(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 23)

In this major study of Wallace Stegner, biographer Jackson J. Benson has two goals: to celebrate the life and work of a man he believed was one of the important American writers of the twentieth century, and to argue against classifying Stegner as a “Western writer,” a label that tends to marginalize the scope and importance of his work. Benson worked closely with Stegner for seven years while researching and writing this book and came to know and admire the writer. This book, then, while remaining scholarly and well researched, is the story of Stegner’s career told with a personal voice, filled with affection and respect for the man, and urging greater notice and appreciation for his works.

Wallace Stegner is not a household word, or even a very widely known author. Yet he wrote a dozen novels, including several best- sellers, many short stories, and scores of articles and essays. He wrote histories, biographies, and social commentary, and won, as Benson points out, nearly every major literary award except the Nobel Prize. He was a respected and influential educator who started and directed the renowned creative writing program at Stanford University. As a civic leader, he served as assistant secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter, and as a member of the National Parks Advisory Board. He was a leading conservationist whose efforts helped preserve important landscapes and whose writings influenced ecological thought and public policy regarding the arid lands of the American West.

Stegner is usually labeled a “Western writer” because many, though by no means all, of his works deal with Western themes, such as the pioneering spirit of the early Western explorers and settlers and their exploitation of the lands and people that they found there. Jackson argues that Stegner’s skill and vision should elevate his critical reputation to that of writers such as John Steinbeck and William Faulkner, who transcended their regionalism to be considered major American writers.

Wallace Stegner’s formative years took place on what was literally the last frontier, the plains of southern Saskatchewan. Born on February 18, 1908, in Iowa, his early life was determined by his father’s quest to “strike it rich.” George Stegner was a frontiersman born fifty years too late. After an aborted attempt to travel to Alaska to dig for gold, during which time his young family lived in a tent in the logging camp of Redmond, Washington, George set out alone to homestead the newly opened lands of southern Saskatchewan. Left behind to struggle with her boys in Seattle, Hilda Paulson Stegner was forced for a time to place Wallace and his older brother Cecil in a brutal orphanage, where Wallace said he first learned the necessity of cooperation for survival.

The family reunited in 1914 in Saskatchewan, where George had acquired a homestead near the Montana border, fifty miles from the town of Eastend. The next few years were crucial in the development of the character and art of Wallace Stegner. Summers were spent improving and working the homestead, between the immense sky and the endless grassy prairie. Life was primitive, elemental, and close to nature. In the winter the family migrated to town, the better to survive the bone-chilling cold. In spite of this environment, Wallace was rather small and delicate, and a constant disappointment to his father. George was the quintessential pioneer: strong, self-reliant, driven toward new “opportunities,” and intolerant of the weaknesses of others. Wallace’s mother Hilda, on the other hand, was homemaker and nest-builder; a loving, caring mother who encouraged Wallace’s interest in books, music, and education.

Stegner’s parents became symbols for the archetypal Westerners and as such appeared in many of his stories and novels. His father was the restless pioneer, doomed by his independence in the face of overwhelming nature, and his mother became the model for the community builder, who finds that love and cooperation are more important than brute strength in wresting a living from a harsh and unforgiving land.

Jackson goes to great lengths in this book to connect the people and events in Stegner’s life with the characters and situations in his fiction. When dealing with most fiction writers this is a dangerous course, and trying to identify fictional narrators with the authors has fallen out of favor in modern literary criticism. With Stegner, however, such identification is often unavoidable because, as Jackson discovers, much of Stegner’s work is obviously autobiographical, and one of his major purposes for writing was to come to terms with himself, his past, and his place in the landscape. He reworked the events of his life repeatedly to find himself.

Stegner’s writing career and academic career developed simultaneously. He spent his high school years in Salt Lake City and graduated from the University of Utah, majoring in English. He then attended the University of Iowa on a teaching fellowship, earning a master’s degree in creative writing with a collection of three short stories. Still not thinking of himself as a writer, he went on to earn a doctorate, with a dissertation on the writings of C. E. Dutton, a pioneering geologist of the...

(The entire section is 2144 words.)