The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner
480 pp., 16.95
Wallace Stegner and the American West
Philip L. Fradkin
University of California Press, 2009
406 pp., 26.95
Richard W. Etulain
Wise Man of the American West
The centennial of Wallace Stegner's birth (1909- 2009) is upon us. Two books and a documentary film provide valuable glimpses of his major importance as a writer and environmental activist. They also correct mistaken notions about Stegner.
Stegner sometimes suffered from misidentification. Some depicted him as a literary blood brother to Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour. Others portrayed him as a hidebound traditionalist unable to adjust to the modern West. Late in his career, a handful of misguided critics went so far as to charge Stegner with plagiarism.
These critics and naysayers miss Stegner's major contributions as a novelist, historian, and biographer of the American West. He was also a highly respected professor of literature and a leading teacher of creative writing at Stanford University, as well as an internationally known advocate of conservation. Nearly all of his works and most of his ecological writings dealt with the West beyond the Mississippi.
Wallace Stegner zoomed out of nowhere to become a leading western writer and public intellectual. Born the son of a ne'er do well frontiersman who had itchy feet and huge, unrealistic dreams of a "big rock candy mountain," Stegner struggled to find himself as a boy and youth, first in an isolated hamlet in western Canada and later in Salt Lake City, among the Mormons. But his domestic and nurturing mother—Stegner described her as a "nester" —encouraged him to read and protected him from his father's flaming temper. A voracious reader, Stegner graduated from the University of Utah and gained a PhD in English in 1935 from the University of Iowa. After short stints of teaching at the University of Utah (1935-1937) and the University of Wisconsin (1937- 1939), Stegner landed at Harvard (1939-1944). With his fourth novel, Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), Stegner had also arrived literarily. In 1945, he returned west "like a trout chasing a new lure"; Stanford had "bought" him from Harvard to launch a new school of creative writing.
Stegner's abundant talents, ambition, and increasingly expanding professional connections quickly placed him among the widely recognized authors writing about the American West. Even while he directed what became one of the country's finest writing programs at Stanford, Stegner turned out a steady stream of novels, short stories and essays, and nonfiction books about the West. But his most important recognition came from the early 1970s onward, after he had retired. In 1972, his lengthy novel about old and new Wests, Angle of Repose (1971), won a Pulitzer Prize. A splendid biography of one of his mentors, The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (1974), nearly snagged a second Pulitzer. Another novel, The Spectator Bird (1976), gained a National Book Award in 1977. His final novel, Crossing to Safety (1987), and his Collected Stories (1990) garnered prizes,best-seller status, and warmly positive reviews. He remained active as a writer, speaker, and environmental advocate until a car accident in Santa Fe ended his life in 1993.
Two recently published books, Page Stegner's The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner and Philip L. Fradkin's Wallace Stegner and the American West, illuminate and illustrate Stegner's large accomplishments as a writer and thinker. They also provide fuller, more complex portraits of the man behind his achievements.
Nearly every morning before Wallace Stegner began his daily stint of writing, he warmed up his two-fingered typing regimen with letters to friends, colleagues, and editors. The 285 letters that Page Stegner (Wallace Stegner's son and only child) gathers in his collection reveal a multitalented, ambitious, and hard-working writer, teacher, and conservation spokesman. Topically organized, Page's volume includes letters from biographers and critics, about individual Stegner books, from friends and family, about Stegner's literary career and his years at Stanford, on history and historians, and about conservation.
Stegner's letters overflow with valuable insights, inviting turns of phrase, and abundant wit. About the shaping power of region, he writes to his earlier biographer, Jackson J. Benson: "I suppose I do subscribe to the notion that places … have a lot to do with the formation of character." To another correspondent he apologizes: "I am only slow as a sinful conscience." He confesses, too, his need to reread important books: "A leaky mind knows no mending, it has to be refilled over and over." Any writer victimized by a killer review would nod in vicarious delight at Stegner's comment that "reviewers are about their old proportion of stupids to wise men, illiterates to those can and do read."
Stegner's letters also illuminate his views on religion and morality. Early in his career Augustana College, a small Lutheran school in Illinois, fired Stegner "for being an atheist." "I guess I am an infidel at heart," Stegner told his sweetheart, Mary Page, who became his wife the following summer in 1934. Later he confessed that "ecology is as close to religious feeling as I'm likely to come." But on the need for upright human conduct he could be stern and almost puritanical—for himself and for others. He instructed his grandson Page to "obey the rules, remember your manners, and be a Good Camper." A stringent code of conduct and demanding tests of character were centrally important in Stegner's life, so he often prescribed and preached about those topics to family members and friends.
