Frontier men

A plea for a national public intellectual/enviromentalist

by

If you visit Yosemite National Park, you can take your children to a dramatic re-enactment of the historic discussion between John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt that resulted in the addition of Yosemite Valley to the national park. Together the founder of the Sierra Club and the Pioneer President look out from Glacier Point and debate the purpose and meaning of America's natural resources. Their conversation concludes with Muir, the staunch conservationist, recounting to Roosevelt, the avid big-game hunter, his reluctant sympathy for the masculine joy in killing wild animals. In a disturbing moment of cultural revelation, we witness a peculiar overlap between the sensibilities that have made the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington: Both institutions are buttressed by the quintessentially American image of the lone man in the wilderness.

I couldn't help recalling this image as I read John L. Thomas's remarkable new book A Country in the Mind: Wallace Stegner, Bernard DeVoto, History, and the American Land. As the subtitle reveals, Thomas' book is many things. Part biography, part environmental history, part literary criticism, part spiritual meditation, A Country in the Mind can best be described in the end as a plea for a certain kind of environmentalist public intellectual.

DeVoto and Stegner, both writers, serve as models of this public intellectual, one whose political engagement is informed by "the vision of another way — a middle road between a profit-driven market economy on the one side and a repressive collectivism on the other." The fascinating friendship between these two men, and their vociferous and frequently tragic advocacy of "the ideal of a national commons owned and cared for by all the citizenry," forms the unifying thread of Johnson's valuable study.

Each of the four main sections starts with DeVoto, the older man, and concludes with Stegner, revealing how their developing friendship enriched the parallels between their literary careers as chroniclers of western expansion and their political careers as environmental advocates. Both men start out as lonely, sensitive boys growing up in Utah during that peculiar historical hiatus between the closing of the frontier and the industrialization of the West. Both men sojourned as writing teachers at Harvard, where they developed a lifelong skepticism of the Eastern academic establishment. Both spent a considerable portion of their energies trying to save the Western lands that formed the central subject of their literary careers.

And both men, in their distinctly American synthesis of heroic individualism and frontier environmentalism, reveal how deeply and densely the psychic conflicts of American masculinity are interwoven into the idealization of the American land. Thus Thomas informs us that DeVoto, in composing The Year of Decision: 1846, the first installment of his trilogy on western expansion, searched for a "'culture hero,' a witness to the transformation of American democratic society, a representative common man." Thomas is forced to concede here that DeVoto thereby neglects "what a later age would call ethnic and gender pluralism." Stegner, closer to this "later age," fares somewhat better. His heroes are "those independent, nonpolitical seekers after a different truth, explorers and investigators who reject power and possessions for larger social goals, civic aims, and scientific truth." Many of Stegner's novels recount the struggles and triumphs of frontier women.

Nevertheless, Thomas' deeply felt and carefully researched account of these two men's environmental advocacy fails to consider how deeply and problematically their vision of the American land was informed by their models of masculinity. Thomas concedes at the outset that he has not "probed DeVoto's or Stegner's private lives." However, his brief recounting of their frontier childhoods — when DeVoto had been teased as a "sissy" and a "pansy" and Stegner had been an "undersize 'mama's boy' and object of his father's scorn" — reveals that it is precisely in these private lives that we would see the psycho-sexual anxieties that inform the public poses.

Loren Glass writes for City Paper, where this piece first appeared.

comment