Wallace Earle Stegner (February 18, 1909 — April 13, 1993) was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist, often called "The Dean of Western Writers". Stegner's themes usually revolve around family relationships and friendships and belie a reverence for the land, for nature, and for rural simplicity and independence.
As a historian, Stegner concerned himself with the issues of community and individuality, wilderness and its exploitation, and the meaning of the frontier. An early environmentalist, he actively championed the region's preservation and his now famous Wilderness Letter was instrumental in the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
Among his many literary prizes are the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). His collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), was one of several of his works nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Angle of Repose was selected by the editorial board of the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.
Stegner, the founder of the Stanford University graduate program in creative writing, also wrote many nonfiction works. One of his most significant was "One Nation" (1945), a collection of photographs illustrating the corrosive effect of racial prejudice in the United States. The book was a co-winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best book of the year on race relations.
Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa and grew up in Great Falls, Montana, Salt Lake City, Utah and southern Saskatchewan, which he wrote about in his autobiography Wolf Willow. Stegner says he "lived in 20 places in eight states and Canada".
Most of his childhood was spent moving from place to place as his father, George Stegner, a restless man who was always in search of a way to get rich quick. After a short time in an orphanage at the age of four his family finally settled in Saskatchewan, Canada, living at first in a derailed dining car. Stegner's father built a gabled house in the town and a shack on the homestead 40 miles away where they spent their summers growing wheat. Stegner's father alternated between living with his wife and two sons to roaming the frontier. His father's life ended violently when he killed a woman he was with and then took his own life.
When Stegner was eleven, the family moved to Great Falls, Montana where first had access to a public library. He wrote, "It wasn't until [we moved again to] Salt Lake City, that I began to be a real addict. I would go down to the library two or three times a week to bring away three or four books each time, without any direction."
He spent nearly 20 years in Salt Lake, from 1921 to 1937, and attended East High School and the University of Utah. While living in Utah, he joined a Boy Scout troop at a Mormon church (although he himself was a Presbyterian) and earned the Eagle Scout award.
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 a master's degree in 1932 and a doctorate in 1935 from the State University of Iowa.
While at Iowa he met his wife, Mary Page. After graduation they moved back to the West where he found a teaching position at the University of Utah. While there Stegner wrote Remembering Laughter, which won a novelette contest advertized by Little, Brown and Company. This marked the real beginning of his writing career. In 1937, he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Two years later, he moved farther East and accepted a faculty post at Harvard University. It was during his time there that he completed his first big novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. This autobiographical work was published in 1943.
He remained at Harvard until 1945 when he moved back to the West and Stanford University. He served as the director of Stanford's Creative Writing Center from 1946 to 1971. Retiring in 1971 to devote himself full-time to writing, Stegner went on to publish eleven more major works including the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Angle of Repose and the National Book Award winner of 1977, The Spectator Bird. He would also win three O. Henry prizes, a Commonwealth Gold Medal, and the Western History Association Prize.
His students included Sandra Day O'Connor, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Simin Daneshvar, George V. Higgins, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey, Gordon Lish, Ernest Gaines, and Larry McMurtry.
Stegner's novels included 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 and two sons' efforts to cope with life by coming to understand their father's failings.
He also wrote 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).
His non-fiction works include Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), a biography of John Wesley Powell, the first man to explore the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and his subsequent career as a government scientist and advocate of water conservation in the American West. When former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt first read Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, he said, "it was as though someone had thrown a rock through the window. Stegner showed us the limitations of aridity and the need for human institutions to respond in a cooperative way. He provided me in that moment with a way of thinking about the American West, the importance of finding true partnership between human beings and the land."
A central theme of both his fiction and nonfiction was the way the West works, in fact, not in myth. Often his work gave early voice to ideas that are now conventional wisdom, like the centrality of water politics to the region.
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West is devoted to debunking certain Western ideals and claiming they are illusions and mirages. This book of essays takes its title from the same song that supplied the title of one of his best known novels, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The song, a hobo ballad supposedly written by Harry McClintock in the 1920s, describes "a land that's fair and bright, where the handouts grow on bushes," where "the sun shines every day" and "the blue bird sings in the Big Rock Candy Mountains."
Stegner argues that hubris and an unshakable belief in progress have led Americans to try to engineer the West's aridity out of existence, but this determination to dominate nature has simply led to dammed, diverted and debilitated rivers, and to cities and farms vulnerable to drought.
