Stegner, Wallace (1909 – 1993) American Writer
Wallace Stegner (1909 – 1993)
Wallace Stegner was an American novelist, historian, biographer, and teacher. Widely regarded as the dean of western writers, Stegner evoked a vivid sense of the western United States as a place and of the intimate relationship of the people with that place. Among his best known novels are Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Angle of Repose (1971), The Spectator Bird (1976), and Crossing to Safety (1987). His works of nonfiction include Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), Wolf Willow (1963), The Sound of Mountain Water (1969), and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992).
Stegner was born on February 18, 1909, on a farm outside Lake Mills, Iowa, the second son of George and Hilda Paulson Stegner. His father, a restless and rootless risk-taker, moved the family to North Dakota, then to Washington state, and then to Saskatchewan, Montana, and Utah. His family was so poor that he was sent for a time to an orphanage. Stegner's early education was spotty at best. He was an avid hunter and outdoorsman who enjoyed the company of Native Americans, cowboys, miners, Mormons, and others who eked out a precarious living in the west. In these hardscrabble early years, Stegner met the people and endured the experiences that were later to reappear in fictional form in his novels and short stories.
At age sixteen, Stegner enrolled at the University of Utah, where he majored in English. In 1930, he began graduate work at the University of Iowa, where he earned a master's degree. Two years later, he returned to the University of Utah, where he received his Ph.D. in 1935. He went on to teach at several universities, including Harvard, Wisconsin, and Stanford, where he founded the creative writing program that he directed until 1971. Among his students and the recipients of Stanford's Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship were Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey . An ardent outdoorsman and conservationist, Stegner was active in the Sierra Club and fought successfully to save Echo Park from being dammed. In later years he said that his greatest regret was not having worked harder to prevent the damming of Glen Canyon.
Stegner was a pioneer in the environmental education of American citizens and their elected representatives. His new medium was the large coffee-table book featuring photographs of stunning seldom-seen places that were under threat from mining, logging , or development interests. Interspersed among pictures by photographers such as Ansel Adams were short essays by Stegner and others about the fragility and beauty of these wild places and the threats they faced. Published by the Sierra Club and distributed free to Senators and Congressmen, these books proved to be powerful weapons in the ongoing effort to protect the natural environment from the predations of developers.
Many of Stegner's works of fiction also deal with environmental themes and problems—the rush to develop the West, the desire to get rich by riding roughshod over fragile environments and ecosystems, the wanton indifference to the peoples and the history of a place, and the ravages wrought by this onslaught. Arrayed against these forces are the quieter forces of history and memory, of respect for a region and its past, and the desire to preserve and pass these on to future generations .
Wallace Stegner died on April 12, 1993, from a heart attack resulting from a serious automobile accident two days earlier. In accordance with his wishes, his ashes were scattered on the western slope of Baker Hill in Vermont.
[Terence Ball ]
Benson, J. J. Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work. New York: Viking Press, 1996.
Rankin, C. E., ed. Wallace Stegner: Man and Writer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.