Wallace Stegner: Remembering Laughter

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Early hallmarks of Stegner’s greatest works.

On the front porch of their Iowa farm house, Margaret Stuart and her sister Elspeth watch the arrival of the funeral guests of Margaret’s husband Alec. Having aged rapidly and before their time, they seem to be twins; although in fact there is a seven year age difference between them. Living with them, grieving alone in his room is Malcolm, their son.

This is the introduction to Wallace Stegner’s first short novella, written in 1936 as his submission to a prize contest held by Little, Brown & Co. (Not surprisingly, Stegner won.) We next see the sisters 18 years earlier, at Elspeth’s arrival in Iowa. Margaret and Alec are a handsome and, it seems, happy couple; although there are early warning signs – Margaret complains about her husband’s taste for alcohol, he about her moralizing. Soon after the arrival of Margaret’s younger sister, pretty and ostensibly much more naïve and innocent than Margaret, the relationship between the three begins to change; subtly but inevitably, until Margaret eventually stumbles into the discovery of her husband’s affair with Elspeth. That discovery, almost more than the affair itself it appears, destroys the bonds between the sisters, between husband and wife, and between Elspeth and Alec. Yet, they go on living together, and together they raise Malcolm, the child born out of Elspeth’s and Alec’s relationship; held out as their nephew to minimize public shame. And while they keep themselves occupied with the farm business and with entertaining their neighbors, and even garner considerable outward success, inside they slowly dry up: Unlike in our end-of-the-20th/beginning of the 21st century culture, where “talk it over” and “bring it out” are the buzzwords of a society believing (perhaps rightly so) that for better or worse, problems not openly addressed will forever remain unsolved, an all-out display of the emotional turmoil besetting Stegner’s heroes simply is not an option – in “Remembering Laughter” as little as in his later, Pulitzer prize winning “Angle of Repose.”

Stegner’s wife Mary revealed in a short afterword to Penguin’s 1996 republication of “Remembering Laughter” that the story was based on two old aunts of hers, one a widow and one a spinster, who together had raised a son who could have been the child of either of them; Mrs. Stegner wasn’t sure whose. Only 150 pages long, this first novella already has all the hallmarks of Stegner’s later works – compelling characters and a keenly accurate portrayal of their social context, set in the vast, magnificent and often merciless environment of the Western prairies which Stegner loved so much. This novella is an excellent introduction to Wallace Stegner’s work (Stegner also has to be credited with contributing to the redefinition of this particular art form in 20th century American literature) and a great morality tale condensed to its essentials; not easy to swallow but highly recommended.

 

Favorite Quote:

“The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.”

 

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