Page Stegner provides a brief introduction to his father's letters as well as abbreviated comments prefacing each of the eight sections of his book. The longest section brings together letters from "Special Friends and Family"; a shorter section on "Conservation" includes Stegner's remarkable "Wilderness Letter," dated December 3, 1960, first published as part of a commission report to Congress. The closing words of this famous letter— wilderness is "the geography of hope"—remain Stegner's most widely quoted. Page furnishes a few useful explanatory notes and a chronology of his father's life. Even more contextual background and additional notes would have been valuable for readers coming to Stegner for the first time.
In Wallace Stegner and the American West, Philip Fradkin deals primarily with three important facets of Stegner's life and career. First, he demonstrates how specific places shaped Stegner's life and character; second, he discusses Stegner's important role as a teacher of writing; and third, he treats selective parts of Stegner's literary career. Along the way, he also clarifies how and why Wallace Wallace Stegner became the leading voice of the American West from the 1960s into the 1990s—and perhaps remains so in the 21st century.
Fradkin isexplicit about his major purposes. Rather than emphasize Stegner's literary career, as previous biographers have, he is "more intrigued by the whole man … set against the passing backdrops of his life." This book, Fradkin adds, is "about a man and the physical landscapes he inhabited and how they influenced him." The author's discussions of Stegner's life-shaping links with East End, Saskatchewan, Salt Lake City, Stanford University, and the small town of Greensboro, Vermont, are particularly illuminating and convincing. Previous interpretations of Stegner have been too uncritical, Fradkin argues, and failed to deal with his temper, his tendency to hold grudges, and his inability to deal with change. These parts of Fradkin's biography might have upset Stegner, for he avoided dealing with the private lives of John Wesley Powell and Bernard DeVoto in his biographies of those two men. He also blocked and held at a distance interviewers who tried to raise questions about his own private life.
One of themost significant sections of Fradkin's biography deals with Stegner's large contributions to conservation efforts. A skilled and Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist/historian himself, Fradkin is particularly sensitive to Stegner's reluctant involvement in activist groups like the Sierra Club. Rather than manning picket lines, Stegner preferred writing about conservation, as he did in numerous essays and in his notable biography, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954). Later, Stegner spent a few months in Washington, D.C., helping Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall prepare his book The Quiet Crisis (1963). And through the publication of his edited book This Is Dinosaur (1955), Stegner helped thwart additional dams in the Dinosaur National Monument. In addition to serving on national committees to expand the national park system and promote other environmental measures, Stegner spearheaded a local group in his Los Altos Hills area, west of the Stanford campus, attempting to impede the rush of real estate developers. If he and his neighbors failed to head off these troublemakers, Stegner warned, "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my floods, whence cometh my mudslides, whence cometh my neighbor's house." Stegner's important writings on conservation and ecology, as Fradkin notes, place him in a long line of notable American appreciators of nature and advocates of conservation, stretching from Henry David Thoreau, through John Muir and Aldo Leopold, and on to Rachael Carson.
Fradkin's treatment of Stegner's central role in Stanford's Creative Writing Program is the fullest and most revealing account of that subject to date. When Stegner arrived at the Palo Alto campus in 1946, he gained the support of a well-to-do Texas oil man whose brother chaired the university's English Department. With this backing, Stegner created a first-rate graduate-level program in writing (it remains today a top -notch program). Among Stegner's students were Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, Nancy Packer, and Wendell Berry. Although Kesey and Stegner had a falling out—largely because of Kesey's nose-thumbing disregard for guidelines—most students found Stegner a skilled administrator and a wonderfully supportive if essentially nondirective teacher. With Wendell Berry, Stegner forged a father-son and then intimate-friend relationship. Stegner especially admired Berry's sound "character," his earthbound ties, and his nourishing southern roots.
