Recapitulation As Rediscovery

Wallace Stegner had strong opinions about personal experience and the art of fiction.  In an interview for the Paris Review, the 83-year-old was asked how much of his fiction was autobiographical. He answered with a question:

What does Wallace Stegner have to do with it? The very fact that some of my experience goes into the book is all but inescapable, and true for almost any writer I can name. Which is real and which is invented is [:] a, nobody’s business, and b, a rather silly preoccupation, and c, impossible to answer. By the time I’m through converting my life into fiction, it’s half fiction at least and maybe more.[1]

If Stegner’s fact-to-fiction formula is applied to Recapitulation, which he viewed as an extension of Big Rock Candy Mountain, it’s easy to recognize the author’s DNA. But the remainder of his alter ego, Bruce Mason, who returns to Salt Lake City is not a fiction. The other elements are a sublimation of Thomas Barger, Stegner’s choice for “hero of heroes” in his commissioned history of the Arabian American Oil Company.[2] Barger retired from Aramco as its chair and chief executive about the same time that Stegner left Stanford. The author was liberal in claiming acquaintances and parsimonious when naming friends for the Paris Review. The interactions of Wally and Tom over many years suggest that they were the former; like-minded and collegial if not close.

Stegner’s biographies ignore Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil or refer to it as an aberration.[3] Bibliographies omit the work, include it with an asterisk as work-for-hire or flag the only US edition as unauthorized. Stegner had little to say about Discovery to his second biographer, Jackson Benson, with whom he was generous with his time.[4] The third, Philip Fradkin, co-winner of a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Watts riots, felt that Benson avoided many tough questions while sitting in the novelist’s study. An ardent environmentalist, Fradkin struggled to explain how a writer who had inspired him could have written the first history of the largest producer of hydrocarbons in the Middle East.[5]

Stegner recognized that Big Rock, Recapitulation and the Pulitzer winning Angle of Repose all derived from the same archetype – epic narratives about boomer husbands and nesting wives in the American West.[6] In his conversations with Richard Etulain, he acknowledged “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story.” Most of the rest of his work deepened our knowledge of the history, culture, and natural science of the West. But no one forced the revered author of Recapitulation to make his alter ego an Arabist and Aramcon. By invoking Barger as the template for Mason’s life beyond Utah, Stegner revealed that Arabia and the pioneers of Aramco were more meaningful to him than Discovery has ever been to the literary community.

Benson described Recapitulation as “a meditation on the nature of memory, the processes of remembering, how and why we do so, and what it does to us.”  Salt Lake City and Bruce Mason were irrevocably altered between 1943, when Big Rock was published, and 1979, when Recapitulation appeared. So too were the writer’s view of the human subjects of Discovery, as well as the political context of the region and the industry he described. Because Aramco never allowed the work to be published in his own country on his own terms during his life, Stegner’s penultimate novel offered American readers his first and last word on Aramco, its corporate culture and mid-century US exceptionalism in the Middle East.   

Wally and Tom

In the summer of 1955 representatives of Aramco approached Stegner about writing its story. The author’s biography of John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, had just been short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize in History. It demonstrated his ability to create a strong narrative from a handful of obscure figures, complex earth sciences and nascent federal bureaucracies. The Saudi concession was already producing a million barrels of crude oil every day. But the highly lucrative franchise was also attracting negative attention. Tommy Thompson, vice president for Public Relations, hoped Stegner could help Aramco change the narratives working against them in New York and Washington DC. Their choice had to work for their Saudi clients as well as the concession owners. Stegner looked and acted the part for both: politically and personally moderate, convincingly northern European in appearance and politely atheistic rather than stridently Judeo-Christian. After agreeing to sign on as a well-paid consultant for Aramco – a joint venture of the four largest US oil companies – he worked intermittently but intensely over the next four years on the project.

Wally and Tom met each other in the middle of their careers. Barger was director of Government Relations in Dhahran, a rising star at the palace in Riyadh as well as the Kremlin, as the concession’s headquarters were known. His wife Kathleen had been raised on a dude ranch in Wyoming and was a leading figure in Senior Staff Camp. [The gate-guarded enclave, which was said to resemble a Houston suburb, had been called the American Camp until Barger and other company Arabists pushed for the name change to appease their class-conscious hosts.] Behind the walls of the camp, guarded by Saudi soldiers, the Bargers had achieved elite status by the time Wally and his wife Mary arrived on the Flying Camel, Aramco’s private DC-6.

