Stegner, Wallace 1909-1993
American short story writer, novelist, biographer, and essayist.
Although Stegner is perhaps best known for his novels—especially Angle of Repose (1971), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1972—he has also garnered substantial critical acclaim for his short fiction, receiving three O. Henry First Prize awards during his lengthy writing career. In all, Stegner published nearly fifty short stories in such periodicals as Harper's and Atlantic Monthly, half of which were reprinted in his three collections. Stegner—who greatly admired the works of Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, and Willa Cather—explored the subject of identity in his fiction. According to Clark Kimball, "Stegner writes always first of the individual, whether young or old, of passion or of reason or of some particular blending. He seems to know that in simply living, the individual is perpetually struggling—struggling every day of his life with thought and action and consequence."
Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, but his restless father moved the family almost every year throughout the western United States in pursuit of material rewards, a lifestyle Stegner frequently reconstructed in his fiction. After several years in Saskatchewan, the Stegners eventually settled in Salt Lake City, where Stegner attended the University of Utah and became acquainted with his first mentor, novelist Vardis Fisher. While in graduate school at the University of Iowa, Stegner met his wife, Mary Stuart Page. After he began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1937, Stegner gained his first major publishing success when he won the Little, Brown prize for his novella, Remembering Laughter (1937). Between 1940 and 1944, Stegner taught at Harvard, where he wrote the majority of his short stories. From 1946 until 1971, Stegner headed the prestigious creative-writing program at Stanford. Writers who held a Stegner fellowship during his tenure at Stanford include: Tillie Olson, N. Scott Momaday, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, and Max Apple. Stegner died on April 13, 1993, from complications resulting from an automobile accident.
Major Works of Short FictionStegner's short fiction, which was written early in his career, is largely autobiographical. Over time, his narrative style changed from third to first person, but his themes remained constant. Often set in the western United States, Stegner's fiction is primarily concerned with questions of personal identity and the problem of achieving stability amidst the impermanence and dislocation of the modern world. Written in a detached, traditional, and realistic style, his works explore such themes as the effect of the past on the present, conflicts between generations, and the importance of place and history in defining cultural origins. Setting is critical to Stegner's fiction. As Charles E. Cascio noted, "His settings are sensual and tactile—they chill, warm, capture, release, invigorate, and depress. But at the same time he makes them part of the whole, an extension of the circumstances the characters face, an expansion of—not just a backdrop for—the action."
Critics contend that Stegner wrote best when he drew from personal experience. His more experimental works are sometimes faulted as too contrived. Many commentators have taken an interest in Stegner's short works for the light they shed on his novels. In fact, many of the characters introduced in Stegner's short stories have reappeared in his novels; "Two Rivers" and "The Colt," for instance, introduced the character of Bruce Mason, the protagonist of The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Recapitulation (1979). Even so, Stegner's short fiction has proved successful in its own right. Charles E. Cascio compared reading Stegner's short fiction to entering a "great community," one "that invites readers into a larger conversation, not through soaring prose or gimmicky plots, but with writing that is as real as the moment and as enduring as history."