Tag Archives: wallace stegner

‘The Smallest Minds … The Cowardliest Hearts’

Current reading: “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” by Wallace Stegner. It’s a biography of John Wesley Powell, known popularly for making the first boat trip through the Grand Canyon (in 1869), for being among the founders of the U.S. Geological Survey, for his thorough and sympathetic study of Native Americans and their culture, and for promoting a rational approach to the settlement of the arid West. (Among other details I didn’t know, Powell was also a faculty member at the college that became Illinois State University, in Normal, and lived in Bloomington).

Anyway, at one juncture, Stegner stops to contemplate federal government policy on the West. He quotes Mark Twain’s “portrait of the Congressman: ‘the smallest mind and the selfishest soul and the cowardliest heart that God makes.’ ” Harsh, but apt for our time, I thought (and sure, there are some who would say it’s a description with eternal currency).

I wanted to know the source of the quote. One’s first Google search turns up the fact it’s widely cited (to express disgust with today’s crop of solons) though the source is hard to come by. The closest you can get is along the lines of “an 1891 letter to an unknown correspondent.”

Twain died in 1910, and in 1912, someone named Albert Bigelow Paine came out with a massive biography that reprints the letter in full (or nearly full–there’s no salutation, thus the name of the recipient, if any, is unknown, and it begins with an ellipsis). The letter appeared five years later in a collection of Twain’s letters. The subject is the Twain’s real-life experience and how it has fitted him for the profession of novelist. Here’s the paragraph that’s the source of Stegner’s quote:

So, the quote was more expansive and changed somewhat as it passed through the many hands between Twain, Paine, and Stegner. Or maybe not. Stegner cites an edition of “The Portable Mark Twain” edited by his friend and mentor, the historian Bernard De Voto, as his source, and De Voto’s quote was identical to those printed earlier. Stegner appears to have cleaned it up and narrowed the context to fit his needs.

In any case, the original message was: Those lawmaker-government types–they’re all bums.

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California Water: ‘The Way of Seizure and Exploitation’

A snippet from “American Places,” a 1981 book of essays by Wallace Stegner, novelist and chronicler of the West, and his like-styled son, Page. This is from a chapter Page Stegner wrote called “Here It Is: Take It.” It describes how Los Angeles siphoned off a rich, remote supply of water from the Owens Valley and details the valley’s ongoing disputes with the city. (The chapter title is taken from the words spoken in 1913 by William Mulholland, the principal architect of the Los Angeles water system, when he opened the valve that brought the first Owens Valley water to the L.A.) I can’t help but think of the current court and legislative disputes over California water when I read this. s

“…The American Way of seizure and exploitation has a long history but a dubious future. It has produced ghost towns before this when the resource ran out and the frenzy cooled and the fortune-hunters drifted away. Without suggesting that Los Angeles will become a ghost town, one knows that in the arid West there are many communities whose growth is strictly limited by the available water. To promote the growth of any community beyond its legitimate and predictable water resources is to risk one of two things: eventual slowdown or collapse and retrenchment to more realistic levels, or a continuing and often piratical engrossment of the water of other communities, at the expense of their prosperity and perhaps life.

Man, the great creator and destroyer of environments, is also part of what he creates or destroys, and rises and falls with it. In the West, water is life. From the very beginning, when people killed each other with shovels over the flow of a primitive ditch, down to the present, when cities kill each other for precisely the same reasons and with the same self-justification, water is the basis for western growth, western industry, western communities, Eventually, some larger authority, state or federal will have to play Solomon in these disputes. …”

We’ve got a Solomon of sorts–at least one of them–working on the problem now: U.S. District Court Judge Oliver Wanger of Fresno. But more on that later.

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Places on a Map

Mexican Hat, Utah: “To start a trip at Mexican Hat, Utah, is to start off into empty space from the end of the world. The space that surrounds Mexican Hat is filled only with what the natives describe as ‘a lot of rocks, a lot of sand, more rocks, more sand, and wind enough to blow it away.’ “

–Wallace Stegner, from “The Sound of Mountain Water,” 1969

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