Wally and Tom were cut from similar cloth. Their family names were drawn from early German settlers in the Great Lakes region. Wally’s parents were passing through northern Iowa when he was born in April 1909. Tom was born that August in Minneapolis, a little more than a hundred miles away. Both spent at least part of their early childhood in North Dakota. Shortly after his birth, Wally’s parents returned to Osnabrock, where his father ran a bar. They would soon move to Redmond, Washington; the first of many upheavals. Tom enjoyed a more stable if modest childhood in Linton. As undergraduates, both attended public universities in the West: Wally taking a degree in English from Utah in 1930, Tom earning his in Mining and Metallurgy from North Dakota in 1931. Coming of age in humble families during the Great Depression meant that their career paths had less to do with their dreams than with teachers and employers who recognized their intelligence and superior character. They were both taller than average, handsome in a wholesome way, well-mannered and unassuming.  Neither would have expected to meet the other in Saudi Arabia when they graduated from college.

The author was scheduled to spend two weeks in the eastern province touring Aramco facilities and interviewing about a dozen men.  He was escorted by Jack Butler, Aramco’s PR manager in Dhahran, who handpicked subjects from the first few waves of pioneers in the 1930’s. Tom arrived later than some but was among the hundred who famously protected the facilities during World War II, after most American personnel and all their families were evacuated. The project files at the Marriott Library suggest that most Aramco veterans who Wally met in Dhahran were eager to share memories since stepping ashore at Al Khobar. And they had a lot of stories to tell. While surveying a desert three times the size of Texas and drilling the deepest wells ever required to strike oil, the pioneers had also helped an impoverished Kingdom make up for a lost millennium, building all of the infrastructure and most of the market economy the concession needed along the Persian Gulf.

But Tom was too deeply involved in a number of issues to be very available to Wally during his brief tour. His reputation in Riyadh as an honest broker was being challenged. Aramco had long fulfilled a quasi-governmental role between the Saudis and the US.[7] One international arbitration [in which the Eisenhower administration was neutral] was a border dispute between the Kingdom and the British government with their proxies in the modern-day Emirates.[8] The other arbitration case was an existential threat to Aramco posed by Aristotle Onassis’s offer to build the Saudis a tanker fleet under their own flag.[9] A newly-appointed Saudi finance minister was raising well-founded suspicions that Aramco was underpaying for its oil. At home the US government had filed an anti-trust case against its parent companies for price-fixing; Aramco went unnamed because it was an offshore entity.[10] Tom also had to contend with the first generation of Saudi technocrats, most of whom were trained in programs he championed.[11] Finally, Tom needed to keep America’s pro-Israel policies at arm’s length from Aramco. The sovereignty of Al Saud was based on the royal family’s righteous defense of Mecca and adherence to the fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran.

Issues between Aramco, the Saudis, the White House and Congress refracted in the US press. It isn’t hard to see why company executives in New York and Washington DC wanted a more positive light thrown on their own story, though there were few references to their external issues in Stegner’s contracts. The reality was clear enough to the author before he arrived in Dhahran, cutting short a longer tour after stops in Beirut, Damascus and the Tapline complex in Sidon. In his working notes from the journey, Stegner registered the anti-Israel biases of some Aramcons, the pervasive corruption of the Lebanese government and the desperation of thousands of Palestinians living in camps originally built by the Ottomans for Armenians.[12] By the time of his return from the Kingdom, Stegner was recommending to the PR staff on Park Avenue that the “pioneer story” should end in 1944, when the threat of war was replaced by the urgent need to rebuild Europe and East Asia.

Barger was an exemplary company man who could be relied on to do his part for the PR project. But unlike many of the pioneers interviewed by Wally – most of whom were closer to retirement or comfortable assignments back home – Tom likely felt that his time was better spent tending to his expanding portfolio. [Later, as a senior executive, his homily would be that whatever was required to protect the concession was “everyone’s job”.]  Tom’s first extended sit-down with Wally didn’t occur until they met in Washington DC in early November, when the Stegners were on their way back to California. Tom was more generous with memories and opinions when he could dictate them to his staff.[13]  Letters between the men were more important than their face-to-face interviews. But the most important letters for Wally’s project were written by Tom many years before they met.

Letters and Sources

Wally and Mary left behind books and blankets that the author thanked Thompson for shipping to Los Altos Hills. But they didn’t forget the first tranche of letters between Tom and Kathleen, who had been married only a few days in 1937 before he left on his first hitch. Kathleen seems more likely than Tom to have revealed the existence of the letters to their guests. By the time the Stegners boarded the Flying Camel at the airport – which doubled as an US Air Force base – they carried copies of the correspondence between the newlyweds. The letters were more detailed and evocative than the other pioneers in Stegner’s papers at the Marriott Library. They became a primary source for Wally as he brought to life the California Arabian Standard Oil Company [the name was changed during the 1944 ramp up to acknowledge Texaco’s investment].

Tom’s first three years coincided with the concession’s breakout during which Max Steineke, its lead geologist, deciphered the unique contours of what remains the largest crude oil reserve in the world. Like Wally, Tom was energetic, even-handed and innately curious. The mining engineer had been quickly reassigned by Max to one of a handful of teams surveying vast tracts of the Arabian peninsula by celestial navigation. He rapidly acquired conversational skills in Arabic along the way. Many years later, Tom’s adventures with Khamis ibn Mohammed Rimthan – the best of the Bedouin guides – inspired the imagery Wally used in a pivotal dream sequence of Recapitulation, when the Empty Quarter of Arabia merges with the Great Basin, and Khamis segues into the veiled, red-haired visage of Mason’s mother.

