Wallace Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, on February 18, 1909, the son of George and Hilda Paulson Stegner. His father was a dynamic but unstable dreamer who was always coming up with schemes to strike it rich in some new part of the West. Stegner’s mother cherished culture, tradition, polite manners, and all the values of established civilization. She was mismatched to the rowdy, uncouth George Stegner but remained with him until her death from cancer in 1933.
Stegner had an unstable childhood because his family was always moving. They lived in Iowa, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Utah. This is the vast region that Stegner would write about for the rest of his life. He worshiped his mother but had mixed feelings about his improvident father, who sometimes provided the family with luxuries and sometimes led them to the brink of starvation.
Wallace, a sickly and timid boy, buried himself in books. He did so well in school that he was able to enter the University of Utah at the age of sixteen. During this time he began to conceive the possibility of becoming a professional writer, but he wisely continued with his academic work and remained a scholar and teacher throughout his life. He taught at a number of different colleges and universities, gradually building a reputation and achieving financial security. His salary as a professor enabled him to devote time to writing without financial anxiety, and his growing number of...
Stegner loved the landscape and people of the West. He believed in the traditional American virtues of hard work, integrity, and fair play. Although he was as good a writer as any of his more famous contemporaries, he did not achieve spectacular commercial success because he avoided sensationalism. He wrote in the great tradition of American realism and wanted to depict the real West, which was vastly different from the violent West of the popular media. He taught literature and creative writing for much of his life and inspired many young writers.
Wallace was so impressed by his own family history that he wrote thinly disguised versions of it in many novels and stories. Stegner was attracted to his father’s adventurous spirit and his mother’s high moral principles; he spent the rest of his life trying to reconcile these conflicting elements in his own nature through his writing.
Born in Iowa on his grandfather’s farm, Wallace Earle Stegner moved with his family to East End, Saskatchewan at the age of five. He was educated in Utah, where he received an A.B. from the University of Utah, in 1930; and in his native state, where he earned an M.A., in 1932, and a Ph.D., in 1935, from the University of Iowa. Although he was briefly enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles, he never actually attended any classes—he did not like California and returned to Utah as soon as he could.
Stegner once commented that his subjects and themes, both in fiction and in nonfiction, “are mainly out of the American West, in which I grew up.” He taught at various colleges and universities, primarily at Stanford University, where he was director of its creative writing program. Stegner coauthored books with both his wife, Mary, and his son, Page, but he stopped publishing short stories after 1960. He said that everything he wanted to write “somehow wanted to be long.” His attention continued to remain focused on the environment, a concern that began after World War II but that probably dated back to his childhood, when, as he said, he was “imprinted by the prairies.”
Wallace Earle Stegner was born on February 18, 1909, in Lake Mills, Iowa, the second son of George and Hilda Paulson Stegner. He was descended from Norwegian farmers on his mother’s side and unknown ancestors on his father’s side. His father was a drifter and a resourceful gambler—a searcher for the main chance, the big bonanza. In Stegner’s early years, the family moved often, following his father’s dream of striking it rich, from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to Bellingham, Washington, to Redmond, Oregon, to East End, Saskatchewan, where they lived from 1914 to 1921. East End left him with memories of people and landscapes that played an important role in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The family moved in 1921 to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Stegner attended high school and began college. Here, Stegner went through the pains of adolescence and, although not himself a Mormon, developed a strong attachment to the land and a sympathy for Mormon culture and values, which are reflected in his later books such as Mormon Country (1942), The Gathering of Zion, and Recapitulation.
From 1925 to 1930, Stegner attended the University of Utah, where he balanced his personal interests and his studies with a job selling rugs and linoleum in the family business of a close friend. By a fortunate chance, he studied freshman English with Vardis Fisher, then a budding novelist, and Fisher helped stimulate Stegner’s growing interest...