Stegner's novel Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972, and was directly based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote (later published as the memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West). Stegner's use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote's letters caused a controversy as many accused him of plagiarism. The book also stirred controversy when the New York Times refused to review it. Stegner's supporters considered this a snub by the Eastern Establishment against the West.
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.
Like The Big Rock Candy Mountain, one of the themes of Angle of Repose is the emotional and psychological tug-of-war between a man filled with wanderlust and a woman who yearns for stability, gentleness, and permanence of place.
In 1979, Recapitulation was published. In the novel, a sequel to Big Rock Candy Mountain, a diplomat in his seventies returns to Salt Lake City to attend the funeral of an aunt. During his stay, his memories confront his adolescence and, in particular, his hatred for his father. By looking back he is able to see things in a different light, and come to a sense of acceptance of his past, a reconciliation.
Crossing to Safety, Stegner's last novel, was published in 1987. It is a story of a 34-year friendship between two couples who meet in 1938 as young academics at the University of Wisconsin. Through life's ups and downs, they remain devoted and loyal and as a final test of friendship, the character Charity summons the Morgans from New Mexico to Vermont to help her die. Stegner's biographer, Jackson Benson, suggests, the novel is "a meditation on the nature of memory, the processes of remembering, how and why we do so,and what it does to us."
Although always connected in people's minds with the West, Stegner had a long association with New England. Many short stories and Crossing to Safety, are set in Vermont, where he had a summer home for many years.
His first move towards 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 John Wesley Powell's biography. 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 famed "Wilderness Letter", originally a private communication with his peers on the board of the Sierra Club. He closed by saying,
"We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
The letter was read at the Sierra Club's Seventh Biennial Wilderness Conference, and later published in full in the Washington Post. It was an important impetus to the growing national consensus that led to the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the legal definition of "wilderness" in the United States, and protected some nine million acres of Federal land.
He served briefly in Washington, D.C. as a special assistant to Stewart Udall, the conservation-minded Secretary of the Interior under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Stegner spent three months in Washington 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 he remained a member of for nearly 40 years.
With his son Page, also a novelist and writer about the environment, Stegner published a book of essays about wilderness areas in the United States entitled American Places (1981).
In 1992, protesting government involvement in the arts, he turned down the National Medal from the National Endowment for the Arts, saying government "has no business trying to direct or censor [the arts]."
Stegner died in Santa Fe, New Mexico on April 13, 1993, from injuries suffered in an automobile accident on March 28, 1993. His ashes were scattered on a hill near the cottage in Greensboro, Vermont, where he and his family had spent many summers and where he set his last novel, Crossing to Safety.
In 1990, the Wallace Stegner House, Eastend, Saskatchewan, Canada, was restored by the Eastend Arts Council and established as a Residence for Artists. The House is available as a Writer/Artist’s residence for stays from one week to up to eleven months.
The Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment, established by the University of Utah's S. J. Quinney College of Law celebrated the centennial of Stegner’s birth on February 18, 1909, with its 14th Annual Symposium, Wallace Stegner: His Life and Legacy. The symposium brought together a select group of former Stegner fellows, writers, and poets; conservationists; historians; public officials; and others to explore Stegner’s life and his ongoing influence on subsequent generations.
A new documentary on Wallace Stegner, featuring interviews with former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the late Edward Abbey, ex-U.S. Department of Interior secretaries Bruce Babbitt and Stewart Udall, environmentalist and river guide Martin Litton and biographer Phillip Fradkin was used in a variety of centennial celebrations.
His son, Page Stegner, is a nature writer and professor emeritus at University of California, Santa Cruz.
The Stegner Fellowship program is a two-year creative writing fellowship at Stanford University. Ten fellowships are awarded every year, five in fiction and five in poetry. The recipients do not need a degree to receive the fellowships, though many fellows do have MFA degrees in Creative Writing. No degree is awarded after the two-year fellowship.
The Wallace Stegner Prize is awarded annually to the best monograph submitted to the University of Utah Press in the subject areas of environmental and American western history. The winner of the Wallace Stegner Prize receives a $10,000 award and a publication contract with the University of Utah Press.
Plus: Three O. Henry Awards, twice a Guggenheim Fellow, Senior Fellow of the National Institute of Humanities, member of National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters, member National Academy of Arts and Sciences.
All links retrieved October 15, 2016.
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