Barger’s letters were not as central to the narrative of Discovery as Mary Hallock Foote’s would be in Stegner’s Angle of Repose. After winning the Pulitzer Prize, his anonymous attribution of the life and letters of Hallock Foote became controversial. Her descendants arranged for the letters to be published in their entirety. After retiring, Tom would do the same, editing the letters used by Wally along with his son, Tim Barger, founder of Selwa Press, which published them as Out in the Blue.[14]  In 2007, long after the death of Wally and Tom, Stegner’s literary estate and agency strenuously objected when Tim Barger also published the Aramco version of Discovery for the first time in the US. 

For more than a year after he submitted his first draftin the spring of 1956, Wally heard very little from the company. Even in California, he knew there were good reasons to be patient. President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal to the dismay of its French and English operators, triggering a series of international crises. After his year as a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies [which afforded him the time and freedom to accept the Aramco engagement], the director of Stanford’s writing program was fully absorbed in his own obligations. During the summer of 1957, the Stegners headed to their second home in Greensboro, Vermont. Wally dropped by the Aramco offices on Park Avenue to look in on Gordon Hamilton, who Thompson had charged with collating feedback from the interviewees.  Hamilton’s office was piled high with copies of Wally’s first draft, each filled with handwritten comments and longer typed memos from the pioneers and executives. 

Tom was not scheduled to meet the writer but happened to be in New York at the same time as Wally. Barger volunteered that his father had come across another batch of letters that Tom had written during his first tour. He offered to share them with Wally, who was happy to have another of batch of desert lore. Before he left, the writer persuaded Hamilton to reimburse his son, Page Stegner, for typing them up. In the memorandum to Wally that accompanied the letters to his parents, Tom made it clear that he trusted their care to the writer more than the PR staff. His promotion to vice president and heir apparent to Aramco’s president would be announced later that year. Tom relied on Wally not to reveal any derogatory details from the letters home about his superiors, most of whom were still on the job. Wally knew his best source needed to remain in the good graces of the top brass, no matter what he may have told his mother or bride about them during his first three years in Arabia.

During one of their exchanges, Wally asked Tom why he took the time to write such detailed, moving accounts. The engineer explained that his mother had been in failing health during his first hitch and he wrote to cheer her up. When Wally asked if he had ever planned on writing a book about his experiences in Arabia, Tom didn’t recall such thoughts, though Tom’s father suggested otherwise to Wally. The publication of Out in the Blue after Recapitulation suggests that the early days were mutually resonant – when the Americans and the Arabs were still learning about each other in desert encampments and pearl-diving villages.   

The Hero of Heroes – Max or Tom

In every interview with the pioneers that Wally conducted, there was one man they all considered instrumental: Max Steineke. Stegner described him as “a very pure example of a very American type, and heir to every quality that America had learned while settling and conquering a continent.” Steineke, like many Aramcons, had been a Stanford man; only 54 years old when he died from heart disease in 1952. Florence Steineke still lived in Los Altos Hills. Soon after the Stegners returned from Dhahran, Wally introduced himself to his neighbor in hopes of learning more about her celebrated husband. Max had roamed the western hemisphere as far as New Zealand prospecting for Standard Oil of California. Wally learned that Max’s letters to Florence were briefer, less frequent and more mundane than Tom’s. The Steinekes were older and less glamorous than the Bargers. But she had been one of the first wives to arrive in Dhahran, raising their daughters in the American Camp until their evacuation, after a frightening air raid by the Italians. Florence would pass away between the first and second drafts of Discovery.  

Stegner’s hatred for his boomer father was the nuclear fuel that powered Big Rock and Recapitulation. His introduction of Max in Discovery still seems diminished by the similarities between the lead geologist and George Stegner:

It is conceded by those who worked with him that Steineke was the man who first came to understand the stratigraphy and the structure underlying eastern Arabia’s nearly featureless surface. As a field geologist he rated with the best anywhere, and as a man, a companion, a colleague, he could have not been better adapted to the pioneering conditions he now encountered. Burly, big jawed, heartily enthusiastic, profane, indefatigable, careless of irrelevant details and implacable in tracking a line of scientific inquiry, he made men like him, and won their confidence.[15]

As turmoil in the Middle East settled in 1957, Thompson began to consider the release of Discovery if Aramco and their consultant could agree on revisions. Hamilton was finally allowed to share with Stegner the collated comments of the pioneers and executives; the Master Draft in the Stegner papers. Wally learned how his subjects felt about his retelling of their collective stories. As might be expected, they often preferred their own versions to the writer’s attempt to weave them into a coherent story for American readers. Some of their most pointed criticisms were about his rendition of Max.

