Tag Archives: Wallace Stegner


Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Main entrance to Harvard with classroom building in background (Credit: Detroit Photographic Company)
Entrance to Stanford
Entrance to Stanford

Because the United States is so large, a shift from one region to another can be quite disorienting. Adjusting to Seattle is not easy after living in Miami. Pennsylvania is not Idaho. I realized this when, after growing up in California and completing my undergraduate years at Stanford, I moved to New England to begin a six-year stay at Harvard leading toward a Ph.D. in History. This story dates from 1965, and graduate school is an esoteric topic for many. But I suspect that the experience I want to describe will be very familiar to anyone making the transition from California to New England today.

In one of his books, Wallace Stegner talks about the way the air changes your perception of things as you move from the western United States to the east. In most parts of the west — assuming there is no rain or fog or smog — the air is clear. It has a transparency that makes you think distant objects are very close. As you move toward the Atlantic coast, however, the increasing humidity gives you the subconscious feeling that — as Stegner puts it — a layer of gauze has come between you and everything you see. That feeling may have been the first cause for the strangeness I felt in the east. The sight lines also took some getting used to. Along most of the Atlantic seaboard, the vistas are small and close by western standards. Unless you happen to be at the top of a mountain or at the seashore, there aren’t many of the unobstructed, hundred-mile views so common in the west. The east does offer opportunities for intimacy with the landscape — canoeing on a small, meandering river, for example — and an up-close, very interesting, tradition-dominated mixture of the human and the natural, as, for example, when you see a stone house at the bottom of a hollow. The east is also where the conservation movement began: Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, continues to be its most important point of reference. But there aren’t many visual experiences to satisfy an appetite for grandeur, largeness, or absence of limits. Things feel more compact. In the east, the horizon seemed very close and the sky felt right on top of me. I felt confined when I arrived in New England.

Harvard Yard, the center of the campus
Harvard Yard, the center of the campus

I also felt ill at ease culturally. Harvard today is slightly more relaxed than it was when I went there. But in 1965 it was still a rather formal place: admirably polite, but marked by Calvinistic reserve and extreme attention to the dignified maintenance, or in many cases the creation, of pedigree and status. One of my history professors at Stanford, a refugee from Harvard, cautioned me to avoid the “braying solemnity” of the place and asserted that, at Harvard “people think there is a necessary correlation between competence in one’s subject and gravity of demeanor.” There was also a vaguely astringent feel to the institution, as if Harvardians were intent on sucking the life out of any attempt to relax or have fun.

Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime
Widener, the main library at Harvard, in Springtime

In the fall of 1965, when I arrived in Harvard’s home city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, I was intoxicated as I enjoyed the bright students, famous professors, historic buildings, extensive facilities and opportunity to get to know the east coast. But, as the months passed, and I experienced the eastern academic establishment up close, I saw drawbacks. The work was long and hard. There was little time for social life. And there was not much in the way of praise or encouragement. It occurred to me that, had I stayed in California, graduate school at Stanford or UC Berkeley or some other school in the state might have been just as demanding. But I suspected that Harvard placed a greater value on heaviness.

While I welcomed the intellectual rigor of the university, I tried through petty subterfuge to counterbalance all the sternness. I joked about surfing on the nearby Charles River, in response to which my professors adopted tolerant, prune-faced smiles. And my teachers and fellow students must have wondered why, when nearly all the other men in graduate school wore the tweed sport coat and tie which was the uniform of the day, I insisted on wearing Pendleton shirts even during the months when they were too drafty to protect against the New England winter. Most of my experiences of Harvard were associated with winter. The incredibly beautiful autumn seemed to last only a few weeks. Then, for a metallic six months, there were no leaves on the trees and Harvard Yard was gray, cloudy, and cold. The fresh, white snow quickly became dirty as steel gray sheets of ice imprisoned the vegetation.

Harvard Museum of Natural History
Harvard Museum of Natural History

Coming from Stanford, I found that my mind adhered obstinately to sun, not snow; to palm and redwood, not maple and laurel; to colonnades, Romanesque sandstone, and tile roofs; not brick walks, Georgian terraces, and gables; to campus dormitory names like Serra, Escondido, and Madera, not Eliot, Winthrop, and Quincy. To this extent, my ability to be a part of Harvard was diminished before I ever saw the place.

