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Paul Willis

Secular Saint

Milton said that a good poet must first be a good man. Wallace Stegner is one of the few twentieth-century writers who took this to heart.

In 1934 a graduate student from the University of Iowa was regularly hitchhiking the 50 miles to Rock Island, Illinois, to teach at Augustana College. At half-time, four courses a semester, he constituted the English department. It was hard work, but $900 a year was fair money in the Depression, so the young teacher was sorry to receive a letter from the board demanding to know if it were true that he was an agnostic and atheist, a disbeliever in the Augsburg Confession. Wallace Stegner wrote back to the Lutheran board "that he didn't see how he could be an agnostic and an atheist at the same time—which seemed to him philosophically difficult—and that as far as the Augsburg Confession was concerned, he couldn't remember ever having read it."

This is the kind of profile in courage that Jackson Benson sketches so approvingly in his biography of the late novelist Wallace Stegner. Not surprisingly, Benson's book has been scorned in the New York Times Book Review as an injudicious exercise in hero worship. But if Benson seems adulatory—and he is—most readers of Stegner will affirm there is much to admire, both in the man and in his work. Benson's biography, the first on his subject to appear, serves as an illuminating if somewhat awestruck retrospect on the long lifetime of professional, civic, and literary effort that has made Stegner (1909-93) a national treasure.

It was John Milton who said that a good poet must first of all be a good man. Benson in effect argues that few writers of the twentieth century have taken this dictum to heart, and that Stegner was one who did. Benson's emphasis on the moral seriousness of the writer and his work is terribly unfashionable, but in the long run it may have been these very moral qualities that have made Stegner so durable. In over half a century as an active writer, Stegner published twelve novels, ten volumes of essays and short stories, and six works of history and biography. Many, if not most, of these books ...

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