By Frank Buckley
Wallace Stegner has disappeared into that void into which great authors tumble, twenty years after their deaths, until they are rediscovered 40 years later. He, along with Willa Cather and W.O. Mitchell, is amongst the greatest of western novelists, and his Wolf Willow memorably described the parched country in which I grew up. His best book was his last, Crossing to Safety, published in 1987, a few years before his death. It’s an academic novel, about young colleagues at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1930s, and how their intertwined fate can been read in their earliest footsteps as untenured professors.
The Stegner character is Larry Morgan, self-consciously western in his upbringing and in awe of his colleague, Harvard-educated Sid Lang. With his tweed jackets and unforced marks of higher culture, Lang is the very type of the Harvard man whom I encountered when I first arrived at university (McGill, in my case). There was a special quality to them. They did not aspire to the false New Yorker culture of a Princeton man, or the Yalie’s smug self-contentment. Instead, while it was deep, they wore their learning lightly. They were like Hilaire Belloc’s golden dons, “Dons English, worthy of the land; Dons rooted; Dons that understand.” One might begin a quote from Camus and expect them to be able to finish it, in French. They might be trained in economics, and yet could discuss Kant intelligently. They were mathematicians who nevertheless loved Wordsworth. At the same time, unlike Belloc’s dons, they participated in the debates of the day, and might shunt between Washington and Cambridge. They agreed, with Oliver Wendell Holmes, that “as life is action and passion, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of his time, at the peril of not having lived.”
I write my praises to a dying generation, whose members are now in their 80s. I say their names with reverence—Harvey Mansfield, Gordon Wood, David Landes, hundreds more. They were succeeded by a different group of scholars, a generation of vipers, who bartered learning and culture for a system of politics which gave them a license for hatred and ignorance. Worse still, they seek to populate their faculties with their clones; and if a truly educated younger scholar insinuates himself into their midst it is only by virtue of the most exceptional scholarship and the ability to conceal one’s education.
F.H. Buckley is a Foundation Professor at George Mason University.