Wally had made the mistake of taking some of the pioneers too literally. Even if Max had said he was “no son of a bitch for civilization,” his peers regarded him as being consistently patient and supportive. Tom viewed Max – along with Khamis – as one of the two greatest men he had ever met. Even if Max might have said he was “no report writing man,” Tom knew that everyone from Bahrain to San Francisco had hung on every word. Max made empirical sense of data from the eastern province that didn’t conform with any geologic site ever surveyed. He was respected not only for his technical rigor, but his ability to conceptualize the unprecedented – a unique geologic formation on the Persian Gulf that held more crude oil at a greater depth than the industry had ever imagined.

Tom’s was the loudest voice defending the lead geologist. Wally had misinterpreted some of the other pioneers who indicated that Max’s reports to Socal executives were “cautious to a fault…in geological matters.” Tom argued:

This is a libel…Max was a skeptic in that he wanted to know exactly how you knew what you thought you knew but he was never cautious in the sense of not committing himself on the basis of the available data, nor was he embarrassed in the least if new data proved him wrong or changed his opinion.[16]

For the second draft, the PR staff sent Wally more material on Max’s contributions to the industry, including a testimonial from one of the highest honors in geology, the Sidney Powers Medal. In Wally’s final submission in 1958, the sentinel event of the wildcatting phase – #7 Dammam coming in big – was reframed with salutary details about Steineke, his thought processes and his character that were all based on edits suggested by Tom and others. Yet Wally never seems to have embraced Max the way the pioneers did. Many aspects of the elder Mason are autobiographical. Much of the rest of Recapitulation seems to derive from Wally’s recognition of another version of himself in Tom. Though the intimate ties between author and his alter ego dominate the narrative, Recapitulation is a reimagination of a life Stegner might have lived if fate and talent had taken him to Dhahran instead of Madison.

Wally’s description of Tom in Discovery leaves little doubt about the role Aramco’s historian intended for him. More to the point, Wally might have as easily been describing himself, awakening to his own potential a world away from the upper Midwest. Wally had arrived at the University of Wisconsin to begin working as a non-tenured professor in the fall of 1937, just before Tom was dispatched from Socal headquarters in San Francisco:

Fortune could not possibly have been kinder to this tall, husky, good-looking boy who could have posed for the poster pictures as the ideal young American. He had not been raised on the edge of the West for nothing; he had the proper frontier skills. He was a better shot than Steineke, and there was no quicker way to win the respect of the Bedu. He had a talent for laughter. And a good deal of his quickness at picking up the language came from the fact that the Bedu respected him and talked freely, and the further fact that Barger was a shirtsleeve democrat fascinated by the Arabs and their rugged life [Stegner, Discovery!].

Thompson shared the Master Draft assembled by Hamilton with their consultant in January of 1958. Among many edits Tom offered Wally on the proper Arabic terms for their culture and terrain was a mild protest of his own description, “You wouldn’t do this to a pal, would you? [signed] the Poster Kid.” But the author ignored the future CEO, as would the editor of Aramco World when the description of Barger was published as Stegner had written it ten years earlier.

Towards the end of Tom’s first tour, it was Max who was dispatched to the Jabrin oasis to tell the young engineer that he was being transferred to Government Relations. Despite his many technical skills in the field, his ability to work well with the Arabs and his proficiency with their language were needed more in Dhahran, Riyadh and Jeddah, the traditional gateway for trade and diplomacy on the Red Sea. Tom still held out hope of being assigned to Indonesia, his first choice when hired by Socal. Max was Tom’s boss but he had also become a trusted mentor. He reassured Barger that he was due for a big raise and a promotion whether he returned as an engineer or an administrator. Tom couldn’t lose in Arabia, even if Max was robbed of one of his best men.

When he returned to San Francisco, Barger worked under James Terry Duce, California Arabian’s vice president for Government Relations. By 1940, Tom had the backing of the oil concession’s lead geologist as well as its lead politico. He decided to return to Dhahran with Kathleen and continue working in Government Relations. He would remain in the Kingdom throughout World War II, protecting the concession facilities and drilling water wells for the Saudis as the Allies battled the Germans and Italians in North Africa. When drilling and refining operations massively expanded, skilled and unskilled workers were brought in from all over the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. Most of the population on the shores of the Persian Gulf were Shia, unlike the Wahhabi branch of Sunnism that predominated under Al Saud in other provinces. During the same period, the need for greater capital as well as global distribution of Saudi oil prompted Socal and Texaco to bring in the predecessors of Mobil and Exxon.

