Wallace Stegner, the Rural West, and Me

By John McChesney, Director of the Rural West Initiative

I spent some of the most enjoyable years of my life as a graduate student at Stanford in the 1960’s. During two of those years I lived in a cottage that Wallace Stegner rented to graduate students. In our many conversations, Wally enlarged my knowledge of and love for the West, particularly the rural West. We argued sometimes, but that was almost always about the war in Vietnam. That led to a rough patch in our relationship. Since then I have read almost everything Stegner wrote and wish that I had used all my time with him soaking up his deep understanding of the American West.

Years later I was stunned to discover, while reading Philip Fradkin's biography of Stegner, that Wally had written an imaginary dialogue between us. It had a lot of things wrong about me, but I was touched. Our arguments had moved him too. Later he told my wife that he had heard me reporting from China and was glad I had found my niche in journalism.

Now, following nearly 30 years with National Public Radio as an editor and correspondent, I'm thrilled to be back at Stanford, directing the Rural West Initiative at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. We hope to stir up a robust conversation about important issues transforming the rural West — and their deep historical dimensions.

"One cannot be pessimistic about the West," Wallace Stegner once wrote. "This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery."

It’s a fine observation to apply to the issues that we will be exploring in this initiative: the energy boom; the crisis on the Colorado River; the role of the federal landlords of the West, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service, and their relationships with local communities; and the globalization of investment in the West; health care and demographic changes in rural communities; and other pressing issues.

Sometimes, in exploring those issues, it’s hard to feel that the West is the “native home of hope.” But then you meet a lot of westerners face to face who make you feel that they will, after all, create a society to match our magnificent scenery.

Last modified Tue, 5 Jul, 2011 at 7:11