Wallace Stegner and the American West
Wallace Stegner was the first writer in the twentieth century to turn “Western” into a positive adjective in front of “writer” or “literature.” He founded the creative writing program at Stanford University in 1945, and for twenty-five years he shepherded through it students who would become some of the finest writers in America: Wendell Berry, Terry Tempest Williams, Ernest J. Gaines, Robert Stone, and dozens of others. His books opened up Western landscapes for both fiction and nonfiction, debunking the romantic myths about the West and revealing the truth about its vast plains and deserts. Finally, his work with the Department of the Interior, the Sierra Club, and other conservation groups helped to preserve those Western locales that had given him such a sense of place, and the personality out of which he would teach and write for more than half a century. Philip Fradkin’s biography is significant not only for uncovering Stegner the man and a writer who has grown in reputation since his death in 1993 but also for providing the larger canvas: Stegner’s pivotal role in establishing the literary and ecological West in the American imagination, the literary shift of power between the West and the East Coasts in the second half of the twentieth century, and the sense of place that so grounded Stegner on both coasts. In writing an authoritative biography of a great Western writer, Fradkin has redefined the terms of the debate about region and literature in American letters.
Stegner’s roots were nourished in shifting soil. His father was a gambler and drinker who moved the family all over the West. Stegner was born in Iowa, but he spent time in Great Falls, Montana, in an orphanage in Seattle, and on a homestead in Saskatchewan, before settling with his family in Salt Lake City, still not a teenager. He attended the University of Utah and launched himself from there: to the University of Iowa for an M.A. and a Ph.D. in English, and then through a series of teaching jobs at the University of Wisconsin, Harvard University, and back to the University of Utah. He also began to produce short stories and novels (The Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1943 was his first substantial work), to attend the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference near Middlebury, Vermont (he went eight times over fifteen years after 1938), and in 1945 he was brought to Stanford to found the academic unit that would become one of the most famous and successful creative writing programs in the country. Until 1971, when he retired to devote more time to his own writing, Stegner helped dozens of writers, from Edward Abbey, Ivan Doig, Barry Lopez, and Harriet Doerr, to William Kittredge, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtrymany of them Western writers and most with a natural taste for Western topicsto establish themselves in American literature.
As Fradkin shows in detail, Stegner had another career as a conservationist, through both his writing and his personal efforts. His early biography of one of the most important explorers of the West, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), has become a classic in Western history, for it identified the land and the water issues that continue to be so crucial in the West. Later his famous “Wilderness Letter” helped to define the terms on which environmental battles would be fought for the next half century. “We simply need that wild country available to us,” he wrote about wilderness in that piece in 1961, “even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” He worked under Secretary Stewart Udall at the Department of the Interior, where he helped to shape New Frontier environmental policy such as the Wilderness Act of 1964, as well as federal cultural policy that would lead to the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities. He...
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