Between a Myth and a Mountain

February 19, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Posted in read this | 3 Comments
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I know it has been ages since I’ve posted. I won’t make any excuses but instead will just dive back in, especially since I can’t not link to Timothy Egan’s blog today in the Times about Wallace Stegner. As some of you may know, I wrote my senior thesis (a grim or glorious rite of passage for every Princeton senior) on Stegner, which was rather grandiosely named “Between a Myth and a Mountain: Wallace Stegner and the Literature of the American West.” I was going to write about medieval manuscript illumination or something ridiculously pseudo-intellectual like that. But then I spent the summer between my junior and senior years in Sun Valley, Idaho, and this Jersey girl was absolutely awestruck by the “sound of mountain water” (the title of one of Stegner’s collections of essays on the West). I came back in the fall and begged to switch my topic, and my love affair with the American West began in earnest.  

Stegner not only wrote fiction but also wrote a lot of non-fiction about writing fiction (making it quite easy to analyze his work for a thesis!). He was a firm believer that to know who you are, you have to understand the where that, consciously or subconsciously, influences you. I think I’ve posted on this before — the idea of a “sense of place.” In any event, living in Idaho that summer, and then again a few years later, made me truly understand what he was talking about. If you are from the West, the mountains — or the sky — are always more vast and more important that you are. 

But even being in New Orleans this past weekend (more on that later) reconnected me with the idea of a sense of place.  I’ve always felt that being “from” New Jersey (yawn!) means that I don’t come from a place with a distinctive culture.  (Sure, we can claim a sort of prideful possessiveness when Bruce sings at the Superbowl, or we can talk about the Shore or tomatoes or the mob with a kind of reverse-snobbery, but the state doesn’t have a real cultural touchstone, even though we may pretend it does to make ourselves feel better…)  Sometimes I wish I were from the South or something so that I could cling to a more defined sense of culture. For example, in New Orleans, the heat and the humidity and the mix of the African-American and French cultures have produced a unique sense of place and self (more than anyone, perhaps, my friends from Louisiana are deeply drawn and connected to their swampy homeland…)

In any event, the link to Egan’s article is here.  Thanks to all who forwarded it to me today.  (I also noted that it was one of the Times‘s most emailed articles of the day — which makes me quite happy.  Perhaps my thesis was not all for naught…) If you have not yet read Stegner, start with Crossing to Safety, then read The Spectator Bird (my favorite), and then tackle Angle of Repose.



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  1. Hm. I wonder. At first I was going to disagree and say that New Jersey *does* have a particular culture, but then I remembered that the Captain and I had rather divergent experiences growing up. He had more of the culture you describe; even his across-the-street neighbors were called the Gambinos. (Not THE Gambinos, but you get the idea.) I, on the other hand, had the sort of perpetually sheltered upbringing which produces, well, people like me. Nonetheless, I still feel a fierce connection to place and sooner would die on Nassau St. than anywhere else. It’s where I held my first job, played dozens of musical concerts, and had my confirmation. It will be, God willing, where I will be married. So I suppose that for me it’s more about neighborhood rather than statehood. I’m pretty short; that’s probably why. (And that was a really long comment.)

  2. As you grow older, I think you start to understand the wisdom of Marcel Proust (found on a Mary Englebright card!):

    The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes
    but in having new eyes.

  3. My take is that so-called Western or even Southern “culture” is just as much a construct as New Jersey culture — if not more so. At least in New Jersey we have the courage to eschew the overt romanticism.

    I’d take Philip Roth every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

    That said, New Orleans freaking rules.

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