Wolf Willow, Wallace Stegner’s reminiscence of his boyhood in Saskatchewan, describes the rough frontier society of 100 years ago. But, his comment on conversation could have been written about my childhood in the 1950s. Stegner reflects: “I even at times find myself reacting against conversation, that highest test of the civilized man, because where I came from it was unfashionable to be ‘mouthy.’”
In my working class Provo, Utah neighborhood, it was also “unfashionable to be mouthy.” Conversation amongst my neighbors was generally limited to local people and events. Discussions about politics and religion were held only with those with whom one agreed. Children did not contradict adults, and women did not contradict men. Knowing the rules was important because discussions involving differing points of few were seen as arguments—and the point of an argument is to win.
No one broached a conversation topic with the idea of learning something from an acquaintance. The idea was to prove oneself smarter than the other. People reacted to a controversial statement with scorn, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” or with defensiveness, “I’m not afraid to stand up for my beliefs.”
Not until college was I exposed to conversation as a search for understanding—and not often there. Meaningful conversation takes time, education, and probably example. My Provo neighbors had more opportunities to read and learn than people in frontier Saskatchewan, but few knew how to make use of this time. Men read the Daily Herald to keep up with events and people. Women read women’s magazines and paperback romances. They talked about that no-good Ron Bowyer who left his wife and kids to run off with a loose woman. They speculated about who might be the next bishop, but they never questioned McCarthy’s assertions that Communists were infiltrating our country.
Much as he loved the open spaces of the Western plains and the grandeur of mountains and canyons, Wallace Stegner, didn’t fit comfortably in Western society. He excelled in academics rather than sports and became a university professor and a writer rather than a businessman. While he often sought Utah’s Zion Park and Utah wilderness areas for hiking and solitude, he chose to live and teach at Stanford and spent his summers in Vermont rather than in the Mountain West. I suspect it was because the conversation was better.