June 14, 2010

Wallace Stegner and the (Lack of) Religion in the American West

by Brett Hendrickson

A close friend of mine is a Presbyterian minister. At her church, she leads a book club that reads novels with an eye for religious themes. Not given to twee “Christian fiction,” they read a variety of books that you would find in the Fiction & Literature section of your local bookstore. Nevertheless, my minister friend reports that it often takes some prodding for her parishioners to imagine the religiosity of the fictional characters if these are not engaged in explicit institutional acts such as church attendance, private prayer, or overt devotion.

I suppose she would be frustrated with me as I troll through Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose, all the while searching for mention of religious life in the American West. Angle of Repose, published in 1971, would be a joy for any reader, but it is a special treat for academic historians. The narrator, Lyman Ward, is himself a retired professor of history, and the novel is his account of the lives of his grandparents, Oliver and Susan Ward, who move to various points in the West in the late 1800s. There’s a lot of great material here: Mexican and Chinese laborers, mining boomtowns, Eastern capitalists, incredible and raw nature, and an over-riding mania (on the part of Oliver Ward) to endow the West with a vital, new civilization. What there isn’t is any indication whatsoever of religion. On page 471 of my edition, a couple characters finally see the inside of a chapel, but this is at a blue-blooded New Hampshire boys school to which the Wards have sent their eldest son to study “with the finest teachers, among the finest Eastern boys.” But that’s it. Church in this new West is, at best, a part of fine Eastern culture, sedentary, rarefied, and unsuited for the mountains and valleys of Idaho or California.

Well, ok. Not every author, even very good and influential ones like Stegner, is required to make his or her characters’ religious practices and tendencies available to the reader. And Stegner does share (with remarkable tenderness) the ways in which his characters make meaning out of their lives in the West. They forge relationships with people of different classes and races with whom they would have little interaction in the East, they regard the superlative landscapes around them with awe and industry, and they develop habits that include meditative solitude, so far away from the salons and hubbub of New England. But no praying. No preachments of salvation. No baptism for the babies born in the cabins.

Jackson J. Benson, Stegner’s biographer, wrote a critical introduction to Angle of Repose, in which he states that, “Like The Great Gatsby, [this book] helps us define who we, as a people in this new land, are.” Benson is surely correct—an important image of the West is a place of opportunity that really has no more need for the stuffy and scripted liturgies of Eastern culture, let alone the liturgies of the Church. This image, for all its impact, is misleading and insufficient.

First, there are stuffy churches in the West. But let’s let this be for a minute and say that the West is not as prone to denominational Christianity as other parts of the country. Then what is there? What does “Religion in the American West” refer to? Stegner seemed to have a difficult time imagining compelling answers to this question. A happy condition of our redoubled efforts to study religion in the West is that revisionist narratives of American religious history are not revisionist here. There are no Puritans to gum up the first four chapters of our books. There is no Robert Baird or Philip Schaff to blinker our researches. Like Stegner’s seekers of opportunity, we have something new to reveal.


Matthew said...

As a westerner, I have come to think that there is a remarkable tension between the pioneering spirit that set individuals to make a fresh start in a new landscape and the community required to survive the often harsh realities of that landscape. The general result, however, has been to elevate the myth of the individual, the self-made person. Even as those individuals rely on so many others that they fail to acknowledge. I see worship at the altar of achievement and personal distinction which often precludes the community driven experience of church-going.

Tisa Wenger said...

Great post, Brett. Your take on Stegner reminds me of Laurie Maffly-Kipp's chapter on "the moral world of the California miner" in _Religion and Society in Frontier California_, in which she examines how miners constructed new moral worlds in the absence of (or rejection of) conventionally recognizable religiosity. This also becomes a way for her to reflect on the distinctiveness of religious development in California (and perhaps other regions of the west). Maybe her chapter would help you reflect on the "meaning-making" that is visible in Stegner's work, even while you remain critical of his lack of attention to religion.

Brett Hendrickson said...

Thanks for the reference, Tisa. I'll have to check it out. For the sake of argument in the blogpost, I didn't allow Stegner much room in terms of "religion." I wonder if the definition of "religion" in the U.S. is regional.

Thanks for your comment, Matt. Your insight reminds me of a favorite Stegner quote that California (and by extension, the whole West) "is like the rest of America, only more so."

Quincy D. Newell said...

Interesting and thought-provoking post, Brett. Tisa beat me to the reference to LMK's book, so I'll just echo it instead of feeling smug (and slightly sycophantic for citing my former advisor's book). I also wonder, Brett, whether the narrative Stegner provides in your reading here -- about the lack of religion -- is in fact the narrative for the West that needs revising. If we're looking for "stuffy churches," it's true: we'll find fewer, perhaps, than in the east. But if we're looking for religion practiced and believed in ways other than those that are normative in the east, we find quite a lot.

Brett Hendrickson said...

You're right, Quincy. There is plenty of something out here that is also religion. But a regional definition of this religion is needed. Without that first move, treatments of religion in the West end up being not quite helpful (I'm thinking here of Ferenc Szasz's interesting but ultimately unsatisfying Religion in the Modern American West).

John G. Turner said...

It's off your topic, Brett, but perhaps Stegner used up his descriptive power of religion in Mormon Country and The Gathering to Zion. The latter in particular is among my favorite "reads" in Mormon History, as Stegner writes with such elegance and confidence about the Saints making their "rite of passage" across the Plains and over the mountains. Perhaps we can give him a pass for failing to capture other aspects of western religiosity.

Brett Hendrickson said...

Stegner can definitely have a pass--including with Angle of Repose! It's a wonderful read, and of course it's not fair to expect every novel by every novelist to right about religion. I haven't read The Gathering to Zion but look forward to checking it out.