A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Wally's World

This review ran today in the Mercury News:

WALLACE STEGNER AND THE AMERICAN WEST
By Philip L. Fradkin
Knopf, 369 pp., $27.50

Sturdy and fact-packed, Philip L. Fradkin’s “Wallace Stegner and the American West” will satisfy anyone who wants to know what Stegner did and when and where he did it. Those who want to know why and sometimes how may find themselves frustrated.

Fradkin lives near Point Reyes, has been an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times and an editor for Audubon magazine, and is the author of numerous books about the American West, including “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West.” So it’s not surprising that the best parts of his biography are the ones about Stegner as conservationist.

Stegner was acutely aware of the central problem of the American West: “the aridity that breeds sparseness and the denial of that condition, which leads to overdevelopment.” In his book “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” he examined the causes and the consequences of the exploitation of the West. As Fradkin summarizes it, “Myth, which was supported by western politicians, said there was water for everyone and every use. Science … said, Wait a minute. Let’s determine how much water there really is and what it can support. … In the end, Science was defeated by Myth.”

“Stegner could not deal with the second western constant – the first being aridity and the second rapid change,” Fradkin writes. “Change would alienate Stegner from his native place.” Los Altos Hills, where he had built his home during his early years at Stanford, changed from a rural retreat to a prime location for the mansions of Silicon Valley multimillionaires. So Stegner “decided he would seek his final resting place, his angle of repose, in Vermont.” In New England, Stegner believed he had found the respect for the land, the tradition and the sense of community that had vanished from – or never existed in – California.

Fradkin is a great admirer of Stegner, whom he sometimes refers to as "Wally." But while Fradkin does a good job of depicting Stegner the conservationist, he stumbles in his treatment of Stegner the writer and teacher. Of Stegner’s works of fiction, the only one that Fradkin deals with in any great detail is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angle of Repose.” The novel is based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote, a writer of the late 19th and early 20th century who was married to a mining engineer. Foote’s heirs gave Stegner permission to use as much of her private papers and letters as he desired, and he borrowed heavily from Foote’s writing, sometimes with only minor changes. But when the book appeared, the family was shocked by some of his alterations in Mary’s life story, and when critics and scholars examined Stegner’s sources, there were charges of plagiarism – countered by the defense that Stegner had only creatively adapted a source that he had acknowledged, albeit vaguely. Fradkin does an excellent job of exploring the plagiarism controversy, coming down on Stegner’s side, while admitting that Stegner could have been more candid with both Foote’s descendants and his readers.

Fradkin also deals with the cavalier dismissal of “Angle of Repose” by the country’s most powerful book section, the New York Times Book Review. John Leonard, then the editor of the book review, called the novel “another in a long, apparently endless, line of Pulitzer disappointments: Forthright, yes; and morally uplifting; and middlebrow.” Yet Fradkin does little to demonstrate that the novel, or indeed any of Stegner’s novels, deserves more to be taken more seriously than Leonard did.

Comfortable in amassing the details of Stegner’s life and exploring his work as a conservationist, Fradkin seems ill at ease in discussing Stegner’s fiction, which also makes for a rather tedious account of Stegner as teacher. He tells us that Stegner’s students “constitute a virtual hall of fame of American letters (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Scott Turow, to name just a few).” But that’s a “hall of fame” that apparently contains no African-Americans, Latinos or women, and to most readers will sound like a rather thin sampling of contemporary American writers. And while Fradkin quotes one former student after another praising Stegner’s “teaching technique,” no one seems to be able to come up with any particulars about what made him such a good teacher.

Stegner could be, one gathers, a bit of a porcupine, erecting his quills against even the presence of an enemy. Fradkin tells us of his fights with David Brower, the “Archdruid” whose ouster from the Sierra Club Stegner supported, and with his Stanford colleagues Yvor Winters and Albert Guérard. Eleven years after he left Stanford, Stegner’s enmity toward Guérard led him, in 1982, to threaten to take his name off the Stegner Fellowships because of the appointment of Gilbert Sorrentino – whom Stegner called “a coterie writer of minimum distinction” – as a creative writing teacher. Stegner backed down on the threat, but subsequently decided to donate his papers to the University of Utah instead of to Stanford. Stegner’s behavior reminds one of the observation that the reason academic politics are so bitter is that the stakes are so low.

But Fradkin mostly downplays this prickly, even irrational side of the man. Though he says Stegner’s son, Page, told him he didn’t want “another hagiography,” the book seems over-discreet. There is little, for example, about Stegner’s relationship with his son, except for Page’s period of rebellion in adolescence and the time an angry Stegner chased Page with a scythe. And there’s even less about Mary Stegner, his wife, who suffered from various ailments (she may have been a hypochondriac) but who outlived him. As for Stegner’s own family background, we learn that he was a “mamma’s boy,” and that he hated his ne’er-do-well father so much that, 40 years after George Stegner died in a rather lurid murder-suicide, “Stegner vowed he would never buy a tombstone for his father’s grave.” But Fradkin doesn’t use these details to give us insight into the man Stegner became or the books he wrote.