The first major Arab labor strikes occurred in 1945 in Ras Tanura and Dhahran. From then on, Tom was driven to build programs that would address the demands of the Saudi workers and their government which Aramco’s parents were willing to underwrite. As Robert Vitalis argued in America’s Kingdom, racism, unbridled capitalism and fierce anti-communism were as pervasive in the oil industry as they were in the rest of mid-century America.[17] From 1948 on, Tom chaired the strategic planning group that developed better housing, healthcare and educational opportunities for their workforce. If Tom was not the American pioneer who was most fluent in Arabic, the mining engineer went on to become Aramco’s most ardent Arabist. During Barger’s era senior executives in Dhahran, New York and Washington DC were also unnamed emissaries for every US administration, beginning with FDR, often countering the will of Congress to remain engaged in the Arab world. While Barger may not have had the degree in international law that Stegner granted to Mason, Tom spent most of his career in Aramco helping to manage the increasingly complex relationship between the Saudi and American governments. During Barger’s tenure as CEO, the Saudis would demand control over their natural resources and catalyze OPEC, the alliance of third-world oil producers that leveled the playing field with the titans of the oil patch, including all four Aramco shareholders. 

In many cases, Barger had advocated for a generation of Saudi leaders who would go on to replace the Americans who built the concession. When Ali Al-Naimi was appointed as the first Saudi president of Aramco in 1983, many years after his retirement, the elder statesman wrote a congratulatory letter. Al-Naimi sent Barger back the following note:

You, of all of Aramco’s leaders, had the greatest vision when you supported the training effort of Saudi Arab employees during its early days. That visionary support…is bearing fruit now and many executive positions are filled by Saudis because of that effort.[18]

More than any other Aramcon – before or after Wally’s project – Tom was able to thread the needle that bound the Kingdom, Aramco’s US owners and a burgeoning multi-national workforce. His accomplishments were as diverse as Wally’s were as a writer, educator and environmentalist. Both men had altruistic streaks tempered by frontier pragmatism. Both were fully informed by the best and worst in human behavior. Because of the mutual respect they derived from working together on Discovery, when Wally began to imagine what kind of man Mason could have become in the Middle East between Big Rock and Recapitulation, it was embodied by his knowledge – if not admiration – of Tom.  

Villain and Savior – Tom and Aramco World   

Between 1955 and 1958, Aramco never agreed on a version of the concession’s history they were willing to publish which Stegner would allow to carry his name. The first draft remained in limbo for nearly two years after it was submitted.  William Mulligan of the Arabian Affairs Division – where Vitalis reported many CIA affiliates were stationed – wanted to kill the project. Senior executives – grappling with the public arbitrations and private wrangling over upstream deals and royalties – didn’t want Stegner to use accurate quotes from the concession’s original negotiators who remembered it as a “poker game.”  

In January 1958, along with the Master Draft, Stegner received a detailed list of edits from Butler that Aramco expected to see in the second draft. The teacher of writers was inflamed by most of Bruce’s suggestions and wrote a pointed letter to Thompson, his boss on Park Avenue. Stegner seemed consoled by a follow-up letter that Thompson asked Butler to write on his way to Harvard Business School. Thompson seemed to deliberately confuse the author’s appeasement with capitulation on the second draft’s direction. Despite the misgivings and miscommunication, Stegner’s literary agent in New York was able to reach an agreement on a second draft for another $9250 plus two different royalty schedules, depending on whether the work was published by the trade press – as the writer still hoped – or by Aramco.  

The issues between the American writer, the concession holders and the Saudis would remain at the heart of conflict between the US, the Kingdom and the oil industry for decades. It’s not difficult to imagine why Aramco had doubts about the response of the Saudis or their American critics to Discovery, as written by one of the foremost literary realists of the era. It is questionable whether the company had any intention of publishing Stegner’s revision when Thompson signed off on the agreement in May 1958.

Benson and Fradkin agree that Wally notoriously held grudges when he felt he was being deceived or slighted. The re-draft Stegner submitted in September contained few of the key changes Aramco required. While it may have been an act of intellectual integrity, he was well paid for his corporate disobedience. But oil men were inured to the costs of drilling dry holes. They may have hoped that they were paying Stegner enough to revise the story along the lines of Jack Bruce’s suggestions. Failing that, they may also have been willing to pay for a second draft that reduced the risk of Stegner adding his voice to their antagonists. Alfred Toynbee, the esteemed British historian, gave a series of lectures in August 1957 at Aramco’s invitation and was retained to offer an advisory note to management; they quietly ignored his recommendations, which called for nationalizing Aramco operations in the name of racial and cultural harmony.[19]

By March of 1959, Wally’s second draft had circulated between the PR staff and the senior executives of Aramco. Barger had been Aramco’s vice president for more than a year; he would become president by December. In a letter to another executive, he doubted whether Discovery would help with the external problems it was originally intended to address. Tom suggested that “we would both be well pleased if the manuscript was put into the files, to be looked at ten years from now.”[20] There is no record that Wally knew that Tom was partly responsible for blocking the publication of the pioneer story. But Wally’s hero would not be a villain for long.    

