Wallace Stegner, “Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier” (1955)

There is a duality that comes to mind when reading Wallace Stegner, Wolf Willow (1955), and it centers on the push and the pull between the country and the city. To Stegner, the villages of Eastend and Whitemud in southwest Saskatchewan represent both an idyllic countryside as well as rural idiocy. This stands in contrast to how a city is perceived, as it embodies a sense of the cosmopolitan on the one hand, and political and business corruption on the other. When the country and the city are played off of one another, one has a choice between the rural idiocy of the countryside, or the cosmopolitan corruption of a city.

In the case of Wolf Willow, Stegner focuses on remembering Whitemud as a former attempt of Western Civilization colonizing the Great Plains with a cosmopolitan ethos. A generation later, though, Stegner says these settlements devolved into rural idiocy. He is pointed and upfront about it in the first paragraphs of his final chapter, saying how Whitemud,

…is an object lesson in the naïveté of the American hope of a new society. It emphasizes the predictability and the repetitiousness of the frontier curve from hope to habit, from optimism to country rut, from American Dream to Revolt against the Village… That curve is possible anywhere in America, but nearly inevitable on the Plains, because on the Plains the iron inflexibilities of low rainfall, short growing season, monotonous landscape, and wide extreme of temperatures limit the number of people who can settle and the prosperity and contentment of the ones who manage to stick. (Stegner, 1955: 287)

This statement stands in contrast to his remarks in the opening of the book, where he remembers his boyhood as a “childhood of freedom,” this adolescence unadulterated with impressions of Western Civilization, history, and professional training. (Stegner, 1955: 25 & 27)

From beginning to end, Wolf Willow is an evolutionary remembrance of Stegner’s intellectual development, and how he chose to remember this upbringing. As an adult who returned to visit Whitemud and Eastend, he was at once in a place of countryside idiocy, a landscape he described as a “backwater peasantry incapable of the feeblest cultural aspiration.” (Stegner, 1955: 288) This smacks of his adult inability to understand his childhood, a rejection of his past for a possible alternative that never was nor could have been. For Stegner to learn about and ridicule Western Civilization on the Great Plains smacks more of his own familial past: this should easily be considered as a way in which Stegner mocked himself. This is why Wolf Willow should be understood as Stegner’s essay on his own personal identity, a tension between his professional city life and the frontier childhood he remembered in southwest Saskatchewan. Memoirs and narratives are set down so individuals can establish a linear way of looking at the path they have already made. In this way Stegner’s Wolf Willow is, as he describes it in the sub-title, a memoir and even a confession. As right and as wrong as Stegner is within this work, it remains an individual and personal contribution to that long Great Plains historical record.

2 responses to “Wallace Stegner, “Wolf Willow: A History, A Story, and A Memory of the Last Plains Frontier” (1955)

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