Wallace Stegner and the American West [NOOK Book]


Wallace Stegner was the premier chronicler of the twentieth-century western American experience, and his novels, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose and the National Book Award–winning The Spectator Bird, brought the life and landscapes of the West to national and international attention. Now, in this illuminating biography, Philip L. Fradkin goes beyond Stegner’s iconic literary status to give us, as well, the influential teacher and visionary conservationist, the man for whom the preservation and ...
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Wallace Stegner and the American West

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Wallace Stegner was the premier chronicler of the twentieth-century western American experience, and his novels, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose and the National Book Award–winning The Spectator Bird, brought the life and landscapes of the West to national and international attention. Now, in this illuminating biography, Philip L. Fradkin goes beyond Stegner’s iconic literary status to give us, as well, the influential teacher and visionary conservationist, the man for whom the preservation and integrity of place was as important as his ability to render its qualities and character in his brilliantly crafted fiction and nonfiction.

From his birth in 1909 until his death in 1993, Stegner witnessed nearly a century of change in the land that he loved and fought so hard to preserve. We learn of his hardscrabble youth on the Canadian frontier and in Utah, and of his painful relationship with his father, a bootlegger and gambler. We follow his intellectual awakening as a young man and his years as a Depression-era graduate student at the University of Iowa, during its earliest days as a literary center.

We watch as he finds his home, with his wife, Mary, in the foothills above Palo Alto, which provided him with a long-awaited sense of belonging and a refuge in which he would write his most treasured works. And here are his years as the legendary founder of the Stanford Creative Writing Program, where his students included Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, and Wendell Berry.

But the changes wrought by developers and industrialists were too much for Stegner, and he tirelessly fought the transformation of his Garden of Eden into Silicon Valley. His writings on the importance of establishing national parks and wilderness areas—not only for the preservation of untouched landscape but also for the enrichment of the human spirit—played a key role in the passage of historic legislation and comprise some of the most beautiful words ever written about the natural world.

Here, too, is the story—told in full for the first time—of the accusations of plagiarism that followed the publication of Angle of Repose, and of the shadow they have cast on his greatest work.

Rich in personal and literary detail, and in the sensual description of the country that shaped his work and his life—this is the definitive account of one of the most acclaimed and admired writers, teachers, and conservationists of our time.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Editorial Reviews

The Annals Of Iowa - Malcolm Rohrbough
“This is a splendid scholarly study of America’s most important twentieth-century interpreter of the West.”
Entrada Institute
“Illuminating. . . . Goes beyond Stegner’s iconic status to give us. . . the influential teacher and visionary conservationist.”
Old West/True West Magazine - Richard H. Dillon
“Fradkin is the perfect fit to study Stegner’s career in the West. . . . This is a fine [assessment].”
The Barnes & Noble Review
Despite the fact that he had a prolific writing career spanning 50 years, a younger generation of readers may best remember Wallace Stegner as the writer whose name adorns a prestigious two-year writing fellowship at Stanford. Stegner, ever attuned to the ironies of history, would perhaps expect, if not exactly rejoice in this amnesia: He often wrote about American forgetfulness. His 1970 masterwork, Angle of Repose, captures Lyman Ward, a professor of history emeritus who bewails the forgetful, "hydroponic" California springing up around him, even as he chronicles the 19th-century journeys of his grandparents, Susan and Oliver Ward, across the continent.

The book leaps between eras: In the 1870s, Susan, an New York artist from a Brahmin literary set, falls in love with Oliver Ward, an up-and-coming mine inspector, and follows him west to seek their fortune in the business of resource extraction. A parallel narrative strand follows Lyman Ward as he sits in late-'60s Northern California and watches the emergence of hippies and culture war, struggling to understand the unease that has crept both into his own marriage and into the country at large. But there's a deep interrelation between these two moments, even as they seem radically disjoined. In addition to being a historian, Lyman is also an amputee whose ghost leg itches him. For him its phantom pain is an analogue for the way any past (be it personal or national) can haunt a person, or a place. He feels the ghost leg's presence -- rather, antecedence -- in everything he does. As he looks at the portrait of his grandmother, an easterner who suffered mightily settling mining towns that never bore fruit, he asks her, "Did you cling forever to the sentiment that you wrote Augusta Hudson from the bottom of failure in the Boise Canyon -- that not even Henry James's expatriates were as exiled as you?" These dual, not-quite-fully intersecting feelings of having a ghost limb in the present, and of being an expatriate in one's own country, animate Stegner's thinking about writing. They dramatize his struggle to make sense of the role of the west in the American literary imagination, and his hunger to make a literature for the places he inhabited, not only geographically but in time.

