As the 1950s became the 1960s—that time of incipient American revolutions—the now-legendary American authors Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry all stalked the Quad in the formative years of their careers. The three writers would become, respectively, a wild-eyed oracle of the new environmental movement, a counter-cultural hero, and one of the great storytellers of the 20th century. Among them, they authored more than 65 books. They’ve all left us now, McMurtry the last of them when he died in March in his native Texas at the age of 84. Each reshaped the American West in his own image, creating new archetypes and tearing down traditions. But first, they traveled to Stanford to study in the program built by Wallace Stegner, the man who had already remade the literary West before them.
He would become known as the dean of Western writers. Stegner came to Stanford from Harvard before his Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose, before his National Book Award, before his famous Wilderness Letter, which directly influenced Congress’s Wilderness Act of 1964 (see sidebar). By the time Stegner retired from teaching 25 years later, in 1971, he had taught many students who went on to become household names, from Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, LLB ’52, to back-to-the-land prophet Wendell Berry, and from renowned English professor emerita Nancy Packer to Pulitzer winner N. Scott Momaday, MA ’60, PhD ’63.
Stegner established Stanford’s creative writing department and the fellowships that now bear his name in 1946, initially catering the program to post–World War II GIs who were returning home with stories to tell. Stegner understood this group of young men and their themes of brotherhood, sacrifice, and the unsettling twists of mind and fate brought about by war. He called them “the best students, and the most motivated, that any professor ever had.”
When the straitlaces of the 1950s started to come undone, Stegner’s writing program began to draw a new breed of ambitious young writer. Abbey arrived in 1957, Kesey in 1959 and McMurtry in 1960. Taken collectively, the writing fellows of the new era were never Stegner’s “best” and far from his favorites, though he remained unfailingly gracious toward them. In style, compositional philosophy and persona, Stegner found himself on one tectonic plate while so many of his students sailed off on another.
‘One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes, but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothing can beat teamwork.’
In the American West, Stegner saw the possibility of a “geography of hope,” his famous phrase, a place where land and civilization, each carefully tended, could exist in relative harmony. He imagined a cleansing of old delusions in favor of a clear-eyed version of history and ecosystem. He also never fully grappled with the murder and dislocation of Indigenous people by the on-rushing settlers. He penned a land that was vast and gorgeous and empty, not violently depopulated, not filled with ghosts.
The American West has always been a moving target. Each generation has created its own vision of the land to fill its needs. By the late 1950s, the violent past had mated with a violent future in which the new American people had nuked their own land, irradiating the desert West at the test sites in New Mexico and Nevada, in preparation for a global nuclear war that seemed, at the time, near at hand. Stegner’s West was not recognizable to his most famous students. They filled their pages with dangerous people navigating dangerous ground. In their West, civilization is not remedy, nor is it even civil.
Consider Abbey and Stegner: Both wrote specifically and beautifully of the red rock desert; both became nationally lauded conservationists, Abbey for his radical ideals of eco-defense, Stegner for his programmatic preservation of wilderness. When Abbey left Stegner’s program early, in 1958, at age 31, nearly broke and semi-estranged from his wife, his journals freighted with poverty and cynicism, he reads like a character straight out of one of his own future novels—and just the kind of character Stegner abhorred. A year later, in New Mexico, Abbey wrote: “If the world of men is truly as ugly, cruel, trivial, unjust and stinking with fraud as it usually appears, and if it is really impossible to make it pleasant and decent, then there remains only one alternative for the honest man: stay home, cultivate your own garden, look to the mountains.”
Stegner would never write such a thing. The two men had fundamentally different ideas about what kind of person the grand Western story was about. In answer to a version of that same choice—to withdraw or engage—Stegner said, “One of the nicest things about American independence . . . is that you can tell the world to kiss your behind and go off. That is freedom; it is also irresponsibility; social irresponsibility.” For Stegner, the outsize failure of white Western settlement was restlessness, the inability to stay put and build cohesive multigenerational communities with stories of substance to tell.
