Wallace Stegner’s quiet novel Crossing to Safety stands as a refreshing retreat in my reader’s history. I picked it up just before Christmas. I had read it before about seven years ago — a library copy recommended to me by a trustworthy colleague who expressed such ardent longing and love for it that there was no question of me not checking it out. She was as good as her word: I found in Stegner’s prose a quiet forest glade where one might linger and contemplate life for a while before plunging back into the tempest of contemporary professional existence. So when I saw it for the first time on a bookshelf in a store I treated myself, reasoning that it might be just the thing to read while on holiday, a cool balm for the distraction-ravaged.
Crossing to Safety takes its title from a Robert Frost poem “I Could Give All to Time”:
I could give all to Time – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There
And what I would not part with I have kept.
Stegner extols the virtues of not parting with what one would smuggle to the other side. Love, the company and solace of true friends, the quiet loyalty that people often show to each other, and the unremarked fortitude of the well-lived life are each dwelt upon in Stegner’s tale. His characters live by ideals which test and sustain them and which, once the dross of other distractions is whittled away, are the testimony of their lives. However, their lives are not without tragedy or loss.
The novel is told in the voice of Larry Morgan, a creative writing professor and novelist. The reader is given a series of flash-backs that occur over the course of a single day late in Morgan’s life. The memories cover the decades of a four-way friendship between two couples: Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The latter couple are wealthy, have a large family and a strong sense of their place in the world, linked as they are to the Transcendentalist tradition of the American East Coast. By contrast, the Morgans are poor, from undistinguished, almost anonymous backgrounds with no intellectual or spiritual history behind them. However, it is the shared ideals of writing, literature and faith with those who count, that brings this unlikely alliance together and carries them through the years of reckoning and disappointment.
Initially set during the Depression and post-Depression years in the chilly town of Wisconsin, Madison, we see Larry Morgan struggle to find work in the liberal arts academy while he toils on his first novel in the tiny one-bedroom basement apartment. He does all he can to secure another year of teaching, as Sally is expecting a baby. Fortuitously, they meet Sid and Charity Lang, who immediately take to them and leaven their days with the occasional dinner party, recorded music, and crucial contacts. The apparently idyllic marriage of Sid and Charity, however, is fissured by Charity’s hard-nosed realism about the necessity of Sid’s getting tenure if they are to secure for themselves the niche she wants in the academic community. Sid, by contrast, having made his fortune to a degree that satisfies him, now wants to retire from the hustle of academic careerism to write poetry. Charity is impatient with Sid’s contemplative temperament: “Poetry ought to be a by-product of living, and you can’t have a by-product unless you’ve had a product first. It’s immoral not to get in the work and get your hands dirty” (85). And so the game is set for the two, mirroring fates of the two couples to play out: the poorer Morgan, having no particular expectations for tenure eventually gets it and becomes a successful novelist, while Lang, born to an East-Coast ease with College towns and their politics, spends his life grinding out uninspired academic articles and allowing his poetic talents to wither while he chases tenure to please his wife. On the other hand, Charity is portrayed as essential to Sid’s solidity as a person, the backbone and driving force behind their shared life. And for their part, as the years pass, the Morgan luck is fractured by illness and disability.
Stegner set himself a difficult task when he set out to write this novel. In the voice of his narrator, he offers the reader a reflection on the problem of writing about undramatic characters: “How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?” (231). His credo is anti-heroic: none of the characters overturn their fortunes with a flourish, or even manage to transform the basic blueprint of their character, and this goes against the self-renovating rhetoric of much American discourse. Larry Morgan reflects,
[Sid and Charity] baffle their children because in spite of all they have and are, in spite of being to most eyes an ideal couple, they are remote, unreliable, even harsh. And they have missed something, and show it.
Why? Because they are who they are. Why are they so helplessly who they are? … In nearly forty years, neither has been able to change the other by so much as a punctuation mark (231).
Of course, the question Morgan poses to himself is the question for all novelists and readers: why are we who we are? Stegner imparts to his quiet lives a sense of the mystery of character, and an ethic of love, family, friendship and marriage. The pain and suffering undergone by each couple, in different ways, sands them down, and eventually allows the bones of their psyches to show through. The result is incredible, a steady hymn to life lived not to a formula, but at times as a “desperate improvisation” with “every detail of that long improvisation [having] tightened the bonds that hold us together” (325).
Reading Stegner’s novel again highlighted some of the changes that have occurred in lives like these lived in the early twenty-first, rather than mid-twentieth century. For a start, the pressures on academic institutions to justify their activities via commercial imperative have much increased. The College, liberal arts life Stegner portrays, with resources for literary and critical work and time for renewal and reflection, even in the depths of the Depression, looks lavish in comparison with the straightened circumstances of the liberal arts academy today. If anything, the sense of historical particularity Stegner imparts to these quiet lives only serves to make them glow brighter across the intervening decades. Of another of his novels, Stegner wrote, “[it] is a novel about Time … about people who live through time.” Each page shines with luminous detail and gratitude for the time we are given.