Wallace Stegner as a White guy, circa 1945

At the end of World War II, Look Magazine commissioned Wally to write a series of articles on racism. He spent a year and a half traveling the nation with Look photographers, visiting minority communities from Boston to Los Angeles, covering Filipinos, Jews, Blacks, American Indians, and a half-dozen other oppressed peoples. In the end, Look grew too timid to publish what he wrote, and he gathered the essays, with dozens of photographs, in a Family of Man-style picture book published in 1945 called One Nation.

In the “Stegner & Western Lands” class I’m co-teaching at the University of Utah, this week we read excerpts from One Nation, along with historian Patty Limerick’s tribute to Stegner as a man ahead of his time, “Precedents to Wisdom.”

It’s just about impossible to imagine America in 1945, for me as well as for most of the twenty-something college students in my class. Stegner wrote this book 10 years before Brown vs. Board of Education, 20 years before the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. The one Latina student, however, told us that this was the first time all semester that she felt fully engaged with the reading.

She wondered why it took us so long to get to these readings. We responded sheepishly with explanations about juggling guest speakers and their appearances in the syllabus. Truth be told, it never occurred to me or to my co-professor that we needed to address issues of gender and race up front. We knew we would get to them, but we saw them as one piece of a mosaic, not a pivotal prologue.

The students were ready to believe in Stegner as a man ahead of his time until they came to the phrases where he wasn’t. On the one hand, his prescience was astonishing: “without our minority groups and the diverse strains of our culture, American society is a pale imitation of Europe. With them, it is something newer and stronger.” On the other, he speaks of “primitive and backward” reservation life in Indian Country.

And yet he also recognizes “the Indian’s right to personal dignity as an Indian.”

Elizabeth Cook-Lynn will have none of it. In her summary judgment on Stegner, “Why I Can’t Read Wallace Stegner,” the Dakotah scholar dismisses Stegner’s search for roots, his analysis of his childhood home in the essays in Wolf Willow. She dismisses any White writer looking to become native of his or her home landscape. She defends indigenousness as the exclusive territory of Indian people.

Our class didn’t buy her fierceness, but we didn’t really buy Jackson Benson’s defensive response, “Why I Can’t Read Elizabeth Cook-Lynn,” either. It’s apples and oranges, one student said. Cook-Lynn has a perfect right to her ferocity as an American Indian woman, for all kinds of reasons. But Stegner is not a member of the Wannabe Indian tribe. In One Nation, he acknowledges the failures of forced assimilation. In his own writing, he seeks to learn enough about the land and history of his own lands to become “native.” It is a good thing, I believe, for all of us to ponder this identification with our home.

It’s a tricky word, “native,” almost as tricky as “race” and “class.” Stegner understood just how tricky, in these words from One Nation written more than sixty years ago, but applicable to every cultural clash in 21st Century America, from the conflict between the rural and urban West to the conflict between Sarah Palin and Barack Obama supporters:

“Underlying all our prejudices, racial or religious or cultural, is fear–the fear of being swamped, overrun, changed or converted or diluted, done out of our jobs or our social position. It is only as a defense, often unscrupulous, of our particular status quo, our particular ‘pure’ race, our particular ‘right’ faith, that we can justify our prejudices to ourselves.”

–Stephen Trimble