Stegner In Salt Lake City
A Gentile in the New Jerusalem: Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City
By Robert C. Steensma
When Wallace Stegner arrived in Salt Lake City as a twelve-year-old in June 1921 with his father George, his mother Hilda, and his brother Cecil, he found himself to be, as he was to write in an essay three decades later, “a Gentile in the New Jerusalem,” a non-Mormon boy in a city predominantly populated by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But as he tells us in the same essay, “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” he later came to realize that if he had to select a home town from the many communities he had lived in in Iowa, North Dakota, Washington state, Montana, Saskatchewan, Nevada, and Massachusetts, Salt Lake City would be his.
Wallace lived in Salt Lake from 1921 until 1930, when he left for the University of Iowa to earn his M. A. and Ph. D. in English, the latter in 1934. He returned to the University of Utah as an English instructor from 1934 to 1937, when he published his first novel, Remembering Laughter, which won him the $2500 Little Brown prize for the short novel. He moved on to the University of Wisconsin, then to Harvard, and in 1945 to Stanford, where he took over the creative writing program and made it into one of the nation’s finest.
Thus Salt Lake City was his home for only about thirteen years, but his feelings for the city are shown in three essays, “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” “It Is the Love of Books I Owe Them” (about his undergraduate years at the University of Utah), and “Xanadu by the Salt Flats: Memories of a Pleasure Dome” (about Saltair).
He also used Salt Lake for places and characters in three novels—The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Recapitulation (1979), and Joe Hill (first published as The Preacher and the Slave, 1950)—and three short stories: “The Volunteer,” “The Blue-winged Teal,” and “Maiden in a Tower,” all three of which were later adapted and folded into episodes in Recapitulation.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Recapitulation are to a great extent autobiographical with the Mason family and their experiences closely resembling those of the Stegners. Not only did Stegner use his family, but he also drew upon a number of his friends for those of Bruce Mason. Nola, Bruce’s girlfriend at the University of Utah, is based on Juanita Crawford, a coed from Ferron, Utah. Holly is drawn from Helen “Peg” Foster, who later married the famous journalist Edgar Snow. Joe Mulder, Bruce’s closest friend and varsity tennis teammate, is Jack Irvine. We also know the identity of their lecherous friend Jack Bailey, but he is better left unidentified.
His memories of his undergraduate years at the University of Utah are affectionately known at the end of “It Is The Love of Books I Owe Them”: “As my tennis-and-basketball-playing friends ushered me into the human world and taught me how to belong, this handful of teacher friends introduced me to the life of the mind where, even though I didn’t know it then, I most wanted to live. No university, even the greatest, could have done much more.”
Salt Lake City was, as he tells us in “At Home in the Fields of the Lord,” a place where he experienced both happiness and despair. Certainly he know many of the memorable times shared by many high-school boys and college men which supplied him with “images enough for a lifetime of nostalgia: the basketball and tennis at the university, the dances at the Hotel Utah and the Green Lantern, and the treks up the seven canyons.”
But the city was also provided bitter memories, “houses and neighborhoods in Salt Lake whose associations are bleak and unhappy, places where we lived which I thought of at the time as prisons.” His father used the family home for bootlegging and running a blind pig (a speakeasy), which caused the family to move so often that for some years the city directories couldn’t list them. His brother Cecil died of pneumonia at the age of twenty-four in 1931 after helping a stranded motorist free his car from deep snow. Two years later his mother died of breast cancer. And on June 15, 1939, his father, now falling apart mentally and financially, killed his lover, Dorothy Webb LeRoy, and then himself at the Hotel Heron on Second South just east of State Street (where the Bank of the West now stands). George, Hilda, and Cecil are buried in the northwest section of the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Hilda and Cecil’s graves have markers, but George’s is unmarked.
As he looked back on his experiences in Salt Lake City, Stegner could write, “There is only this solid sense of having had or having been or having lived something real and good and satisfying, and the knowledge that having had or been or lived those things I can never lose them again. Home is what you can take away with you.”
Robert C. Steensma is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Utah and a retired Navy captain. His book Wallace Stegner’s Salt Lake City was published by the University of Utah Press in November 2007 and can be ordered from the press website (http://www.uofupress.com) or by your local bookstore.