At best, what Fradkin has given us is a partial portrait of the man and the writer, set inside a fuller portrait of Stegner’s relationship to the lands he loved and defended – lands for which he mourned when he saw them transformed by a civilization unprepared to cope with their harsh demands.

Documented Aliens

Left: George Balanchine and Igor Stravinsky


This review ran today in the Houston Chronicle:

ARTISTS IN EXILE: How Refugees From Twentieth-Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts
By Joseph Horowitz
HarperCollins, 458 pp., $27.50

Give us your talented, your proud, your harassed geniuses yearning to breathe free….

That’s not how Emma Lazarus put it, but it’s pretty much the invitation extended to European artists by American orchestras, theatrical and opera impresarios and film studios in the period from the Bolshevik Revolution to World War II. In “Artists in Exile,” Joseph Horowitz documents the profound effect these immigrants – especially Russians and Germans – had on American culture. And how the American experience changed the course of the artists’ creative lives.

For many of the émigrés, America was artistically as well as politically liberating. George Balanchine, for example, discovered his true self here. “He did not,” Horowitz tells us, “share the nostalgia for Mother Russia of many Russian émigrés.” And this enabled him to create something new: a distinctively American form of ballet, emphasizing this country’s worship of athleticism, speed and strength. It took someone trained in Russian ballet to bring it off: “No American could have achieved such an ‘American’ renewal of classical ballet,” Horowitz asserts.

On the other hand, for some émigrés, such as Balanchine’s compatriot and sometime collaborator, Igor Stravinsky, adapting to America proved more difficult. Stravinsky loved American jazz, as many of the European immigrants did, unlike some American composers such as Aaron Copland, who “claimed that two moods – ‘blues’ and ‘the wild, abandoned, almost hysterical and grotesque mood so dear to the youth of all ages’ – encompassed ‘the whole gamut of jazz emotion.’ ” Stravinsky composed a concerto for Woody Herman and his band, and his Symphony in Three Movements is heavily influenced by jazz. But on the whole Stravinsky’s American output is less highly regarded than his earlier work in Europe. Whereas “Balanchine is today remembered exclusively for his American legacy,” Horowitz comments, “Stravinsky is today remembered by Americans mainly for the music he composed before undertaking his long American sojourn in 1939.”

Indeed, Balanchine serves as something of a touchstone throughout the book. For Horowitz he represents the peak of émigré success: achieving not only his own greatest work here, but also showing Americans how to create something both new and distinctly American. Others, like Stravinsky, adapted indigenous American art forms like jazz, but failed to advance upon their earlier European achievements. Some artists, such as Rudolf Serkin and Arturo Toscanini, didn’t even try: They achieved success in America by continuing to do what they had done in Europe, not bothering to adapt and change, but rather sticking to the European classical repertoire that had made them famous. But their emphasis on that repertoire may have retarded America’s acceptance of American composers.

Others took their old style and imposed it on American genres. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had been a prodigy in Vienna, writing a cantata at the age of 9 that made Mahler call him a genius. He later dazzled Richard Strauss, and achieved international fame with his opera “Die tote Stadt.” But when he came to America he turned his attention to movie music, becoming one of the greatest exponents of that art with his lush, operatic scores for Warner Bros. movies like “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk” and “Kings Row.” He simply imposed his European style on the medium, or as Horowitz puts it, “the crowning irony of his singular exile is that for more than a decade America adapted to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, not the other way around.”

Though he’s best known as a writer on music, having been a critic for the New York Times and the author of seven books including “Classical Music in America: A History,” Horowitz discusses film and theater as well, and with similar insight and suavity of prose. The pages of “Artists in Exile” brim with perceptive analysis of the creations and the careers of composers (Schoenberg, Hindemith, Bartók, Weill, Varèse), performers (Heifetz, Vladimir Horowitz), conductors (Klemperer, Mitropoulos, Stokowski, Koussevitzky, Walter, Kleiber), actors (Dietrich, Garbo, Nazimova), directors (Murnau, Lubitsch, Lang, Sjöström, Clair, Renoir, Ophuls, Wilder, Reinhardt, Mamoulian), writers (Brecht, Mann, Nabokov) and theatrical designers (Boris Aronson).

“Artists in Exile” sometimes feels capricious in its choice of figures to focus on: Does Edgard Varèse, for example, deserve the amount of space devoted to him? But this is a highly valuable contribution to our understanding of the shaping of American culture, and of “Americanness” in general. Again and again, Horowitz shows us how the clear-sightedness of these immigrants, their discovery of what was unique about American life, enabled Americans to see themselves.