True to his word, in his final years as CEO, Barger orchestrated the resurrection of Discovery. Tom gave his copy to Paul Hoye, the new editor of Aramco World, a glossy monthly for the company and industry. Aramco was about to shift from American to Saudi ownership. OPEC was a fait accompli by the Kingdom and its competitors. King Feisal had reigned formidably for a decade after outflanking his older brother, Saud, whose alcoholism, corruption and profligacy had nearly bankrupted the monarchy. At home, the Vietnam War was tearing America apart. Stegner’s pioneer story was now ancient history. The Aramcons – as well as European colonialists who preceded the global oil titans – were subjects of widespread hostility. 

Barger, more than any of his peers, had pushed for Aramco to lay the foundations for a modern Saudi society. While labor strife and increasingly adversarial negotiations with Al Saud may have forced changes in Aramco’s post-war posture, it was Barger who advocated for a new strategic plan, served as its principal author and oversaw much of its implementation as an officer and then chair. Barger was one of the de facto architects of the oil concession’s education programs, as well as the Kingdom’s water systems, roads, railways and airports. Aramco also promoted an entrepreneurial class capable of taking on their non-core needs for goods and services. The Bin Ladin construction dynasty is the most familiar example; its Yemeni patriarch began at Aramco as a bricklayer.[21] Aramco’s corporate parents and Al Saud may have focused on maximizing the oil concession’s profitability. But Barger remembered the Kingdom he entered in 1937 had been one of the poorest and most backward places in the world.

If Benson was correct about the nature of memory, then the only perspective on Discovery that mattered in 1968 was not the author’s. It was Tom’s. If accolades as diverse as Stegner’s and Al-Naimi’s were any measure, Barger took more pride in the institutions he had helped create in modern Saudi Arabia than the wealth he extracted from the oil concession.

By the end of his career, Tom knew that the Americans had underestimated Al Saud. Arguably, Barger had been chosen over many able oilmen to run Aramco because of the goodwill he had accrued in Riyadh for his many efforts to improve the lives of Saudi workers. The client tribe that negotiated in 1932 in palaces made from mud was now the richest family in the world. Because Al Saud owed their own power to nearly two centuries of jihad, some of the wealth which Aramco had created was being used to assert their fundamentalist perspective on the Islamic world.

Beginning in 1968, Discovery was serialized over 14 editions of Aramco World. Wally was paid $450 for each installment. The second draft was edited by Hoye – with the author’s cooperation – to avoid offending their royal patrons, policy makers in the US, or Aramco’s board, which already included two Saudis. In 1971, Hoye also arranged for Discovery to be published in Beirut in a full-length version by the Middle East Export Press, which was controlled by the Graham brothers, the Bread Loafers who had first approached Stegner about Aramco in 1955.

When he retired in 1969, Tom knew as well as anyone that there was no going back for Aramco or Arabia. The desperate but dignified Bedu world was ebbing. The Kingdom’s founder, Abdul Aziz, had long since been buried in an unmarked grave in the desert near Riyadh. Without Discovery, Tom’s memories of the Kingdom before the exploitation of Steineke’s Arab Layer would be eradicated by his own passing. The release of Wally’s history of the pioneer days – when Aramco was still California Arabian – was among the last cards available for Tom to play as CEO. For Wally, Tom’s handling of Discovery after 1958 was a promise kept; proof that he had made the right choice for his hero of heroes.

Recapitulation as Rediscovery

Bruce Mason’s return home in a gasoline-powered automobile begins with a memory and an allusion:

The highway entering Salt Lake City from the west curves around the southern end of the Great Salt Lake past Black Rock and the ratty beaches, swings north away from the smoke of the smelter towns [and] veers towards the dry lakebed where a long time ago the domes of the Saltair Pavilion used to rise like an Arabic exhalation…[22]

Saltair Pavilion was hovering close to its peak in popularity when Wally worked there as a teenager, flipping hamburgers near the largest dance floor in the world, the lake still lapping around a thousand pylons. The complex had been developed by the railway that connected it to the city and a company tied to the Mormon Church. Its Moorish design was deliberately exotic; Saltair was a sanctioned recreational destination.

Wally would thrive on the edges of Mormon society, attending Mutuals on weekday nights, becoming a first lieutenant in the East High Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and an Eagle Scout. Many sites he treasured as a young outdoorsman would become state or national parks, some with his advocacy. Wally became a competitive athlete at the Salt Lake Tennis Club, often with Jack Irvine as his doubles partner. The Irvine family were Jack Mormons, non-practitioners who were the basis for the Mulders in Big Rock and Recapitulation. Wally worked in their flooring store, dated their daughter and turned down a stake in the business after college. His own family moved frequently; his bootlegger father George using their front parlors as speakeasies. Salt Lake City offered Wally more than his own parents could ever provide. An appreciative Gentile, Stegner would later write Mormon Country and Along the Mormon Trail.  

