Stegner, Wallace Earle

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Stegner, Wallace Earle

(b. 18 February 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa; 13 April 1993 in Santa Fe, New Mexico), writer, teacher, and environmentalist, who emerged as the preeminent voice among writers in the American West in the second half of the twentieth century and became a leading spokesman for conservation.

Among the themes that Stegner explored in his writing, he returned most often to the ways in which the past and a sense of place shaped ordinary lives, especially his own. He was the second of two sons born to Hilda Paulson, a homemaker, and George H. Stegner, a “boomer,” who worked variously as a gold seeker in Alaska, a farmer in Saskatchewan, and a bootlegger in Utah, living on the margins of society and striving for wealth he never attained.

Stegner had a prairie childhood, growing up in Eastend, Saskatchewan, where in the summer months the family worked a half-section farm and in winter the father took such work as he could find in town. In 1921 the Stegner family moved south to Salt Lake City, Utah, where the father ran a speakeasy from their home. Stegner thrived academically in the public schools but much of the time felt himself an outsider and an object of scorn. Physically puny, he was regularly humiliated by his father, who much preferred his athletically gifted older brother, and his classmates at school routinely bullied him. He found solace in books and in the Boy Scouts, whose outdoor programs gave him a sense of community and of competence. In his senior year of high school, Stegner underwent a startling transformation, growing six inches in height. He was now “big enough,” he wrote, “to hold my own in sports” and enjoy “the happiest years I ever knew. . . .”

Following graduation from high school in 1926 Stegner worked his way through the University of Utah, where he starred on the tennis team and became a popular man on campus. Graduating with a B.A. degree in English and membership in Phi Beta Kappa (1930), he earned an M.A. degree (1932) and a Ph.D. (1935) in English at the State University of Iowa. Meanwhile he taught at Augustana College in Illinois (1933-1934) and at the University of Utah (1934-1937). On 1 September 1934 he married Mary Stuart Page, a fellow graduate student, with whom he had one son.

After he began teaching and his dissertation was completed, Stegner settled into the disciplined life that marked his career. He went to his desk seven days a week—usually in the morning—for three or four hours of writing. In the afternoon, he taught his classes, and later each day devoted some time (often long hours) to physical activity, cutting firewood if he were in Vermont, working at his garden in Palo Alto, playing tennis or badminton or hiking in the California hills. Evenings were for correcting papers or preparing lectures, and for reading and entertaining.

The result of this rigorously adhered-to routine was a prodigious output of thirty-three books of fiction, history, and biography, dozens of short stories and hundreds of essays on travel, Western history, and later, environmental themes for popular magazines from Esquire and Holiday to The Atlantic, The New Republic, and American Heritage—along with articles for scholarly journals and regional reviews. He was West Coast editor for the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin Company (1945-1953) and editor in chief of American West magazine (1966–1968). He was editor or coeditor of a dozen teaching texts, of special collections like The Letters of Bernard DeVoto (1975), and new editions of classics like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1960) and A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s The Big Sky (1965). His literary output, said the critic Malcolm Cowley, was “unequaled” by any other American in the twentieth century.

Stegner’s first novel was Remembering Laughter (1937), a powerful story about a young, unmarried woman from Norway who comes to live with her sister and sister’s husband on an Iowa farm and the tragedy that ensues. It won the Little, Brown Prize for a short novel and confirmed Stegner’s belief that he could simultaneously teach and write. The prize also brought him $2,500 (a princely sum in the Great Depression, when his salary as a university instructor was $1,800 a year.) Now a published novelist, he moved on to the University of Wisconsin at Madison from 1937 to 1939. In the summer of 1938 he was invited to join the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Mid-dlebury, Vermont, in company with Bernard DeVoto and Robert Frost, who became friends and exerted a primary influence on his writing and his life. He returned to Bread Loaf seven more times as an instructor or a visiting lecturer. As the decade ended, he accepted an appointment to Harvard University as a Briggs-Copeland fellow to teach composition (1939–1945), first to undergraduates and then, during World War II, to soldiers in the Harvard-based Army Specialized Training Program.

During this period, his short stories sold well and brought him recognition and prizes, like the three O. Henry Awards he won in 1942, 1948, and 1950. In time he published three collections: The Women on the Wall (1956); The City of the Living, and Other Stories (1956); and Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner (1990), which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award. His three short novels from the pre—World War II years—The Potter’s House (1938), On a Darkling Plain (1940), and Fire and Ice (1941)—were each well-crafted but flawed and none sold well. He wrote a popular history of Utah, Mormon Country (1942), which was the first of his books to be reviewed by the New York Times.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) brought him critical praise, large sales, and a national audience, although critics continued to call him a regional writer for the next thirty years—a label that he and his supporters considered limiting and unfair. The West and the western landscape occupied a prominent place in his writing, his defenders said, but his fictional concerns were not restricted by region or geography. His preoccupations as a writer centered on individuals and their responsibility to themselves and to society, on friendship and community, and on mankind’s relationship to the earth. He was especially concerned with the importance of history, remarking at one point that contemporary American problems flowed from the nation’s living in “a present amputated from its past.”

