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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 586

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.

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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 publication credits made it easier for him to advance in the academic world. He became known as a distinguished American writer and one of the leading authorities on the American West.

Stegner projected his own psychological conflicts onto his fictitious characters. His mismatched parents had left him with problems about his personal identity. 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. Perhaps his father’s recklessness influenced him to select the risky career of a freelance writer, while his mother’s conservative influence may have caused him to seek security by becoming a tenured college professor.

The combination was good for Stegner, who became a famous author and a revered teacher. He established one of the world’s best creative writing programs at Stanford University in California and remained associated with it from 1945 until his retirement in 1971. He received many honors and awards during his lifetime, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Arts and Letters.

Readers who first become acquainted with Stegner through his fiction often go on to read some of his equally well-written nonfiction, which includes such fine works as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954) and The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail (1964). He was also a distinguished essayist as well as a biographer and historian. Many of his best essays were reprinted in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969).

Stegner died in 1993 as a result of injuries sustained in an automobile crash in New Mexico. He left behind a distinguished body of work in both fiction and nonfiction. His best memorial, though, may be Stanford University’s Wallace Stegner Creative Writing Center, which he founded and directed for many years.


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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.


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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.”


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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 in creative writing. In 1930, Stegner entered the graduate program at the University of Iowa, completing his master of arts degree in 1932 and his doctorate in 1935. His dissertation, “Clarence Edward Dutton: Geologist and Man of Letters,” was a study of the Utah naturalist Clarence Dutton. The dissertation was revised and then published as Clarence Edward Dutton: An Appraisal by the University of Utah in 1936. This work fed his interest in the history of the American West and the life of the explorer John Wesley Powell, the subject of his Beyond the Hundredth Meridian.

Teaching English and creative writing occupied Stegner for several years, beginning with a one-year stint at tiny Augustana College in Illinois in 1934. Next, he went to the University of Utah until 1937, moving from there to teach freshman English at the University of Wisconsin for two years. He also taught at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont for several summers and enjoyed the friendship of Robert Frost, De Voto, and Theodore Morrison. In 1940, he accepted a part-time position at Harvard University in the English writing program. There, during the Depression, he was involved in literary debates between the literary left, led by F. O. Matthiessen, and the conservative De Voto.

In 1945, Stegner accepted a professorship in creative writing at Stanford University, where he remained for twenty-six years until his retirement in 1971. The Stanford years were his most productive; he produced a total of thirteen books in this period. In 1950, he made an around-the-world lecture tour, researched his family’s past in Saskatchewan and Norway, and spent much of the year as writer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome. He was also an active environmentalist long before ecology became fashionable. During the John F. Kennedy administration, he served as assistant to the secretary of the interior (1961) and as a member of the National Parks Advisory Board (1962).


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Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 378

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.

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