Though not limited to his geography, Stegner was a Westerner who wrote of the West as a novelist, an essayist and a historian. He invested the people walking his pages with an unusual depth of history (European-American history, to be clear), not to mention the sensory impressions of immigrants traveling an alien land, the lurking fear of vast skies and arid plains, the joy of water pouring forth out of canyons. “The footsteps of history in a land of fable,” Stegner wrote of the first Spaniards to reach the Colorado River in his 1953 book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. “Across these shallows marked by an angling line of stones, under the fantastic knobs and baldheads of the Navajo sandstone at the lower end of Glen Canyon, Escalante and Maera crossed the Colorado and added this remote corner of New Spain to the map of the world.” At a memorial for Stegner, Bruce Babbitt, President Clinton’s secretary of the interior, who realized some of the goals laid down by Stegner in the Wilderness Letter, recalled the first time he read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. “It was,” Babbitt said, “like someone had thrown a rock through a window and you could hear all the old ideas just shattering across the floor in the face of a new reality.”
The specific new world crafted by Stegner, the one that blew out Babbitt’s windows, was a West stripped of mythology, hucksters and heroes. “I don’t purvey horse opera,” Stegner said. “I don’t think that six-gun West amounts to much . . . it never did.” Almost to prove his point, Stegner wrote one of the most praised cow-boy stories of all time. His novella Genesis contains no six-guns, no fights, no gamblers or desperados. Instead the storyline follows riders and cattle through an unholy—but not unearthly—storm, a simple narrative of work and trust.
In a sense, by attempting to strip the West of mythology, Stegner opened the way for his students to create Western mythologies of their own. It’s hard to imagine making the leap to Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang—with its iconic struggle of madcap ecoterrorists against industrial America—without the Wilderness Letter to precede it. Similarly, it’s hard to see the path from the Riders of the Purple Sage pulp romanticism of Zane Grey to Larry McMurtry without Stegner in between to clear out the dime-store brush.
McMurtry was 24 when he came to Stanford in 1960, and his first novel, Horseman, Pass By (one of an eventual 33), was already with his publisher. From the outset, McMurtry declined to purvey nobility or sanctify his protagonists. “I didn’t love cowboys,” he wrote years later, “and I didn’t want to wax poetical about them.” McMurtry would know. He had begun riding at age 3, on a mean, broken-down pony over the stony hills of his father’s small ranch in Archer County, Texas, in 1939. For the next 20 years, until he went to Stanford, cowboying for his father was McMurtry’s work whenever he wasn’t in school, though he understood from as early as he could remember that there was no future in the profession for himself (nor for anyone else, as far as he could tell, given the trend lines of economics and overgrazing).
‘It’s like I told you last night, son. The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.’
Stegner and McMurtry parted company over where to locate the beauty, or at least the poetry, of the American landscape. McMurtry praised In the American West, a book of Richard Avedon’s photographs, “because it was so brutally anti-pastoral, so true to the gritty West of drifters and pig farmers, of truck stop girls and truckers.” At the other end of the spectrum of Western aesthetic sensibility, McMurtry criticized Ansel Adams—a close friend of Stegner’s—for turning the West into a parade of pretty but empty pictures by removing the people from the land. And unlike Abbey, Stegner or Adams, McMurtry saw no inherent redemptive power in the land. “In the West,” McMurtry wrote, “lifting up one’s eyes to the heavens can be a wise thing, for much of the land is ugly. The beauty of the sky . . . prompts us to forgive the land its cruelty.”
Ultimately, his readers disillusioned McMurtry: “I thought of Lonesome Dove as demythicizing, but . . . readers don’t want to know and can’t be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was.” Instead, McMurtry found that he had created “a kind of American Arthuriad.”
