Remembering Wallace Stegner’s Summers in Vermont

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(Host) Pulitzer Prize-winning author Wallace Stegner is most associated with the American West. But near the beginning of his final novel, he writes of standing on a hill quote ‘below me the unchanged village, the lake like a pool of mercury, the varying greens of hayfields and meadows and sugarbush and black spruce woods."

Stegner is describing Greensboro, where he spent a half century of summers. His book Crossing To Safety takes its title from a Robert Frost poem.

It’s a moving meditation on friendship, marriage and mortality set in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. VPR’s Sarah Ashworth visited Greensboro, and talked with those who remember him.

(Ashworth) Near the top of a winding dirt road near Caspian Lake, there’s a slight fork in the road. To the right, nailed into a tree, hangs a lopsided piece of wood with the name Stegner scrawled on it. The turnoff leads to the log home of Page Stegner, the son of writer Wallace Stegner. He built his home out of red pines thhe and his father planted forty years earlier.

(Stegner) You know you grew it, or we grew it, and my father helped me with it a lot, when we were putting it up and building it. So yeah, a lot of memories here.

(Ashworth) Page Stegner first came to Vermont with his parents when he was six months old, and more than 70 years later, he still returns each summer. It’s an impulse he and his father shared.

(Stegner) I don’t know that we talked about it a lot, I know that my father, particularly, he found a lot of the values that he grew up with in Saskatchewan, and the west, embedded in the rural Vermont self-sufficient, somewhat taciturn, non-complaining, you know, the Vermonter, and that appealed to him a great deal, but also just the terrain, so lovely, so beautiful.

(Ashworth) Page Stegner says that landscape inspired his father, who would diligently begin writing each morning at eight. After Stegner’s death in a 1993 car accident in New Mexico, his remains were returned to Vermont.

(Stegner) His ashes are scattered here, on Baker Hill, which is where he wanted them, and that completely flummoxes most of the westerners, (laugh) why would he do that, well I don’t really know, but I think part of it is in what I said, in his affection for the character of the people.

(Ashworth) People Stegner wrote about on more than one occasion. His first fictional take on Greensboro was 1947’s Second Growth. Many townspeople took offense to his characterization of them as aloof, and the Stegners stayed away for a few summers. But in Stegner’s other Greensboro-based book, Crossing to Safety, he focused on just one family in town.

(Grey) My name is Clive Gray, we’re sitting on a porch overlooking Caspian Lake, my family first came here in 1910, my grandfather built a house in 1912/1913, and it’s been family’s summer home ever since

(Ashworth) Gray’s parents Phil and Peg are the reason the Stegners came to Vermont in the first place. Phil Gray and Wallace Stegner taught English together at the University of Wisconsin. The Grays summered in Vermont and in the late 1930’s, Wallace Stegner and his wife Mary came to visit.

(Grey) I can remember them coming in that door, while my family was having dinner before the war, you could see the affection the two couples felt for each other, they had just arrived from Wisconsin, and they were such really good friends, it was a good feeling.

(Ashworth) More than fifty years later, Stegner chronicled the two couples’ long friendship in Crossing to Safety.

(Grey) This is the one he inscribed personally to me, it says, for Clive Gray, on the 50th anniversary on the conjunction of our families, affectionately as always, Wallace Stegner, Greensboro, August 27, 1987.

(Ashworth) Gray remembers Stegner as a kind, elegant man with a John Wayne face. And he says when Crossing to Safety was published, townspeople were delighted to have the book set in their town.

(Smith) This is our dining room, and I just remember Wallace Stegner being in the small dining room by the garden.

(Ashworth) Wilhemina Smith, runs Greensboro’s Highland Lodge with her husband. The inn’s gift shop sells copies of Crossing to Safety, and Smith says they often have guests who stay at the inn because of Stegner. But Smith’s closest contact with the writer was when she, and other members of the Greensboro Historical Society, asked him to pen the forward to the town’s history.

(Smith) It’s about his sense of place, which is the theme of many of his books, because he was always a wanderer as a child, and therefore he never was in one place, so coming to Greensboro was his home, where he could always come back to, and that’s what that forward is about, and he mentions people in town who have that sense of place because they’ve always lived here.

(Ashworth) Wallace Stegner’s last summer in Vermont was in 1992, meaning he spent the better part of more than fifty summers in the Green Mountains. And today his son, Page Stegner, says he plans to do the same.

(Stegner) My parents came here, I came here, my daughter is now here, it just gets in your blood I guess. I think also that’s, I don’t know, he never said this, but why would you want your ashes scattered, because you’d sort of want to be where family continues and is likely to continue to be around, so I don’t know, but yeah, sure, carrying on the old tradition.

(Ashworth) And also continuing the tradition of writing. Page Stegner, spent the better part of this past summer scratching away at his own novel, set in Greensboro.

For VPR News, I’m Sarah Ashworth.


Photo: AP Photo/Jerry Mosey


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