Following World War II, Stegner became a professor of English at Stanford University (1945-1969) and founder and director of its creative writing program (1946–1969). He retired as the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Humanities (1969-1971). In 1975 he was appointed the Bissell Professor of Canadian—U.S. Relations at the University of Toronto in Ontario. He held two Guggenheim fellowships (1949-1951; 1959); a Rockefeller fellowship to conduct seminars in the Far East (1950–1951); and a senior fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities (1972). He was Montgomery fellow at Dartmouth College in 1980.

His students in the writing program were known as Stegner fellows and from its inception in 1946 included talented writers like Larry McMurtry, Ernest J. Gaines, Eugene Burdick, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, and T. H. Watkins. Stegner told them that he could not teach them how to write; he could only provide them with a place in which to write in a disciplined way and offer them criticism and support in an environment where they could refine the creative powers they already possessed. Only Ken Kesey, the author One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), who conducted a long and bitter personal attack on Stegner, dissented from the consensus that Stegner had played an important part in their creative development. Stegner used Kesey as the model for one of the main characters in All the Little Live Things (1967).

Despite the demands of his Stanford writing program, Stegner continued to produce a steady output of work, including two novels, Second Growth (1947) and The Preacher and the Slave (1950), subsequently published as Joe Hill: A Biographical Novel (1969); as well as a second history of Utah, The Gathering ofZion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964). He developed his environmental concerns first in a biography, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), and then in This is Dinosaur: Echo Park and Its Magic Rivers (1955). He helped to define and defend the goals of a newly invigorated environmental movement in a steady stream of magazine articles, some of which he collected in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1962) and The Sound of Mountain Water (1969). He was invited by Stewart Lee Udall, President John F. Kennedy’s secretary of the interior, to be his special assistant (1961), and he served a four-year term on the Advisory Board on National Parks, Historic Sites, Buildings, and Monuments and in the final year was its chairman (1962-1966). His most influential statement was his “Wilderness Letter” (1960)—reprinted as “Coda” in The Sound of Mountain Water—which helped secure the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and was widely used as a manifesto for conservationists worldwide.

The years from 1972 on may well have been his most productive. Angle of Repose (1971), which some consider his masterpiece, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (1974) raised important questions about conservation efforts in the United States. The Spectator Bird (1976) garnered the National Book Award in 1977, and Recapitulation (1979), an autobiographical novel, looked back at his college years. His last novel, Crossing to Safety (1987), an examination of friendships over time; Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner; and a compilation of his essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992), were each nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

He was in Santa Fe in March 1993 for an awards ceremony, when the rental car he was driving on a rain-slick road at night was broadsided by another vehicle. He died in the local hospital two weeks later of complications from his numerous injuries. His remains were cremated and his ashes scattered on a hillside near his summer cottage in Greensboro, Vermont.

Shortly after Stegner’s death, his daughter-in-law wrote that he was always aware of the road he traveled and of the road that still lay ahead. Such an awareness informed most of what he wrote and taught. A sense of place, landscapes, and history permeates his work. Standing in the front ranks of American writers in the latter half of the twentieth century, Stegner sought to capture the truth of ordinary lives and the intricacies of relationships. His students remained his devoted acolytes long after they left his classroom. His impact on the environmental movement, as both a theorist and an activist, was enormous. He was, as his friends said in tribute, a model of generosity and compassion, of discipline and integrity—the embodiment of the themes that lay at the center of his fiction.

Stegner’s papers, including an unpublished autobiography, are in the Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. His few published autobiographical essays are in Wolf Willow. A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1962); The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West (1969); and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992). See also “Autobiography: Wallace Steg-ner” in Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series, v. 9 (1989). Stegner provided interviews and unrestricted access to his papers to his biographer, Jackson J. Benson, Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work^ (1996). His views on writing, history, and the American West can be found in Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Westem History and Literature, with Richard W. Etulain (1983; revised 1990); Wallace Stegner, On the Teaching of Creative Writing: Responses to a Series of Questions, edited by Edward Connery Lathem (1988), from his 1980 term as a Montgomery Fellow at Dartmouth; and James R. Hepworth, Stealing Glances: Three Interviews with Wallace Stegner (1998). For Stegner’s writings, see Nancy Colberg, Wallace Stegner: A Descriptive Bibliography (1990). Critical studies include Forrest G. and Margaret G. Robinson, Wallace Stegner (1977); Anthony Arthur, ed., Critical Essays on Wallace Stegner (1982); Charles E. Rankin, ed., Wallace Stegner: Man and Writer (1996); and Curt Meine, ed., Wallace Stegner and the Continental Vision: Essays on Literature, History and Landscape (1997). Former students, colleagues, and family offer reminiscences in Page Stegner and Mary Stegner, eds., The Geography of Hope: A Tribute to Wallace Stegner (1996). An obituary is in the New York Times (15 Apr. 1993).

Allan L. Damon