It was a struggle he'd make and make again over the span of his career. Angle of Repose is only one of Stegner's many memorable books, but it's the one I was spurred to return to after reading two current books commemorating the writer's life, books that offer the backdrop for the man and his times. It turns out that Stegner often used a generous helping of real life to season his fiction: In Angle of Repose he was criticized for using and not attributing the letters of a real-life California artist, Mary Hallock Foote. But he employed a great deal of his own life, too, and his own experience of crossing and re-crossing the American West. Ninety-nine years after his birth in the wilds of Saskatchewan, on the prairie near the North Dakota border, and a decade after the hills around his 1950s bungalow above Palo Alto have become Silicon Valley tract homes, a collection of letters and a biography flesh out Stegner's life -- his writings, his travels, his struggles. As we near the centennial of Stegner's birth, we, like Lyman Ward, are invited to jump back (and through) a century and to revisit the models for the roving characters Stegner cast and recast, the places he lived, the outpost America he tried to chronicle. Taken side by side, the two books are a fair introduction to Stegner, although neither quite does the restless giant justice. The biography, Wallace Stegner and the American West by Californian writer and environmentalist Philip Fradkin, moves chronologically through its subject's life, while The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, gathered by Stegner's son Page, professor emeritus of American literature at UC Santa Cruz, carefully edits and defends the father for posterity. Both reveal the mettle that made the artist and the materials from which he made himself. Fradkin's biography traces Stegner's growing up with a huckster father -- one who tried and failed at a variety of get-rich-quick schemes and traveled with sons and wife in tow to new boom-or-bust ventures in the western states. Despite (or perhaps because of) the upheavals, Stegner became both a quick study and a hard worker, a voracious reader who wrote four hours a day, seven days a week -- eventually supporting himself through a combination of teaching and journalism so he could find the time to write novels. He spent his 20s and early 30s moving from academic post to academic post before finally settling at Stanford in the mid-1940s, at the age of 36.

The roving childhood chronicled here often resembles the ones of characters in Stegner's books, as the protagonist rises from humble roots to the summits of the literary establishment through brilliance and hard work. Decade by decade, Fradkin follows Stegner out of the frontier village in Saskatchewan into Utah and Iowa through the Depression and World War II, and then from his perch at Stanford into the sprawl of the late 20th century.

The letters, by contrast, aren't chronological at all but have been grouped into clusters by Page Stegner. Rather than allowing the panorama of Wallace Stegner's life to unfold, they deliver it in thematically constructed takes: "Reflections on the Work," "Special Friends and Family," "On History and Historians." They're hard to follow as they jump around in time and space, but the writer they reveal in slivers is part swagger, part cocksure stylist. Glib and talky and ambitious at once, Stegner seems always hungry to get a little more of his own work done. He's also dead serious about craft. After Angle of Repose is published (and dedicated to Page), Stegner writes to his son, "I may have been trying to do something impossible in showing, through two long lives and several shorter ones, that in any social context individuals will be colored by their times, for good and ill, and that in the end one social context is about as good as another...and about as binding on the people born to it. I suppose I also wanted to throw in the notion that one time, despite its assumed freedom and emancipation from history and human cussedness, can be about as foolish as another."

Neither Fradkin's careful walk through the years nor Page Stegner's curatorial editing wholly serve Wallace Stegner, whose writing, if not always directly nostalgic, was always flush, on sentence and paragraph level, with a then-now perspective, a double-take of feeling. Moreover, Stegner's prose, sentence for sentence, is what truly electrifies. Whenever Fradkin quotes Stegner, one hungers for more. It's Stegner who keeps working the ideas about place and time around like sculptor's putty in both the letters and the articles Fradkin quotes. In an interview from 1978, Stegner restates the philosophy that fed Lyman Ward in Angle of Repose: "The past keeps feeding into the present. It isn't lost and thrown overboard as much as it seems to be. It isn't as useless or irrelevant as it seems to be. The past controls you a whole lot more than you want to be controlled."

During his life, Stegner felt slighted for being regarded as a regional author, and yet the stories he told were stories about the nation -- a nation that is uprooted, a nation that relies on resource extraction, a nation that settles places and forgets how it arrived in them. Both books capture Stegner's desire to be, and sense that he was, more than a "western" writer. Instead he was a master of character, of ecosystem, and of the profound linkages between the past and the present, the supposed center of culture and its far-flung reaches. His subject is our uneasy and imperfect society, and he presses on its sore spots deliberately, with a canny eye for situation, an ear for dialogue, and the rare ability to make myths we critique, but also believe in. --Tess Taylor

Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, and The New Yorker.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307268600
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/12/2008
  • Sold by: Random House
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,153,135
  • File size: 3 MB

Meet the Author

Philip L. Fradkin shared the Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times and was western editor of Audubon magazine. He is the author of ten previous books, including A River No More: The Colorado River and the West. He lives on the coast north of San Francisco.

