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Surmounted, Comprehended, Possessed

by Charly Kuecks 10 months ago in literature

Reading Wallace Stegner's Salt Lake City — and Mine

The Great Salt Lake, April 2020

Salt Lake City is an easy town to know. You can see it all. Lying in a great bowl valley, it can be surmounted and comprehended and possessed wholly as few cities can. … The streets are marked by a system so logical that you can instantly tell not merely where you are but exactly how far you are from anywhere else … Looking into the blank walls of cities … breeds things in people that eventually have to be lanced (At Home in the Fields of The Lord).

Wallace Stegner’s most autobiographical work is Recapitulation. Bruce Mason, the author stand-in from The Big Rock Candy Mountain, returns to Salt Lake City after forty-five years’ absence. In rediscovering the city and replaying the episodes of his youth, Mason comes to understand himself.

Stegner stated that to really understand a city, one has to be able to get up above it. This very Western idea of surveying all that lies before you has deep implications not just from a geographical perspective, but a psychosocial one as well. Authors, by creating fictional worlds, rewrite our experience of real spaces: this act of (re-)creation mirrors the act of writing itself. The reader is able to get above a narrow mindset by entering another mind through the author.

Following Stegner’s lead, I have divided the act of reading into three phases: surmounting, comprehending, and possessing. Surmounting is done by the reader. She observes. She consumes. She experiences. She reads, in the legere sense—gathering, collecting, choosing (Online Etymological Dictionary). Comprehending is the author’s role. The author creates. He builds. He makes ideas physical, the book itself that we can hold. Possession comes in the author/reader interaction. The author starts out as reader, of necessity. He “reads” the chapters of his life, using it as starting material for a book in much the way an artist may draw a landscape or portrait from life. Due to the way our brains comprehend literature, it is the best medium for changing who we are.

Capitol Hill overlooking Salt Lake City, July 2019


Literature is about evoking a world in the mind of the reader. If the author fails to do that—what genre writers call "world-building”—then he has arguably failed the task. How we learn to read, in a post-industrial, highly textual society, is basically how we learn to think, how we learn to be. Psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman's work on how we think shows us that we have a lot of heuristics we apply to everyday situations—shortcuts, really—and we are often unreliable narrators, even to ourselves.

Wallace Stegner was no cognitive scientist, but he was a particularly astute observer of human nature. We can consider him a model reader, one who has a telescopic view of the bustling city below and the human lives it contains. Much as one would read a text, one can “read” architecture. Recapitulation is grounded in the real streets, buildings, and institutions of Salt Lake City.

Philippe Hamon, a French literary theorist of the realist movement, asked, “Is there a specifically ‘literary’ vision of the city, different from the vision of the architect, the painter, the public health officer, the photographer, the politician?” (“Voir La Ville,” 1994, translation mine). Yes, there is a specifically “literary” vision of the city, and Stegner has perfectly captured what it is like to live through a city, within a city, and without (both outside and deprived of) it.

Though we can perhaps never directly know ourselves, literature gives us a heuristic for understanding motive, love, loss, and the effects of time. In this metaphor, we may have to invert the typical image of the author as fly-on-the-wall. Here, the reader is observer and the writer is the builder. The reader, through the book, can survey both her life and society at large in the metaphorical foothills, and the author is down in the valley, erecting hotels and tennis courts with his pen.

Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City, January 2020


The theme of Recapitulation is Bruce Mason’s return, after half a century, to Salt Lake City, the city both Mason and Stegner himself grew up in. Only with the benefit of time and distance is he able to make any sense of his youth. The things that “need to be lanced” are many: the falling-out with his best friend, Joe Mulder, the trauma with his ex-girlfriend, Nola Gordon, and above all, his own rootlessness and orphaned state.

Salt Lake City is always contrasted with Bruce himself. Salt Lake is orderly, religious, and laid out on a predictable grid system. The Mason family is messy, non-religious, and unpredictable. His mentor, Bill Bennion, encourages Bruce to get out of Salt Lake City to knock against bigger and better ideas; Bruce does, by enrolling in the University of Minnesota’s School of Law. However, he gains no greater understanding of himself there—it is only by returning to Salt Lake (recapitulating), the physical site of the trauma, that he can face his demons, and have any hope of their being lanced.

“Recapitulation” comes from recapitulationem, which means “to go over the main points of a thing again.” Its literal meaning sprung from “restating by chapters” (Online Etymological Dictionary). Bruce Mason restates his young adult life, chapter by chapter, and we are reading his Book of Life along with him. Going over the main points brings him, at long last, some sort of closure. Of course, it is not Bruce Mason who is writing this book at all, but Wallace Stegner. The real Stegner’s traumas (his brother died of pneumonia, his mother of cancer, and his father by suicide) are worked out in the act of authorship. Stegner can lay out a logical plat system which he never had the privilege of experiencing.

Great authors rewrite our experience of real spaces. Wallace Stegner invented plausible but false locations in Salt Lake City for his very verisimilitudinous Recapitulation. This can be understood as a metaphor for the very act of authorship itself. The fact that Stegner invented a mortuary that never existed and put it at a real address in Salt Lake City is what an author does in microcosm: using real pen and ink and time to, essentially, tell a made-up story.

Temple Square, circa 1993


In Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, we have another largely autobiographical author avatar. In reminiscing about a life marked by voracious reading, Larry Morgan states:

Anyone who reads, even one from the remote Southwest at the far end of an attenuated tradition, is to some extent a citizen of the world, and I had been a hungry reader all my life (p. 254).

There are three main ideas that we can draw from this passage. First, that readers, by flexing the muscles of their imaginations, and becoming immersed in the world that the author creates, become citizens of the world. It was Mark Twain, in The Innocents Abroad, who said that travel is “fatal to prejudice;” Larry Morgan had already been stretched beyond the mesas of Albuquerque by reading Milton and Dante. Second, Stegner is engaging a deep and broad literary corpus or canon. Stegner is not easily contained by –isms:

Although admitting that Stegner's fiction is “almost invariably set in the western United States,” Richard H. Simpson of the Dictionary of Literary Biography believed that his “main region is the human spirit” (Gale Literary Databases, Contemporary Authors).

Wallace Stegner

He is no mere genre writer. Third, the question which deserves the closest analysis: how is a hungry reader different from an avid one, or a merely attentive reader?

The idea of literature as nourishment can take us far in our analysis. Ideas are not merely ephemeral; the books we read shape our very neuronal structure. Neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, in his Reading in the Brain, proposes that far from being a tabula rasa, our brains use neuronal recycling to learn to read. In reading, we adapt brain regions originally primed for other tasks (object recognition, for instance): astoundingly, the same brain regions decode the written word, whether it’s represented by the Roman alphabet, Egyptian hieroglyphs, or Japanese kanji.

In short, the hungry reader’s body is physically changed by the act of reading. This can be the first step in building a counterargument to Gregory Currie’s “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” If literature shapes our bodies, is it such a great leap to assume it shapes our souls?

What about Recapitulation’s Bruce Mason? When he goes to law school, he embarks on a self-improvement reading program. It is debatable whether it makes him a better person. It’s worth examining his reading list, what the mature Bruce Mason calls a “random sampling of the wildest variety:” On the Sublime, Heroes and Hero Worship, The Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle, Totem and Taboo, The Seven that Were Hanged, Also Sprach Zarathustra (p. 181). Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche: here we have a microcosm of great thinkers and philosophers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These books did not necessarily make Bruce a more moral, or even a happier person, but they certainly, inarguably, changed him.


Charly Kuecks

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