I did, however, greatly enjoy many features of the surrounding city. Like the Telegraph Avenue neighborhood that I knew so well next to the UC Berkeley campus, only more so, Cambridge instructively exposed one to a metropolis, yet retained an amazing intellectual integrity of its own. It was not only the perfect base of operations for getting to know Boston. It was also, for certain values uniquely derived from its academic situation, a crossroads with few equals in the world. First there were the tourist attractions: Harvard and M.I.T.; Longfellow’s House; the Burial Ground and the Common; fashionable shops; expensive restaurants; and the postcard views of the Charles River. Merging with these was the world of pop culture: Bogie flicks at the Brattle Theatre; astrology bookshops; rock concerts on the Common; the mystical rite of buying a Roast Beef Special at Elsie’s coffee shop. Finally there was underground Cambridge — or, rather, the unveiled evidence of all those movements which were less tolerated elsewhere in society: shops displaying water pipes and strobe lights; salesmen hawking the Black Panther News; orange-robed men chanting Hare Krishna; girls in dark capes arguing with passersby about the virtues of the Black Mass; and, at Christmastime, the spectacle of all these phenomena competing with that very respectable institution, the Salvation Army Band. Seeing all these things cheek by jowl, I realized that my years in Cambridge were a time of incredible intellectual freedom. “I’m selling shirts at the Harvard Coop,” a friend said, “because it’s one place that will hire bearded poets.” I realized that the beards were hired partly because they were quaint, and, like Cambridge in general, deemed acceptable to the rest of society as long as they did not walk out of the intellectual playpen. But the beards were also tolerated because the rest of society knew it needed them. Out of Cambridge, in any given year, came an important part of the literature, art, science, and political opinion that formed the mood of the rest of America. Nearly every famous figure came to the place sooner or later. Norman Mailer, Erik Erikson, and John Fairbank were among the faces I remember noticing within one short span of time. The result was chance contact of the most educational sort. “You would not believe it,” an Israeli friend told me, “this afternon I went into the Idler Coffee House and did not come out until four hours later. I met Vladimir Dedjejer, Tito’s aide in the Yugoslav Resistance. He still carries a bullet in his head. After he had been telling me war stories for ten minutes, the whole place stopped to listen to us.”

Memorial Hall, Harvard
Memorial Hall, Harvard

To gain perspective about the east coast, I kept in touch with friends at Stanford. I was surprised how much my letters to them talked not only about academic matters, such as descriptions of Harvard professors and the interesting books I was reading, but also about the possible connections between learning and landscape. I recall one instance in particular, when I wrote a letter to my good friend Dan Endsley, the editor of the Stanford alumni magazine, and for whom, during my junior year, I had written some articles. I asked him if he would be interested in having me write an article on Frederick Law Olmsted’s nineteenth-century plan for the Stanford campus, the poetic feelings prompted by the hills behind the University, and what I called, with some pomposity, “the ecology of learning.” Dan wrote back a long letter saying he liked the idea even though my terminology was infelicitous. But he couldn’t risk commissioning the piece. “Some years ago,” he explained, “I began an article called ‘What is Happening to the Stanford Lands?’ It almost cost me my job.” Dan’s comments helped me to remember that my undergraduate institution was not a perfect place, either.

Beyond Cambridge, of course, there was greater Boston. From Cambridge, the subway ride to downtown Boston (on the MTA, made famous by the Kingston Trio song) took only eight minutes. As a result, Boston, too, was an important part of my experience. Perhaps I can best convey its effects on a Californian by describing what became one of my favorite pastimes, wandering in the city.

I had come to Boston to study for a Ph.D. in History. Meandering is a congenital love of historians. Some walk through graveyards; others traverse old battlefields. Some hike along historic trails. Some go aboard old ships or visit castles and cathedrals, and go off into side rooms by themselves to search out the spirits in the spaces. In Boston, historians walk the city’s streets. I really could not count the number of times I walked around Boston. I saw the tourist sites such as Paul Revere’s House and Bunker Hill Monument. I spent entire days in the rain walking through warehouse districts. I walked along the Charles River, and past the brownstone houses on Commonwealth Avenue. I walked next to the Harbor. I walked over freeways ramps where there were not even any sidewalks. I went in and out of bars and corner stores around Boston Garden before Celtics basketball games. I observed pigeons on the windows of old buildings. Around Haymarket Square, I observed the old wagons that still delivered meat and vegetables, and I took in the fetid smells. I trudged through snow and stood and watched twilights. No matter where I walked, I usually went alone. I had my share of friends. But I had concluded long ago that most people did not enjoy wandering around a city as much as I did. Even when I knew the friends would enjoy the experience for an hour or two, I did not bring them along. Being alone with my fantasies and unsorted feelings gave more pleasure than acting as a tour guide.

Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)
Boston Common (Credit: Phillip Capper)

I started out one particular wandering by taking the MTA downtown and walking up to Beacon Hill. I planned to hunt for silversmith shops. My sister and I – in touch by letter – had decided to buy my parents a set of sterling silver portrait frames for their wedding anniversary. I thought Beacon Hill, historically known for silversmith shops, would be a good place to look. I found two old shops, but only after a surprisingly difficult search. At both, the elderly owners told me that handmade silver was much harder to come by than in the past. The costs of labor made prices too high to justify regular production of new items. Most available pieces were antiques, out of my price range.

I left Beacon Hill and walked across the Common and the Public Garden, which were unspeakably beautiful in their fall colors. Wet piles of orange and brown leaves cushioned my feet on the brick sidewalks. The old statues, gray, and white, and green, sent my mind into the past. As I walked next to the historic graveyard in the Public Garden, a cold wind came up. I pulled my heavy tweed topcoat more tightly around me and tucked my brown plaid scarf more securely under my chin. I walked from the Garden across the street into the Tremont business district, and down a few blocks to Shreve’s jewelers, one of Boston’s oldest and most famous firms. Here, after explaining my problem to a sales clerk, I was finally able to find what I needed – a fine set of sterling silver frames, used but not antique, better made than modern items, at a price I could afford. I was momentarily jarred out of my venerable Bostonian mood when the clerk started telling me how much she admired Ronald Reagan. But I recovered, put my coat and scarf back on, and politely went on my way, package under my arm. I took some time to window shop along the streets around Shreve’s.

Then I came upon a bookshop in the basement of one of the old brownstones. I went in and browsed. Eventually my eye came upon a history book I had been looking for. I paid for the book and left the shop, delighted that my day had become so productive. Down the street I found a coffee shop on the ground floor of an old office building from the 1920s. I stayed there for about an hour, reading parts of the books I had just purchased. Then, when I had read enough, I put the book under my arm with the silver frames, made my way back to the MTA station, and returned to Cambridge pleased that, in this instance and a few others, I was a Californian quite delighted to be spending some time in New England.

Fall in New England
Fall in New England


Route 66 in San Bernardino County, California, with Roy’s Cafe and Motel, looking east

It occurred to me a few years ago that even though I have visited hundreds of places all over California and lived in quite a few, I have not set foot in most of the parts of the state where I have been.

This is because of an invention called the automobile. Before the 1920s, I would guess, most people in California would not have said they had traveled widely in the state. Land travel in those days was likely to be on horseback or by horse drawn wagon or buggy. Trains were reserved for the relatively few who could afford them. Cities had streetcars and limited bus services.

Then after the First World War came a transportation revolution. Detroit transferred a large part of its expanded manufacturing capacity to auto production. The economic upsurge of the 1920s enabled many more people to afford cars. Oil companies lobbied for better highways. The tourist industry promoted auto travel with free maps and advertising. Trucking assumed a larger share of freight haulage. And the automobile caused major social changes, affecting everything from teenage dating patterns to grocery store visits to proliferation of trailer camps.

I suspect that, from the 1920s on, many Californians, like me at a later date, began to notice that they had seen a lot of their state, but only from a car window, without ceasing to be in


Illustration from a 1930s auto manual

My earliest memory of automobiles goes back to age four, in 1948. My parents did not own a car, but one sunny day a friend of the family came to our house in Alameda driving a spiffy two-seater convertible (I didn’t know any of those words at the time) and invited my father and me to go for a ride in the “rumble seat,” the padded, nicely upholstered area for two passengers that appeared magically in the rear of the car when you opened the trunk that would otherwise be the place for luggage. My father and I climbed in, the car picked up speed, and we careened around the neighborhood. I felt unprotected and would not have wanted to be in the rumble seat without one of my parents. But the speed and the breeze and the quickly passing views were exhilarating.

My next strong memory of being in a car dates to age 8 when, with my mother and father and sister, I was on a winding road in the Santa Cruz Mountains on the way to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, where we planned to go camping. That was when I had my first attack of motion sickness, something I have experienced from time to time ever since.

My parents first became car owners when I was 11 years old and my sister was 7 and we were living in Albany on the east side of San Francisco Bay. Although my father’s Navy salary was not much, he had an evening job working at a local supermarket and used some of the money to buy us a dark blue, used 1950 Ford convertible. That allowed us to go see movies at the local drive-in, to make trips to the local 19 cents hamburger stand, to cross the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge for tours of the seacoast, and to visit newly constructed tracts of homes in places like Hayward and San Jose where we thought about buying a house (we never did). During the day, my sister and I absorbed the sights from our car windows. On nights when my father continued toward our destination, my sister and I slept under blankets in the back seat, wishing that the canvas top of the convertible did a better job of keeping the interior of the car warm.

