I just read Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety, his last I think, published in 1987 when he was in his late 70s. Sarah read it and was somewhat blown away by its anthropology of certain institutions and icons of WASP New England life, especially the grandmother who’s on the board of the Shady Hill School and ritually reads the grandkids Longfellow’s “Hiawatha” in the lakeside cabin. Sarah experienced this herself, exactly, and found this kind of spooky.
I was surprised by the familiarity of the picture of life in the U. of Wisconsin English department in the late 1930 and early 1940s. All the stress over publication and promotion, the question of whether the department would respect creative work or work outside one’s field, the article on Browning rejected by PMLA. Somehow I thought that was the era of gentleman scholars who didn’t have to worry about such things. The publishing anxiety is more focused on articles than scholarly books, but otherwise the differences are slighter than I would have expected.
It’s a very rich, engrossing and often moving novel; in a way I felt it suffered just a bit from being, or seeming, just one step removed from memoir; at times I felt Stegner’s main goal was to “do justice” to an actual friendship, and that this goal controlled and determined the novel more than it might have if the events had been less closely based on his own life.
I felt a little jealous of the picture of social life among young college professors and their wives in the 1930s: dinner parties with singing, recitation of poetry and parlor games. I imagine my grandparents’ lives in Notre Dame along these lines. Maybe I idealize this as a less mediated life before DVDs and computers (and blogs).
Although speaking of those parties, one odd thing about the novel’s portrait of family life is that the children (one of the families, the Langs, has five) are almost literally absent and invisible until the later part of the book when a couple of them enter as adult characters. Perhaps this is a weakness in the novel’s masculine perspective: it’s so acute on married life and on friendship within marriage, but kind of bizarrely vacant on parenthood and kids.