Wally’s background was unique preparation for the Aramco culture he encountered on his VIP tour in 1955. While the lifestyle was unthinkable for many Americans, being from Utah was an adaptive advantage for the eastern province’s climate, social limitations and harsh terrain. In contrast, Mary languished by the shaded community pool, listening to Muzak and drinking juice in the heat and humidity of late fall. Bad behavior by members of the royal family had driven King Ibn Abdul Aziz to ban the importation of alcohol in 1952. By the time of Wally’s visit, sub rosa brewing and distilling were camp cooperatives. Nor did the Saudis permit Aramcons to openly practice any religion other than Islam. American-style churches were absent. Judaism remained a serious impediment to residency visas from the Saudis if not employment by the company.  

The third-person narrative of Recapitulation features a doppelganger, with the elder Morgan often observing his younger self around the city. While it would have been improbable for the younger Mason to venture into the Middle East when Big Rock was published, it was more than plausible by his return in Recapitulation. For many single men in the eastern province in the 1930’s, the most serious form of abstinence would have been sexual. Saudi women were mostly unseen and officially taboo. Aramco didn’t hire single American women for jobs in the eastern province until after the war, when labor disputes prompted management to view English-speaking men from Egypt or Palestine in clerical positions as instigators [Vitalis, Kingdom]. But for young Bruce, still grieving the loss of his mother, stung by the rejection of Nola, his college sweetheart, Arabia would have been less of a hardship. Paid leave in Beirut or Istanbul – let alone Europe – wouldhave been far more alluring than Saltair.   

Recapitulation makes clear that Mason was the “last of his line”. The author wouldn’t permit the only surviving member of the Big Rock family to overcome his emotional isolation. While Mary was Wally’s lifelong partner, muse and mother of his only child, Mason’s lonely service in an Islamic world allowed Wally to keep his real life at arm’s length. This rings true with accounts of a more reserved Stegner after his retirement from Stanford. He was approaching the end of his sixties as he wrote about Mason’s return to Salt Lake. Nor was his alter ego’s career as an Aramcon and a diplomat intended to be his most significant achievement in Recapitulation. Mason is able to draw a box around the saddest, darkest memories of his early life and then black them out. While attending the funeral of his father’s sister, Mason overcomes his hatred and arranges for a tombstone for George to match those of his older brother and beloved mother. But the fiction was nobler than the truth. David Gessner was taken to the Stegner family gravesite near the university; there was no marker for Wally’s father.[23]

The deeply retrospective structure of Recapitulation also allowed Stegner to frame the Aramcons as history’s losers. By 1979, the American version of nation-building in the Middle East had proven to be no more enduring than European colonialism. Enlightened self-interest for executives like Barger meant something quite different to Al Saud. Sheikdoms, military nationalists turned strongmen and Islamic theocracies had prevailed over New World democracies in North Africa and the Middle East. But like his prototype, Mason in Recapitulation is unapologetic. Adding to the irony, Adnan Khashoggi is investing in his hometown: “It amused Mason to find Khashoggi active in Utah. He had known Khashoggi’s father years ago, when he was court physician to Ibn Saud [sic], back in the time when Socal…was hauling Saudi Arabia hand over hand into the twentieth century…”

At the end of Big Rock, Mason leaves his law school graduation in Minnesota when he learns of his father’s suicide-murder. He borrows $50 and drives back to Salt Lake. When he arrives, he borrows a fresh shirt from his best friend and tennis partner, Joe Mulder. In Recapitulation, Mason chooses not to knock on Joe’s door, fearing that too much time has passed between them. Instead, Wally figuratively borrows Tom’s desert robe, ghutra and agal. Making Mason an international lawyer for Aramco could have been an act of hubris by a stubborn man; schadenfreude by the stymied author. But it can also be interpreted more personally as Wally’s farewell nod to Tom; a life he admired if not lived. A call from an Undersecretary of State is the beginning of the end of Mason’s extended reverie in Salt Lake. His experience as an Aramco executive who “knows all the Arabs” prompts the call of his government to attend one more OPEC meeting in Venezuela.

The simplest proof of the case against Discovery made by Vitalis is that [apart from standard, mostly British references] Wally’s understanding of Arabia was based on documents provided by Aramco and his interactions with its non-Arab explorers and leaders. As Stegner had been while working on the first draft of Discovery, Edward Said was a Fellow at the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences when he began to write Orientalism. The important analysis of European and American cultural colonialism was published the year before Recapitulation.[24] It’s not clear that Stegner had read it; the novel’s tropes about flying with Khamis and Oscar Wilde’s Salome suggest that he hadn’t. In both Recapitulation and Out in the Blue, if not Discovery, the most powerful memories and dreams relate to quintessentially American explorers with their Bedouin guides. Like Max, Khamis had died before Aramco retained Wally. He learned about the greatest of the Bedu from Tom and the other pioneers; a diminutive but remarkable figure whose traditions were doomed by the oil he helped the geologists find.

