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,...