From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt


"He was a strange child. Now he clung to her skirts so closely that he hampered her walking, and she laid her hand on his head and kept it there because she knew that somewhere deep down in his prematurely old mind he lived with fear."
—Wallace Stegner, The Big Rock Candy Mountain

Wallace Stegner’s life could be described as a continual search for the angle of repose.

Stegner was a man of many different and seemingly contradictory components. He was a gentleman. His consideration was legendary; his anger was implacable. He lived according to an inflexible code forged on the frontier, tempered during the Depression years, and never bent or broken to fit the changing times. Stegner was a good man, but he was not the perfect man he was eulogized as being.

He came from nowhere culturally and became a writer whose books were translated into numerous foreign languages. He was a barefoot frontier youth who would later consort with the intellectual elite in this and other countries. He worked exceedingly hard and lived a full, rich life. His transgressions were minor. Although he spent a lifetime seeking knowledge of himself on paper, he never felt as secure within himself as he seemed to be on the surface. He was captive to the guilt and anger that had its roots in childhood.

As a student working toward a master’s degree in an innovative writing program and as a professor with a doctorate in a recognized academic specialty (both degrees from the University of Iowa); as a teacher in the top writing programs in the country (Iowa, Bread Loaf, Harvard, and Stanford); and as a writer of volumes of commercially published fiction and nonfiction, Stegner not only bridged the gap between professor and professional writer but also constructed by example and teaching the tenuous structure that allowed many others to cross that same chasm.

Wallace Stegner taught writing students whose names have come to constitute a virtual hall of fame of American letters (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Scott Turow, to name just a few); he had a decided impact on national conservation issues (dams, wilderness areas, and national parks); and he was a versatile and prolific writer of novels, histories and biographies, journalism and essays, and short stories.

A nearly complete list of his works—many of which remain in print— includes 13 novels, 9 nonfiction books (one written with his son, Page), 242 nonfiction articles, and 57 short stories in magazines and newspapers. His books and short stories have been translated into French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish. Stegner edited seven collections of his own short nonfiction and fiction (his wife, son, and daughter-in-law edited other works), and he edited numerous collections of writings by other authors. Stegner also contributed many introductions and forewords to books. In, addition, Nancy Colberg’s 1990 Wallace Stegner: A Descriptive Bibliography includes a miscellaneous category.

In his lifetime he garnered almost all the literary awards and honors available lifetime (Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, two Guggenheim fellowships, PEN USA Body of Work and Freedom to Write awards, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times, eight honorary degrees, and endowed chairs named after him at two western universities, among other more prosaic forms of recognition).[1] One of his students, Wendell Berry, caught the totality of the man when he wrote, “He was perhaps his region’s greatest teacher: its greatest storyteller, historian, critic, conservator and loyal citizen.”[2]

Stegner defined place in words and actions, the latter activity being a rare characteristic for a writer. He stressed the realities of the West in classroom lectures, speeches, his writings, and his environmental activism. He was a slayer of myths about this outsize land. Rapacious economic booms followed by inevitable busts, the need for wilderness and national parks to renew the spirit, and the concept of aridity as it defined the West were topics Stegner introduced to national audiences through his writings and conservation activities. He made the subject of the West respectable for other writers back at “headquarters,” his term for the Boston–New York publishing axis.

Stegner reluctantly acted as the spokesperson for the region. No single person has filled that position since he died. Through his multiple legacies, Wallace Stegner remains the emeritus authority on the American West.

He was of the region, but he also ventured beyond its borders. He dealt with racism as a national subject long before civil rights became a fashionable issue. During the early months of the Kennedy administration, he participated in discussions about the formation of a national arts policy—talks that resulted in the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The differences between East, West, and Midwest that he had absorbed from living on both coasts and in the interior of America constituted another theme that this man, mistakenly labeled a regionalist, explored. Of the West, Stegner once explained to a correspondent: “You are right in thinking that I see it as a little America, a late (and by aridity modified and intensified) variant of the American experience.”[3]

Many of the students he taught or writers he advised informally (the latter included Ivan Doig, Barry Lopez, and Terry Tempest Williams) pushed his ideas further in different styles and from diverse perspectives and are still producing works of great value.

