The Big X

There’s little enough here for them. There is only you. They’re hoping for so much.

Elizabeth 
Tallent “What could I do, in a provincial university, three thousand miles from New York and an hour from San Francisco, that would help and encourage these obviously gifted people?”

Even as “provincial” daubs in the vanished Farm of 1945, the sentence’s stymied cadences reveal the odds Wallace Stegner felt himself up against, so far, far away from all things literary. “What could I do?” has the genuine ring of disconcerted self-interrogation, but that I is lonely. “Help” and “encourage” are so simple that their generosity almost eludes notice, but they’re among the gentlest possible verbs for teaching.

C onsidered with detachment - and to get detached you have to look away from the eyes of those just-barely-home soldiers in 1945 - the need to prevent experience from vanishing is a curious thing, defiant, unreasonable. The deal the self strikes with certain almost unbearable realities is I will write about you. If that were all that was going on, the self could be seen as intent on its own survival, just as it always is, but writing is, in essence, a social act. Every written page postulates the existence, somewhere, of its own reader. The classroom Wallace Stegner first faced here was haunted by reality, by a lot of realities, in danger of vanishing into the dark. What his students could make of what they had seen was un-knowable, a great big X, enigma, mystery, yet Stegner trusted it.

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MARCH/APRIL 1996

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