I have just finished reading The Big Rock Candy Mountain, Wallace Stegner’s big, sprawling, beautiful novel, which was published in 1943, when Stegner was thirty-four years old. It took me almost a month to read it. That’s partly because I have so little time for reading, but more because I’m a terribly (or wonderfully) slow reader. Furthermore, the better the book the slower I read it. I savor each word, to hear it as I read. And when I read an especially beautiful passage, such as one of Stegner’s many descriptions of the American Western scenery in all the seasons, I enjoy the luxury of slowing down and rereading whole sentences, whole paragraphs, whole scenes.

I won’t write a review of The Big Rock Candy Mountain here, because the book has already been reviewed by the best of critics and countless scholars; anything I could write would read, in comparison, like a high school book report. But I will say that The Big Rock Candy Mountain shows handsomely the hardy, lawless frontier spirit that survived into the twentieth century, after the West had supposedly been tamed. It is a book of vast opportunity, incurable dreams, and reckless adventure, worthy of the West itself.


Wallace Stegner, circa 1968


I was a student of Wallace Stegner’s in 1968. At that time I was twenty-seven years old, and he was an elder statesman at fifty-nine. Those statistics fascinate me now, because I’m now seventy years old and still trying to learn to write. What’s more, I’ve been learning to write by reading a book that Wallace Stegner must have been writing in his late twenties and early thirties, when he was less than half the age I am now.

One thing I learned from Stegner back in 1968 is that writing should have consequence. It should be important. That seems now to go without saying, but back then on college campuses, the favorite fiction writers, the ones that many students admired and imitated, were clever, entertaining, but in the long run inconsequential writers like Richard Brautigan, Donald Barthelme, and Terry Southern. When shallow student work of that stripe showed up in our seminar, Mr. Stegner kindly, politely pointed out that cleverness was not enough. As he pointed out, “You can’t nail a custard pie to the wall.”

Well, if I’ve caught your interest, and if you agree that a novel needs to be important to be great, then read (or reread) The Big Rock Candy Mountain. It’s no custard pie.




9 Responses

  1. I can’t believe I haven’t read that one ever. But I do remember the song, or at least the refrain. I guess I’ll have to get down to the library later today.
    In defense of “inconsequential” writing, let me offer an appropriately foody response. Everyone looks forward to a fine meal, exquisitely prepared, right? But we also need the quotidien hot dogs and mac & cheese. As writers, we can all aspire to the gourmet food, without ever despising the ordinary meals.
    I don’t mean that we should be satisfied with junk. Just as our daily bread should be healthful and well-cooked, our reading and writing should be the best we can manage. If all you can manage is really good custard pie, that’s all right, too.

    • Nikki, I agree, and expect that Wally would agree, that not all writing should be a hearty, nutritious meal. Some writing is light. But if you’re going to invest the time in writing a novel, it really ought to be about something that matters. Don’t you think so?

      • Sure, we can agree that writing should be about something that matters. What I’m saying is that sometimes, custard pie matters. A good laugh or a respite from reality can be what reinvigorates us to deal with those heavy burdens we all carry.

  2. Wonderful to be reminded of Stegner. I heard him read years ago–I think it was at the Bread Loaf Writers’ conference. I know he had a home in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom but once upset the locals by writing them into his books! It has been years, too, since I’ve read Crossing into Safety and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, and I’ll put them on my rereading list.

    • Nancy, I think Crossing to Safety is my favorite of Stegner’s books. I haven’t yet read Angle of Repose, for which he won the Pulitzer. It’s on my list.

  3. Re Terry Southern: while much of his work probably was custard pie-ish (e.g., CANDY–by coincidence) he wrote the screenplay for one of the best movies ever made: DR. STRANGELOVE. Or was it co-written w/ Kubrick? Anyway, it’s a satirical masterpiece, IMO and that of many critics.

    • Meredith, I quite agree. Dr. Strangelove is genius, and it certainly is an important movie as well as a wildly entertaining one. When I mentioned him I was thinking mainly of The Magic Christian, which I loved, but it was in the long run ephemeral.

  4. How wonderful it must have been to study with Stegner, John.

    But as I prepare to teach another series of classes this month, I’m glad there’s room for the rest of us, too. We can be inspiring in our own way.

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