Wallace Stegner’s first work, Remembering Laughter (1937), was published after he won the Little, Brown contest. For more than fifty years after that publication date, Stegner published novels, novellas, short stories, essays, biographies, and additional nonfiction work. Many of Stegner’s fictional works were based on his life or the lives of Western figures. As a child, Stegner and his family moved to such places as Saskatchewan, Canada, Washington State, Iowa, Montana, and Salt Like City, Utah. This migratory childhood is reflected in Stegner’s first major novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The novel tells of the Mason family’s history as they move about the West following the father’s search for his fortune.
In addition to being a writer, Stegner was long respected as a teacher. He attended the University of Utah, where he was influenced by novelist Vardis Fisher, his freshman English teacher. At the University of Iowa, Stegner met and later married Mary Stuart Page. They had a son, Page, in 1937. Stegner also taught at Augustana College in Illinois, the University of Utah while he was completing his doctorate, and the University of Wisconsin. In 1938, he began teaching at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and in the fall of 1939, he joined Harvard University as a composition teacher. He stayed at Harvard until he became the head of Stanford’s creative writing program in 1946. Stegner influenced many new writers at Stanford until his retirement in 1971.
Stegner’s works have won several prizes, including the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose and the 1977 National Book Award for The Spectator Bird. Stegner experienced later success with Crossing to Safety, which focuses on the difficulties of friendship between two couples, the Langs and the Morgans. The themes of friendship and the individual’s place in the community were often used by Stegner. He also was concerned with the perception of the West, was always critical of myths and clichés, and was involved in environmental and conservation issues. Environmental themes are expressed in his last work, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. Stegner sought to unite the West’s history and its people in his writing, and he often focused on the relationship of the past to the present.
In a varied career of more than half a century, Wallace Earle Stegner (STEHG-nehr) has earned an honored place in American letters and is one of the foremost authors to have been closely associated with western North American themes. He was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, to George H. Stegner and his wife, Hilda (Paulson) Stegner, but his family soon moved from the Midwest to live in a succession of western locales ranging from southern Saskatchewan to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he entered the University of Utah in 1925. Stegner was a shy, quiet child, but he became both a fine athlete and scholar despite a domineering father and the displacements of his early family life. At the university, he became a student of the noted writer Vardis Fisher, whose work was an early influence upon him. Completing a B.A. there in 1930, Stegner then attended the University of Iowa, from which he received an M.A. in 1932 and a Ph.D. in 1935.
In his mid-twenties, Stegner was poised for a career either as a teacher or as a writer, but by 1937, he had chosen both, for in that year he gained the first of several university appointments and his first major fiction work, Remembering Laughter, was published. This novella is the story of an Iowa farmer, Alec Stuart, and his prim wife, Margaret, whose vital younger sister is drawn into an affair with Alec. The heart of the tale describes the affair’s somber legacy of pregnancy, alienation, and death, relieved only at the end by the courageous departure of the fourteen-year-old son/nephew to find a new life. While Remembering Laughter is far surpassed by most of Stegner’s later fiction, it is a well-wrought statement of many themes he would later explore, particularly that of conflicts within families.
From 1937 to 1945, Stegner taught creative writing at the University of Utah, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard University. Stegner’s next three novels describe other varieties of social, emotional, and physical isolation. The Potter’s House, set in California, concerns a deaf-mute artisan and his family, whose life is upset by the meddling of the potter’s brother. On a Darkling Plain is the story of a young Canadian soldier who, wounded by gas in World War I, seeks recuperative isolation by homesteading in Saskatchewan, only to be brought back to a sense of community in joining with his neighbors to combat the deadly influenza epidemic of 1918. Fire and Ice forgoes the connection with the land seen in Stegner’s first novels and concerns the struggles of a midwestern college student caught in conflicts of ideology and personal conduct.
In these few years, Stegner had completed his novelist’s apprenticeship, and in 1943 he achieved his first critical and popular success with The Big Rock Candy Mountain. This semiautobiographical novel is dominated by the character of the ambitious but erratic Bo Mason, a seeker after the American Dream whose search for prosperity pushes the limits of the law and family cohesion alike. The events of the novel closely parallel the Stegner family’s years in Saskatchewan, Montana, Washington,...