Wallace Stegner.

Author:Teisch, Jessica
Position:Critical essay

"In fiction I think we should have no agenda but to tell the truth." --Wallace Stegner Every object has an "angle of repose," the maximum slope at which loose material remains stable. Each relationship and experience has a resting point, too, as Wallace Stegner showed in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose (1971). Stegner--a novelist, historian, essayist, short story writer, and influential wilderness advocate--applied this engineering term to the uneasy equilibrium of four generations of an American family. Through old letters, Lyman Ward, a wheelchair-bound retired historian, rediscovers his grandmother's remarkable journey with her mining-engineer husband from sophisticated 1870s New York into the uncultured Western frontier. As Lyman tries to make sense of his grandparents' marriage and link his life to theirs, he considers his own fragile existence.

In more than 30 works of fiction and nonfiction, Stegner stripped the gloss from the American dream. He exposed the tensions between East and West, old and young, and myth and reality as a changing country, whose so-called frontier had closed in 1890, searched for stability and success. He shattered the timeworn myth of rugged individualism while admitting it remained deeply embedded in the Western psyche. He questioned the role of history in popular consciousness and examined our relationship to the land. Often referred to as "the dean of Western letters," Stegner put the natural world at the center of his stories and located the soul of America in the West, where its plains, mountains, and aridity helped shape the American character.

Stegner questioned the American dream perhaps nowhere better than in his semiautobiographical Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), which he called his "first and most heartfelt commentary on western optimism and enterprise and the common man's dream of something for nothing." The second son of Scandinavian immigrants, Stegner was born in Lake Mills, Iowa, on February 18, 1909. His father, whom he described as "a boomer, a gambler, a rainbow chaser" and who figured prominently in Big Rock Candy Mountain, moved his family from North Dakota to Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming in search of instant riches. "I grew up doubting the big-bonanza-just-over-the-next-rise notion because for years I watched my family chase it," said Stegner (The Paris Review, Summer 1990). The peripatetic family spent six years on a homestead on the Saskatchewan prairie, which imprinted on Stegner a love for the land he conveyed in the nonfiction Wolf Willow (1962). The family settled in Salt Lake City in 1921. Stegner graduated in 1930 from the University of Utah. In 1932 he received a master's degree and, three years later, a doctorate from the University of Iowa. He married Mary Stuart Page in 1934; their son, Page Stegner, is a novelist and critic of the American West.

Stegner's first novel, Remembering Laughter (1937), won the Little, Brown Prize and launched his career as a novelist. He quit his teaching job at the University of Utah and taught for two years at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. At Harvard during World War II, he published four books, including Big Rock Candy Mountain. He came to Stanford in 1945 and founded its creative writing program. Until his retirement in 1971, Stegner mentored such luminaries as Edward Abbey, N. Scott Momaday, Ken Kesey, Scott Turow, and Larry McMurtry. He also wrote the award-winning All the Little Live Things (1967), Angle of Repose, and The Spectator Bird (1976). By the early 1990s, Stegner had received three O. Henry Awards; he had also been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Senior Fellow of the National Institute of Humanities, and a member of the National Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters as well as the National Academy of Arts and Sciences. (Protesting government involvement in the arts, he refused a National Endowment for the Arts Medal in 1992.)

A CHILD OF THE WESTERN ENVIRONMENT, Stegner became deeply involved in the nascent conservation movement of the 1950s and 1960s. With the publication of Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), his acclaimed biography of John Wesley Powell, Stegner delved into environmental writing and advocacy. He fought the construction of a dam at Dinosaur National Monument, stressed the importance of protecting wilderness spaces in his politically influential "Wilderness Letter," and served as special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall during the Kennedy administration. He also worked with the National Parks Advisory Board, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society. A spokesperson for the preservation of wilderness areas until his death on April 13, 1993, Stegner infused much of his fiction and nonfiction with beautiful nature writing that reflected his love of the West and his sheer breadth of vision about the human experience.

A regional writer of universal stories

In his review of Big Rock Candy Mountain, a New York Times Book Review critic praised Stegner's novel as a "satisfying example of regional fiction" (9/20/43). This sentiment, echoed among literary circles, reveals a challenge Stegner faced throughout his career. Whereas other...

To continue reading