Fradkin's biography and Stegner's own letters indicate how much he endeavored to break free from an earlier myth-ridden West of rugged individualism and to move toward a modern West exhibiting a communal-mindedness and a realistic and helpful environmental ethic. "I grew up in a cowboy culture," Stegner told poet Gary Snyder, "and have been trying to get it out of my thinking and feeling every since." Over time, Stegner abandoned his father George Stegner's "boomer" attitudes and reckless frontier boosterism and gradually embraced the group partnerships he observed among the Mormons and in the life and writings of John Wesley Powell. As Fradkin points out, Stegner realized that westerners needed to move beyond their extractive frontier mentality, understand the necessity of forging community links, and avoid spoiling their fragile environment. He apprehended, too, how addicted westerners and others were to distorted images of a Wild West in popular fiction and films. An interviewer asked him later in life what were the differences between him and Louis L'Amour. They were both westerners, they were about the same age, and both thought they told the truth about the West. So what was the difference? With a chuckle Stegner replied: "Only a few million dollars."
In discussing Stegner the author, Fradkin provides extensive coverage of the controversies swirling around Stegner's prize-winning novel Angle of Repose. His treatment of this contentious subject is thoroughly researched, even-handed, and persuasive. Fradkin correctly concludes that all participants in the brouhaha made mistakes. In preparing his sprawling novel, Stegner made large use of the letters and unpublished autobiography of Mary Hallock Foote, a talented Local Color writer and artist. Stegner requested permission from Foote's descendents to use these materials but failed to make clear how extensively he would use them. Nor did Stegner's brief headnote for the novel reveal much about the extent to which he has creatively appropriated Foote's unpublished work. In turn the Foote family did not read or comment on the manuscript of the novel when Stegner asked them to do so. And once the book was published, they seemed unable to accept that Stegner had written a novel, not a biography, of their grandmother. Fradkin saves his sharpest darts for critics who accuse Stegner of willful and deceitful plagiarism. He's right in arguing that if they had read Stegner's letters on file at the University of Utah and conscientiously interviewed all those involved in the controversy, those critics might never have published their harshest criticisms. To Stegner's credit, when preparing his final novel Crossing to Safety, he wrote to all six children of the couple portrayed in the novel and secured permission to use the lives of their parents before publishing that work.
Fradkin's biography sparkles with insights, well-turned phrases, and lively pen portraits. It also complements the previously published literary biography by Jackson J. Benson, Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work (1996). Benson's thoroughly researched and smoothly written biography was savagely and unfairly reviewed in The New York Times Book Review by a distinguished scholar of 19th-century English literature who knew not Stegner and thought the novelist much more humanly flawed than Benson did. In contrast to Benson, Fradkin eschews literary criticism and emphasizes instead the molding power of places and experiences in shaping Stegner's character.
Some readers may disagree with a few of Fradkin's conclusions. He describes Stegner as a man of "implacable" anger who "rarely forgave"; as a person "captive to … guilt" and unable to "adapt" to change. But nearly all of Stegner's colleagues, students, and friends characterized him as a gentlemanly—even courtly—person, a man with abundant patience, and frequently willing to help deserving students and friends. Perhaps in wishing to avoid a work of hagiography, Fradkin went too far in the other direction. One must grant him, of course, the content of his witnesses' testimonies. But if one's sources on Stegner are writer Ken Kesey, editor John Leonard of The New York Times Book Review, Stanford colleague Yvor Winters, and family critics, Stegner's blotches may seem larger and more negative; conversely, follow the comealy_ments of authors Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey, Stanford colleague Richard Schoolcraft, interviewer Richard Etulain, and wife Mary Stegner, and Wallace Stegner looms as an extraordinary teacher, writer, and human being. Not a few readers will be convinced that the greater weight of convincing evidence lies with the latter group.
Finally, Wallace Stegner: A Documentary, broadcast by PBS to mark the centennial of his birth, provides a brief overview of Stegner's major roles as environmental thinker and writer. Not as analytical or as smoothly presented as it might be, the sixty-minute documentary produced by KUED of Salt Lake City nonetheless furnishes a brief, balanced introduction to Stegner, including evocative glimpses of some of the landscapes that captured his imagination.
The limitations of the two books and the documentary are minor quibbles. Page Stegner's helpful collection of his father's correspondence supplies much previously unpublished information. In the same way, Philip Fradkin's invitingly written biography portrays Stegner in a more human and complex light. Together these two volumes and the documentary film provide further evidence of Wallace Stegner's large contributions as an author, teacher, and environmentalist. He remains our Wise Man of the American West. We have not found anyone to replace him.
Richard W. Etulain, professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico, is author or editor of more than 40 books. He collaborated with Stegner on Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature (1983, 1996). His latest book, Lincoln Looks West: From the Mississippi to the Pacific, is forthcoming. He is preparing the centennial history of Northwest Nazarene University.
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