THIS COLLECTION of essays arrives after more than 20 other books, the majority of them fiction (The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Angle of Repose, and The Spectator Bird, to name a few of the better known), as Wallace Stegner enters into his eighties. And though none of the essays here contains the "strong opinions" that one might associate with a Nabokov in his Olympian phase, passing down pronouncements from the castle in Montreux, yet most of them are bound to provoke.
The book is divided into two sections, the first concentrated on writing, on attitudes toward it, and on basic beliefs; "pitons," as Stegner puts it in his foreword, "driven into the cracked granite of uncertainty to establish a temporary foothold." "Belief and attitudes form the base from which one projects a life and the writing that is its by-product," he adds. A quote from Conrad, bearing on the same point (from a Conrad essay entitled "Books," which Stegner refers to more than once), seems the guiding light for his own book's entire composition: "A novelist who would think himself of a superior essence to other men would miss the first condition of his calling." Wonderful distillation, this.
The second half of the collection explores the area that shaped Stegner and has provided a good deal of his material, the West. In these essays, dealing with frontier attitudes and the vision of the West, and with the sensibilities of men identified with it, such as A.B. Guthrie, Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Ansel Adams, and John Muir, Stegner pins down, at least partially, particular objectifications of his beliefs. These are "not susceptible to the quantitative or mensurative or statistical methods of social science," because they deal with creativity and "art is all variables, all particulars--and yet at the moment of meeting, both work and reader must operate as wholes and must collaborate toward meaning."
One unhappy collaboration, for some, may be the title, One Way To Spell Man, since it invites a juggling of the letters of its last word, and one of the first variants is "Nam," with all its connotations. This doesn't seem purposeful, but can nonetheless keep drawing one back to those beliefs the book is based on. The opening essay, "This I Believe," presents the bones of these quite openly. It is a reasoned statement, which hardly any reader should find offensive, in that it skirts all controversial orthodoxy, condoning "Christian and classical virtues"--indeed, Stegner seems to have achieved a kind of plurality in himself, perhaps from his years of teaching. He adds, "I fear immoderate zeal--Christian, Moslem, Communist, or whatever--because it restricts the range of human understanding and the wise reconciliation of human differences. . . ." This reconciliation seems to rise from men: "About God I simply don't know; I don't think I can know. That limits my beliefs to the conduct of this life."
Later, in the essay from which the troublesome title is drawn, Stegner says, "What anyone who speaks for art must be prepared to assert is the validity of nonscientific experience and the seriousness of nonverifiable insight. The second is easier. For nearly a hundred years now, literature has assumed for some people the spiritual responsibilities traditionally belonging to religion." Undoubtedly this is true, and if this age wants its prophets and philosophers and talk-show shamans to be writers, then that's what it'll get. But what about zeal in this particular realm? In later essays, Stegner speaks of the excesses, of language and of sex, that he sees invading contemporary fiction, along with a deterioration of standards by those who ought to be arbiters of usage (he implies that Updike, "a lord of language," has trouble with lie/lay verbs, from the evidence of The Coup).
Which implies too that there is another side to what he is saying, one having to do with language and rhetoric. When you formulate beliefs without a cosmology of moral reference, or the theology that most established religions supply, those beliefs might seem commendable, if one has Stegner's articulate, reasoned overview. But then the next man will formulate his beliefs, and values that would otherwise be subjected to the systematic "spiritual responsibilities traditionally belonging to religion," become secularized and free-floating. As a result, you can have a Great Society, for instance, looking out from a New Frontier, which is able to perpetrate a war like the one in Vietnam. For whatever reasons.
It's this very lack of relative reference, it would seem, that causes the "go-for-broke" attitude that Stegner decries in much of modern writing. And causes, too, the depredations, mentioned in later essays, that are taking place in the parks and wildernesses of the West. This is a problem somewhat touched upon in "The Concept of the Writer and Adulthood," when Stegner writes "if the present tendency toward accentuated ethnicity continues, there may never be a recognizably American adult, but instead the continuation and hardening of diverse and possibly hostile patterns within many subcultures." Yet isn't "ethnicity" less a central cause than basic standards, or a lack of them? And don't personalities, as easily as ethnic groups, harden in their own directions? What's the real source of divisiveness? Or of chaos? These are questions Stegner's essays provoke.
The best parts of One Way to Spell Man are those that deal with writing, and the specifics of it, as seen from the inside, after 50 years of practice and some 40 years of teaching. For many of those years, Stegner was with the creative-writing program at Stanford, and it's a measure of his influence that of the 200-odd books he read for the 1978 National Book Awards (mentioned in "Excellence and the Pleasure Principle"), about 20 were by former students. And, surprisingly, considering how prolific he's been, the most telling of his insights are into the darker side of the business, relating to "blocks," or the problems of being "written out." Or to this: "The writing habit can be a carefully prepared schizophrenic closet into which one retires to make intolerable reality into something bearable."
These passages, and passages from the essays on the West as a purely physical phenomenon--where a "baptism in space and night and silence" on the plains brings Stegner to an understanding of his identity--make this a book that many literate and literary and space-bound travelers on this westward-tending continent will want to have handy as a point of particular reference in an age that is going. Or gone.