Stegner’s “History is a Pontoon Bridge”

Stegner’s second chapter entitled “History is a Pontoon Bridge” contains one of the most tantalizing quotations I’ve read in a long time:

Unless everything in a man’s memory of childhood is misleading, there is a time somewhere between the ages of five and twelve which corresponds to the phase ethologists have isolated in the development of birds, when an impression lasting only a few seconds may be imprinted on the young bird for life. This is the way a bird emerging from the darkness of the egg knows itself, the mechanism of its relating to the world. Expose a just hatched duckling to an alarm clock, or a wooden decoy on rollers, or a man, or any other object that moves and makes a noise, and it will react for life as if that object were its mother. Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in the shapes of that environment until he dies. The perceptive habits that are like imprintings or like conditioned responses carry their habitual and remembered emotions.

If the statement is true, and I’m inclined to believe it is, then it seems paramount that the individual explore and understand those years if he hopes to understand himself.

The corollary to this, of course, is:

I may not know who I am, but I know where I am from. I can say to myself that a good part of my private and social character, the kinds of scenery and weather and people and humor I respond to, the prejudices I wear like dishonorable scars, the affections that sometimes waken me from middle aged sleep with a rush of undiminished love, the virtues I respect and the weaknesses I condemn, the code I try to live by, the special ways I fail at it and the kinds of shame I feel when I do, the models and heroes I follow, the colors and shapes that evoke my deepest pleasure, the way I adjudicate between personal desire and personal responsibility, have been in good part scored into me by that little womb village and the lovely, lonely, exposed prairie of the homestead. However anachronistic I may be, I am a product of the American earth, and in nothing quite so much as in the contrast between what I knew through the pores and what I was officially taught.

Though the environment we grow up in may not be the only factor in determining who we become, it’s obvious it plays a major part in shaping each generation. No two homes are the same, but much of what we learn is dependent not on our families but on our community and our peers. It’s hard to imagine totally escaping their influence.

Stegner feels that he grew up in a golden age of the West:

So the world when I began to know it had neither location nor time, geography nor history. But it had a wild freedom, a closeness to earth and weather, a familiarity with both tame and wild animals. It had the physical sweetness of a golden age. It was blessedly free of most conventional restrictions, and its very liberation from the perspectives of time and place released our minds for imaginative flights into wonder. Our sensuous and imaginative education was exaggerated, but nobody told us much about what is now sometimes called “vital adjustment.”

I suspect many of us feel we were born in a golden age, one that seems to recede as we grow older, leaving us longing for a past that may or may not have ever existed. I don’t think I’d want it to be any other way.

Stegner also offers one of the best justifications I’ve read for studying history:

For history is a pontoon bridge. Every man walks and works at its building end, and has come as far as he has over the pontoons laid by others he may never have heard of. Events have a way of making other events inevitable; the actions of men are consecutive and indivisible. The history of the Cypress Hills had almost as definite effects on me as did their geography and weather, though I never knew a scrap of that history until a quarter century after I left the place. However it may have seemed to the people who founded it, Whitemud was not a beginning, not a new thing, but a stage in a long historical process.
History, when it’s used to help us explain who we are as individuals and why we’ve become who we are seems a fascinating topic. Of course, I was always more interested in psychology and sociology than I was in what passes for traditional history.

Stegner ends this introduction with a six page section entitled “The Dump Ground” where he explains that the only history of Wolf Willow he knew as a child was discovered in the local dump, where he discovered even relics of his own life:

Some of the books were volumes of the set of Shakespeare that my father had bought, or been sold, before I was born. They had been carried from Dakota to Seattle, and Seattle to Bellingham, and Bellingham to Redmond, and Redmond back to Iowa, and Iowa to Saskatchewan. One of the Cratchet girls had borrowed them, a hatchetfaced, thin, eager, transplanted Cockney girl with a frenzy for reading. Stained in a fire, they had somehow found the dump rather than come back to us. The lesson they preached was how much is lost, how much thrown aside, how much carelessly or of necessity given up, in the making of a new country. We had so few books that I knew them all; finding those thrown away was like finding my own name on a gravestone.

Since I doubt that this is the lesson I would have learned from this discovery of old books, I would gather that that a key idea in the book will be “ how much is lost, how much thrown aside, how much carelessly or of necessity given up, in the making of a new country.”

If Stegner is right in venturing that:

Poetry is seldom useful, but always memorable. If I were a sociologist anxious to study in detail the life of any community I would go very early to its refuse piles. For a community may be as well judged by what it throws away, what it has to throw away and what it chooses to as by any other evidence. For whole civilizations we some times have no more of the poetry and little more of the history than this.

Our society will probably go down in history as one of the most wasteful societies ever, one that has produced more garbage per individual than any throughout time. We may discover that many of our advances have come at a heavy price, both to ourselves and to our environment.

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