In the mid-1950s, I began to learn about car design. One of my mother’s brothers was a decorator at the Capwell’s department store in Oakland. He bought one of the new-model Studebakers. It was sleek and had a daring color scheme: a cream-colored body and a wine-colored top. Even more dazzling were the cars I encountered through another of my mother’s brothers, who was a Chevrolet salesman in Albany. In 1955 he gave us a tour around the showroom of the dealership where he worked. That was the year that all the Detroit carmakers decided to roll the dice and present the American public with radical new designs. Cars now looked like rockets or jet planes, dripped with chrome, and came in color combinations like pink and charcoal gray, red and white, and blue and lime. Simply to touch the cars was exciting.

1955 Chevrolet

By then I was accumulating many memories of automobile trips both short and long. But my first sense of ironic detachment regarding cars, an intuition that the automobile was a cultural phenomenon that could be analyzed and contemplated, came at age 16 when I made my first visit to Anaheim to see the new and already wildly popular amusement park at Disneyland.

The most attended attraction – nothing else came close – was the “California Freeway” ride. My friend Steve and I stood in line for over an hour for the thrill of climbing into miniature sports cars and meandering through a controlled maze of clover leafs and underpasses and overpasses, passing small billboards, miniature gas stations and replicas of motels and groves of plastic trees, and then returning with a sense of puzzlement and un-fulfillment to our starting point. We had been driven by family friends of Steve on a real, full-sized freeway to get to Disneyland from Los Angeles, and we would be returning in the same manner. Why had we cared so much about experiencing an artificial version of the same thing?

The freeway ride at Disneyland in its current version

We could not say. The answer, of course, had to do with sociology, about which I knew nothing at the time. Postwar America was in love with the automobile even more in the 1950s than it had been in the 1920s. And freeways had become emblems of California life almost as powerful as the Golden Gate Bridge or the HOLLYWOOD sign in the hills above Burbank.

Energizing all of America’s fascination with highways is a more long-term awareness of being in motion and being on a journey. America itself is a product of journeys, whether by the aboriginal peoples who came here via the Bering land bridge, or by the Europeans and Africans who came here via the Atlantic Ocean, or by the immigrants who came to America via the Pacific. There was a great filling in of the North American land mass and, in the case of California, from the time of the Gold Rush on, a great push to the Pacific Coast, sometimes in search of economic opportunity, and sometimes to explore spiritual and emotional frontiers.

In American literature, the themes of westward movement and migration from place to place are easy to notice. For example, in Huckleberry Finn (1885), the main characters are on a metaphorical road, the Mississippi River, and Mark Twain ends the novel by having Huck “light out for the territory,” that is, the West. In The Grapes of Wrath (1939), John Steinbeck describes the exhausting journey of the Okies to California in the 1930s. In The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Wallace Stegner searches for the meaning of his father’s lifelong effort to find a place where there would be riches and relief from recurring cares. The tropes of constant motion and quest for a better place are everywhere in our literature, as also in our music, painting, and movies.

When it comes to writings about California, there is probably no author who has explored the subjects of motion and journey more powerfully than Jack Kerouac (b. 1922-d.1969).

Jack Kerouac

An important fact about Kerouac is that he was only partly a California writer. He was born and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, where his French-Canadian family worked in the mills. After a troubled childhood he attended Columbia University, dropped out, and in the late 1940s made his way gradually westward, eventually becoming part of the Beat culture that centered on San Francisco and Big Sur. Thereafter he was in and out of California, living at various times in Oregon, Florida, and Montana, among other places.

Map of Jack Kerouac’s travels for On the Road

Whether he is discussing California or other places, Kerouac’s writings, notably On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962), always involve a journey in the spiritual sense, as he struggles to synthesize Catholicism, Buddhism, environmentalism, and even jazz into a usable whole. And his physical motion – expressed with amazing power in the drive of his stream of consciousness prose style — takes him all around the United States as well as to Europe and Mexico. Still, he ends his life frustrated by the failure to find ultimate meaning in any of these places.

Kerouac’s biography helps us to remember an important fact about road culture in California specifically. Road literature in America is mostly about places outside of California. California writers have said a great deal about highway culture within the state, but California is the place where you end up. You can move toward the Pacific shore in your quest. But you run out of land when you get to California. Then all you can do is leave or go from one place to another within the state, and your quest for meaning must turn at least partly inward, as was the case with Kerouac.