Stegner’s writing program at Stanford at the dawn of the 1960s has been seen as a kind of Western Arthuriad, the heroes of the age assembled briefly in one Camelot. The egos around the table were as outsize as the literary quests they would undertake. Chief among them was 24-year-old Ken Kesey, Gr. ’59, who, according to McMurtry, made it charmingly plain “that he meant to be the stud-duck.”
Sometimes a Great Notion sprawls across generations and genres. It is another new West, of rivers and mud and old-growth behemoths felled. Echoes roll through the decades and down out of the canyons, dictating the characters’ lives in a story that is a psychedelic mashup of Cain and Abel and Oedipus set in an Oregon logging town during a labor strike.
For Kesey, the West was not merely physical geography. “Stegner,” he wrote, “had traveled across the Great Plains and reached the Pacific. . . . That was, as far as he was concerned, the edge of the continent, and he thought you were supposed to stop there.” Kesey wanted to go farther, to keep traveling, to enter a new West of the synapses: “I took LSD and he stayed with Jack Daniel’s; the line between us was drawn.”
Given his preoccupation with the arid West, Stegner may never have thought of Kesey as a Western writer. Stegner described Oregon’s coast as more closely related to Japan than to Utah. Kesey, in his life and work, pushed forward on multiple new frontiers that were foreign ground to Stegner.
That Stegner and Kesey clashed was no secret. In his biography of Stegner, Jackson Benson, ’52, quoted Bob Stone, another writing fellow at Stanford at the time: “Stegner saw Kesey and what he represented as a threat to civilization and intellectualism and sobriety.” Meanwhile, in a 1963 interview, Kesey accused Stegner of “writing to a class-room and to his colleagues” instead of honestly—a barb honed to wound Stegner.
To Stegner, Kesey manifested the sickness afflicting America. Stegner saw a culture descending into an anti-intellectual and ahistorical morass in which drugs and emotional flights displaced knowledge and creativity. Despite his anti-war and environmental ideals, Stegner thought the young radicals of the 1960s were mostly “harebrained” and did not trust them even to clearly articulate a reformed America, let alone carry change through. Stegner taught sustained work and constant revision as an etched-in-stone principle, while certain of his students thought their manuscripts should flow from their typewriters in billowing rolls of unedited prose just like On the Road (Kesey, who called Jack Kerouac a “prophet,” was matter of fact that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had seen little rewriting). Stegner faulted Westerners in general for having a limited grasp of history, but he worried that the new generation of American youth “had no sense whatever that time didn’t begin yesterday.”
'Time overlaps itself. A breath breathed from a passing breeze is not the whole wind, neither is it just the last of what has passed and the first of what will come, but is more. . .’
The outward cultural conflict masked a deeper correspondence between Stegner and Kesey. In literature, Stegner believed in carefully honed point of view and clever syncopation of time, and Kesey wrote virtuosic shifts in time and perspective into Sometimes a Great Notion. Far from being pastless or ahistorical, the novel explains that “time overlaps itself,” and the strife of past generations and centuries spills over into the present.
The connections—both philosophical and personal—made in Stegner’s writing program stretched forward through the decades. In 2011, 10 years after Kesey died, his widow, Faye, married McMurtry in Texas, or as McMurtry put it: “I went up and drug Faye out of Oregon.” In 1990, Wendell Berry, a classmate of Kesey and McMurtry in Stegner’s program, read aloud a letter written by Stegner at Abbey’s funeral in the Utah desert. In the letter, Stegner called Abbey “a red-hot moment in the conscience of the country.” When Stegner died three years later, at the age of 84, Berry in turn wrote a letter for Stegner, calling him “not a red-hot moment, but one that was luminous, clarifying, and steady.” In Berry’s letter, the past flowed into Stegner and the future flowed out from him, from the geographical nexus at Stanford and out across the West and beyond, a clear spring flowing through his students and readers and even into “our country, the American land itself.”
Daniel Arnold, ’01, lives on the Rogue River in rural Oregon. He is the author of three books about climbing—one historical nonfiction, one travelogue and one of fictional short stories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.