Wallace Stegner

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Wallace Stegner

Although sometimes categorized as merely a "western writer," Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was more than that: he wrote 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction, served as a mentor to many young writers, and worked in support of conservation issues throughout his lifetime.

Wallace Stegner was born on February 18, 1909, in the rural community of Lake Mills, Iowa. Most of his childhood was spent moving from place to place as his father, George Stegner, a restless schemer, searched for a way to get rich quick. The family finally settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, although Stegner's father alternated between living with his wife and two sons to roaming the frontier, in search of his ultimate opportunity. George Stegner's life ended violently when he killed a woman he was with and then took his own life. Stegner purposely set out to be unlike his father by becoming bookish. Reading and writing gave him a hold on the world. As he said later, "What I most wanted was to belong to something" (Audubon). His father became, for Stegner, the model for many characters in his books: characters who relentlessly and thoughtlessly sought personal gain without any consideration for who or what they destroyed in the process.

Making His Own Way

As a young man Stegner worked his way through the University of Utah, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1930. He went on to earn an master's degree in 1932 and a doctorate in 1935 from the State University of Iowa. In between his stints in graduate school and for the next several years after, he worked as an instructor at various institutions, including Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, the University of Utah at Salt Lake City, and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. In 1937, Stegner published his first novel, Remembering Laughter, which won first prize in a contest sponsored by the publishing company Little, Brown. He won $2500, which at that time was a fortune. The book became a literary and financial success and helped gain Stegner a position as an instructor at Harvard University, where he taught composition from 1939 to 1945. Stegner married Mary Stuart Page in 1934. The couple enjoyed a 59-year marriage and had one son, Stuart Page.

Writer and Mentor

Stegner wrote several more books over the next few years, including the novels On a Darkling Plain, a story about a Canadian veteran who seeks peace on the prairie (1940), and Fire and Ice, about a college student who temporarily joins the communist party (1941). Mormon Country, published in 1942, was a nonfiction account of the Mormon culture. None of the books achieved the success of his first novel until the publication of The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1943. The novel is largely autobiographical, telling the story of a family's travels over the American and Canadian West as the father, Bo, relentlessly searches for the opportunity that will earn him his fortune. The character of Bo is obviously based on Stegner's own father, and the book, according to Mark Mardon of Sierra magazine, "expressed the dim view he [Stegner] held of those who exploit the West in their elusive dreams of grandeur."

At the end of World War II, Stegner returned to the West and became a professor of English at Stanford University in California, where he remained until 1969. At Stanford he set up what would become one of the most elite writing programs in the country and directed that program until 1971. Stegner established himself as what Peter Collier of Audubon magazine called "the leading teacher of writing of his generation." Some of the writers Stegner taught, who would eventually become well known, were Larry McMurty, Wendell Berry, Tillie Olsen, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, and future U.S. poet laureate, Robert Haas. In addition to his teaching achievements, Stegner was named a Guggenheim Fellow twice, in 1949 and 1959; was awarded a Rockefeller fellowship to teach writers in the Far East in 1950-1951; gained a Wenner-Gren Foundation grant in 1953; received a Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences fellowship in 1956; and received several honorary degrees from various institutions. He also continued to write, publishing the novels Second Growth, which compared the lives of residents and visitors in New Hampshire (1947); The Preacher and the Slave, (1950); A Shooting Star, which told about the lives of wealthy northern Californians (1961); and All the Little Live Things, which contrasted the lives of an older cultured man and a young hippie (1967).

The Pulitzer Prize

Stegner left Stanford in 1971 and devoted his time to writing. In 1972, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Angel of Repose, a work that James D. Houston of the Los Angeles Times Book Review said is now "recognized as a masterpiece." It was also made into an opera by Oakley Hall and Andrew Imbrie in 1976. The book tells the story of a retired history professor in California who is editing the papers of his grandmother, a writer and illustrator of the nineteenth century. The professor has taken on the project to forget his own marital and health problems, and as he imagines the lives of his grandparents, he reflects on, and comes to an understanding of, his own life. This blending of past and present is vital to Stegner's major works and was apparent again in Stegner's 1976 novel The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977. In The Spectator Bird, the older man first introduced in All the Little Live Things recounts a romantic event of his youth.

