortium was nationalized in the 1970s.

The publisher said that Stegner had approved the text of what would become the Selwa version when it was serialized (in 14 parts) in an Aramco magazine in the 1960s, and again when Aramco converted the magazine serialization into a 14-chapter paperback printed in Beirut in 1971. Stegner also supplied an introduction.

"The story of 'Discovery!' and the peculiar fate of Stegner's manuscript is a complicated and murky tale," wrote former Washington Post reporter Thomas W. Lippman in a foreword to the Selwa version.

Aramco's decision to commission what Lippman called "a history that would accentuate the positive and show the oil company in a favorable light" was part of a much larger PR effort. It came at a time when Iran had recently nationalized its oil industry and when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was trumpeting his criticism of the Saudi partnership with the American consortium.

In the mid-'50s, Stegner was a respected but hardly wealthy writer. He would go on to make his reputation as a chronicler of the American West and win the 1972 Pulitzer for his novel "Angle of Repose," but at the time, as Lippman put it, "he needed extra money." In addition, the adventures of rugged American oil pioneers in Saudi Arabia appealed to him because they echoed the American frontier experiences that were a favorite subject.

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