While Stegner was eloquent on the significance of aridity for our continent, much of the Arabian Peninsula was even more uninhabitable. Notwithstanding the collateral effects of early oil exploration in the Americas or the recent exploitation of shale, the Saudis still view the ocean of crude oil beneath them as a blessing. The public offering of Saudi Aramco is darkly and richly ironic. In our post-millennial world, marked by global jihad and climate change, the descendants of the American pioneers may feel that they have no more to celebrate than grandchildren of the Manhattan Project scientists.

Yet historical revisionism ignores several realities that defined Wally, Tom and their generation. Oil was replacing coal as the predominant fuel as they came of age during the Great Depression. Unlike millions of their peers, they survived a worldwide war fought in part for the control of oil reserves.[25] They understood the imperative for a global alternative to Soviet determinism; the Middle East was a battleground. Neither the fall of the USSR or the Saudi takeover of Aramco have made the world a safer place. There may be many reasons to question American exceptionalism. But Wally and Tom were exceptional Americans, a complementary pair of the best kind of twentieth century men.      

We should probably not be surprised that Stegner and Barger appreciated each other. They shared common features to uncommon degrees – earnestness, the ability to work hard and think deeply, with good humor and respect for their fellow human beings. Wally was intentional when he chose not to allow his alter ego to knock on Joe’s door again in Recapitulation. And he was no less intentional when he chose Tom to accompany Mason across the Great Salt Lake one last time. Their best memories were of the early days, when each of them surveyed Empty Quarters with trusted guides and teachers. Each of them spent their lives civilizing the deserts they explored. Many have followed the landmarks they left behind.    

[1] Hepworth, James R. and Stegner, Wallace.  “Wallace Stegner, The Art of Fiction No. 118.” Paris Review Issue 115, Summer 1990,, accessed 8-26-2019.

[2] Wallace Earle Stegner Papers, Willard Marriott Library University of Utah; Box 30, File 26 – Aramco World Magazine, Letters from Paul Hoye.

[3] Vitalis, Robert. “Wallace Stegner’s Arabian Discovery: Imperial Blind Spots in a Continental Vision.” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 76, No. 3 (August 2007), pp. 405-438,,

accessed: 12-26-2016.

[4] Benson, Jackson J. Wallace Stegner – His Life and Work. Viking Press, 1996.

[5] Fradkin, Philip. Wallace Stegner and the American West. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group,2008.

[6] Stegner, Wallace, and Etulain, Richard W., editors. Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature. University of Utah Press, 1983.

[7] Anderson, Irvine H. Aramco, the United States, and Saudi Arabia, A Study of the Dynamics of Foreign Oil Policy, 1933-1950. Princeton University Press, 1981.

[8] Kelly, J.B. “The Buraimi Oasis Dispute.” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-), Vol. 32, No.3 (July 1956), pp. 318-326,, accessed:12-17-2019.

[9] Lippman, Thomas W. Crude Oil, Crude Money: Aristotle Onassis, Saudi Arabia and the CIA. ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA, 2019.

[10] Kaufman, Burton I. “The Oil Cartel Case and the Cold War.” The Business History Review. Vol. 51, No. 1 (Spring 1977), pp 35-56. downloaded 03-07-2019 19:42

[11] Duguid, Stephen. “A Biographical Approach to the Study of Social Change in the Middle East: Abdullah Tariki as a New Man.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol.1 No.3 (July 1970), pp 195-220,, accessed: 10-06-2019.

[12] Wallace Earle Stegner Papers, Willard Marriott Library University of Utah; Box 83, File 11 – Notes from 1955 Aramco Tour.

[13] Wallace Earle Stegner Papers, Willard Marriott Library University of Utah; Box 84, File 9 – Letters from Tom Barger.

[14] Barger, Thomas C. Out in the Blue: Letters from Arabia 1937-1940. Selwa Press, 2000.

[15] Stegner, Wallace. Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. Selwa Press, 2007.

[16] Wallace Earle Stegner Papers, Willard Marriott Library University of Utah; Box 83, File 4 – Growing Pains.

[17] Vitalis, Robert. America’s Kingdom. Stanford University Press, 2007.

[18] Al-Naimi, Ali. Out of the Desert: My Journey from Nomadic Bedouin to the Heart of Global Oil. Penguin UK, 2016.

[19] McNeill, William H. Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life. Oxford University Press, 1989.

[20] Lippman, Thomas W. Foreword to Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil. Selwa Press 2007.

[21] Coll, Steve. The Bin Ladins: An Arabian Family in the American Century, Penguin Press, 2008.

[22] Stegner, Wallace. Recapitulation. Vintage Press 2009; Doubleday/Penguin Random House LLC, 1979.

[23] Gessner, David. “Making a Name: Wallace Stegner” excerpt from All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. W.W. Norton & Company, 2015,, accessed 9-11-2019.

[24] Said, Edward. Orientalism. Pantheon/Random House, 1978.

[25] Yergin, Daniel. The Prize – the Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power. Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 1991.