I sometimes think of the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of this kind of road journey: an endless moving back and forth and around and up and down within California, on the way to a destination that can’t be defined.

Los Angeles freeway

On the other hand, California on its own is such a beautiful, inspiring place that one can, from time to time, go on the road within the state and have an experience that is just as fulfilling as any journey from elsewhere.

For me, one such experience occurred when I was 14 years old and my sister was 11, and we made our first trip, in early June, to Yosemite.

Our father drove us. Our mother, who did not like camping, stayed at home in Berkeley. But the other three of us made the journey enthusiastically.

It took several hours of driving eastward from Berkeley, across the flat, central farming area of California, before my sister and I felt reassured that we were in fact going to reach a place called Yosemite.

As we came to the area around the city of Merced, the highway began to rise and the topography started to change. Pine trees and big boulders began to appear, then ravines and streamlets, then occasional patches of melting snow. The two lane highway meandered ever higher and eventually we arrived at a gate where a ranger from the U.S. National Park Service came out of a small, brown, shingle-walled booth and collected our entrance fee and gave us a map and some friendly advice about bears and matches and snakes.

Afterwards, the road continued to climb upwards, and there were rock walls along the edge to guard us from dropping five hundred feet straight down. My father explained that the walls had been built in the 1930s, by prisoners and out of work young people who were members of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we rounded one of the turns in the road, I was especially glad the walls had been built. A car coming from the other direction was trying to pass on the blind curve and was heading straight at us in our lane. My father, with the incredible athletic quickness that I had seen him demonstrate many times, swerved instantly to his right and found just enough space near the wall to prevent a head-on collision.

A short while later, we found ourselves driving downward into a hot, dry area where there were no more rock walls and the road followed the bank of a river. There was almost no vegetation. The sun reflected off the high, stone cliffs on both sides of us, raising the temperature to almost one hundred degrees Fahrenheit. Then the road started to climb again, the temperature lowered, and we were back into a forested area.

By now, however, the trees were bigger and the river flowed in cascades. I recognized redwoods that reminded me of the ones I had encountered many years before on our family’s first camping trip to Big Basin. But the boulders were unlike anything I had ever seen – huge chunks of gray, textured granite that looked like they had been tossed into the middle of the fast moving river by some mysterious, unseen giant. Around, through, and over the rocks, the water ran and churned, in amazing, translucent color.

Then suddenly I noticed that my father and my sister were laughing happily. I asked them why. My father explained that I had been exclaiming “Ooh” and “Wow” for several miles, apparently without realizing it. I was usually much more reserved, my father said – more like my mother and her father.

Another wonder followed. The road soon opened before us on either side and we drove alongside the by now deep green water of the river into a huge, flat valley — a vast amphitheater, walled on all sides by gray granite cliffs over two thousand feet high, with groupings of trees here and there on the valley floor, and vast swaths of Alpine meadows and marshland. This was the center of Yosemite National Park, and from here it was only a short drive to the wooded camping areas where we could begin searching for a site.

My father told us that “camp 7” and “camp 14” were the two most desirable areas along the river. There was a conspicuous firmness in his manner as he relayed this information. He was really saying that the areas had been the most desirable twenty years before, when he had gone to Yosemite with his father and mother and two sisters, and he wanted the camps to be the same way now. But, as we drove the dirt roads between the trees, I could see that his information was up to date. We found a beautiful site right next to the river and parked our car in the fresh, white sand that had been deposited recently by the spring floods. And, because my father had remembered to come in June and beat the rush, our site was almost twenty-five yards away from the ones occupied by other campers.

As we got out of our car, I was struck by how odd it looked: an industrial intrusion in our forest surroundings. But there was no time to dwell on the contrast because we were soon busily unpacking our cargo and setting up camp: a brown canvas tent, three cots, an ice chest, and a kerosene stove placed on top of the wooden picnic table the Park Service had constructed at the site along with a stone grille.

Our stay in Yosemite over the next two weeks was not perfect. We could see that the Park was already beginning to be under stress from too many visitors. We had to wash our dishes in cold water. The public bathrooms were not always clean. I got a bad sunburn. And so forth.

But the meadows in the valley and the high cliffs and the cool water and clean air and the stars at night were more than worth traveling to see. And the most rewarding thing of all, for me, was that first sight of the park as we entered it, on the road.

Woodcut illustration of Yosemite, 1879