Stegner's concern with the past's influence on the present and a societal sense of identity is most apparent, though, in his nonfiction books. In discussing his love for the writing of history and his book The Sound of Mountain Water: The Changing American West, published in 1969, Stegner told David Dillon of the Southwest Review, "I think to become aware of your life, to examine your life in the best Socratic way, is to become aware of history and of how little history is written, formed, and shaped. I also think that writers in a new tradition, in a new country, invariably, by a kind of reverse twist of irony, become hooked on the past, which in effect doesn't exist and therefore has to be created even more than the present needs to be created." In his personal and public history of the "last plains frontier," where Montana and Saskatchewan meet and where Stegner grew up, titled Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and Memory of the Last Plains (1962), Stegner searches for his own identity: "I may not know who I am," Stegner says in the book, "but I know where I came from."

Although Stegner is often classified as a regional writer, and many would agree with Daniel King of World Literature Today that Stegner is "the greatest writer of the West," others assert that he is much more than that. Richard H. Simpson of the Dictionary of Literary Biography maintains that his "main region is the human spirit" and "the central theme of all of his work is the quest for identity, personal and regional, artistic and cultural." James Hepworth in The Quiet Revolutionary points out that not all of Stegner's fiction is set in the West but that, certainly, "his impact, historically and environmentally, is Western."

Environmental Concerns

Stegner's childhood experiences and the respect he developed for the wilderness while living in Saskatchewan undoubtedly had an influence on his future involvement in environmental and social issues. The first sign of what he might very reluctantly called activism came when he published the nonfiction work One Nation in 1945. The book criticized the racial and religious lines that were being drawn in the United States and was a foreshadowing of the social commentary Stegner would make in his later years. One Nation was recognized for its important message and won the Houghton-Mifflin Life-in-America Award and the Ainsfield-Wolfe Award, both in 1945. In 1953, he was convinced by a friend who was an editor at Harper's Magazine to write an article about the threats to the U.S. public lands. The following year Stegner published a biography about John Wesley Powell, a Colorado River explorer. The book gained the attention of David Bower, who was working to save the Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Utah, which was in danger of being flooded behind proposed dams on the Green River. This is Dinosaur, published in 1955, was Stegner's contribution to that cause, which helped keep the river flowing freely.

In 1960, Stegner wrote his famous Wildnerness Letter, which was originally delivered as a speech to David Pesonen of the University of California's Wildlands Research Center, who was conducting a national wilderness inventory for a presidential commission. In this speech Stegner said, "I want to speak for the wilderness idea as something that has helped form our character and that has certainly shaped our history as a people. Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed" (Sierra). Stegner did not think his message was extraordinary at the time, but it became a mission statement harked by conservationists around the world, despite its distinctly American references. It was also used to introduce the bill that established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

Stegner's involvement in environmental causes intensified when he was invited to be an assistant to the secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, in 1961. Stegner spent three months in Washington, D.C. and, as a result of his research, published The Quiet Crisis (1963). In 1962, Udall appointed Stegner to the National Parks Advisory Board. This was followed by a three-year term on the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, an organization on which Stegner had a profound effect and in which he participated for nearly 40 years. Vice-president of the Club, Edgar Wayburn, told Sierramagazine that Stegner "captured the possibilities and spirit of the American West. He understood what it could be."

Stegner's Legacy

Despite great efforts in the conservation movement, Stegner considered himself first and foremost to be a writer. He continued to write both fiction and nonfiction until his death. Stegner published a Collected Stories edition in 1990, and his Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs, Living and Writing in the West (1992) consists of 16 essays on everything from family memories to environmental concerns. His last novel, Crossing to Safety, prompted Doris Grumbach of the New York Times Book Review to state that "Clearly Mr. Stegner has not gone unnoticed. But neither is he a household name, as he deserves to be."

Stegner died of injuries resulting from a car accident in Santa Fe, New Mexico, on April 13, 1993. He left a legacy as a teacher, an environmentalist, and, above all, a writer. Simply put by Daniel L. Dustin of the Journal of Leisure Research, he was "a highly gifted writer who practiced what he preached."

Further Reading

Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia, fourth ed., edited by Bruce Murphy, Harper Collins, 1996.

Oxford Companion to American Literature, sixth ed., edited by James D. Hart, Oxford University Press, 1995.

Audubon, January 1997.

Backpacker, June 1998.

Journal of Leisure Research, Second Quarter 1998.

Sierra, July 1993.

World Literature Today, Winter 1998.

"Wallace Stegner," The Wallace Stegner Environmental Center, http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/stegner (March 1, 1999). □

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