That there was more than one side to Stegner is typified by this jotting from one of his notebooks: “I have a trouble that until now I always knew myself too well, and I was never what I knew I publicly seemed. One lived with a mask until one thought the face fitted it. Then suddenly one day another face looks out of the mirror and the mirror cracks.”[4] Regardless of which mask he wore and what face emerged from the cracked mirror, he was nothing but extremely and obsessively honest with himself and ultimately—insofar as he was able to be—with his readers.

Immensely attractive, articulate, and intelligent, Stegner was described by friends and co-workers who knew him well as reserved. His wife, Mary, said that in his earlier years he had been more outgoing and the life of numerous parties, but the Stanford bureaucracy and students dampened his spirit in the late 1960s, when the threat of change pervaded the campus, the West, and the nation.

Wally and Mary came from the sparsely inhabited regions of the interior of the country and found themselves among the elite on both coasts. The couple inhabited two worlds during their lifetimes. They were in by dint of hard work and talent—not breeding, great wealth, or elite schools. As one of Stegner’s close friends and a Stanford Nobel laureate remarked about his patterns of speech, “You are getting two voices out of Wally, the rhythms of the country and the diction of the university.”[5]

The multiple achievements that were accompanied by the requisite awards were not enough. Stegner wanted acceptance by all. He was repeatedly vilified in the 1970s by that paragon of eastern bookishness, The New York Times Book Review, and there was the nagging question of his use of sources for his greatest work of fiction, the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel Angle of Repose. Some have termed it plagiarism. Anger marked his reaction to negative criticism and to anyone who crossed him personally or professionally. He never forgot, and he rarely forgave.

Stegner made a mighty effort, but he never came to terms with his fractured youth. From his early years to the end of his life he was burdened by self-doubt. Wally was haunted by guilt for his mother’s unhappiness, illness, and death. The anger his father directed toward him—which Wally reciprocated as hatred—never dissipated, although he attempted to exorcise it in his books.

The periodic, intense anger directed by fathers toward their sons was almost biblical, or genetic, in its passage through four generations of Stegners. It may have preceded George Stegner, but since nothing is known about his forebears, what can be said with certainty is that it spread insidiously from George to his son, his grandson, and his great-grandson. Wallace Stegner testified to the force of his anger. He said a few years before his death that his rages “sort of scare me now and then.”[6]

Wally was personally involved in societal shifts of seismic proportions during the twentieth century. His major flaw was that ultimately he could not adapt to the region that had formed him and that he had defined and represented so eloquently. Stegner despaired of his homeland and what he once called “the geography of hope.”

Change bred insecurity in this outwardly assured individual. He first experienced change in one of the last frontier settlements during the early 1900s and again at the end of his life, during the frantic 1990s in Silicon Valley. There was no escaping change, not even in his beloved Salt Lake City. For along with its close relative, transience, rapid change and the physical manifestations it caused were the defining cultural characteristics of the West.

The irony was that Stegner knew this and had documented it in many words. In the end he sought to escape change by having his ashes deposited in a seemingly more enduring place. Stegner’s fictional doppelgänger, Bruce Mason, inquires in The Big Rock Candy Mountain, “But going home where . . . Where do I belong in this?”7 It is a question that is more endemic to the West than to any other section of the country.

• • •

Stegner’s first dim memory was of huddling in a tent in Redmond, Washington, after a tramp had told the family there were mountain lions in the surrounding forest.[8] His first clear memory was of an orphanage in Seattle. Wally could recall the rain and the dappled sunshine that fell upon the family tent in the rain forest near the Puget Sound logging town of Redmond and eating crusts of stale bread in the orphanage.

It was a boom time shortly after the start of the century for nearly everyone except the Stegner family. The forests of the East and the South had been cut. Now it was the turn of the Pacific Northwest. Here the trees were taller and straighter and yielded more board feet: Sitka spruce, cedar, western hemlock, Douglas fir, and Jeffrey pine. Puget Sound offered a huge, safe harbor from which the lumber could be exported to Pacific Rim markets. Firms like Pope & Talbot, people like Frederick Weyerhaeuser, modern technology like the double-bit ax and the longer two-man saw with raker teeth, and new railroads and steamships fueled the boom that had begun with the Klondike gold rush of 1897 and didn’t end until the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The city of Seattle, “buoyantly speculative in spirit” from its start as a small mill town, did not question the efficacy of booms. Its citizens, like others in the West, accepted them as their due, promoted them beyond the sustainability of the particular resource, and then wrote off the subsequent busts as aberrant and best-forgotten history.

The cheerleader mantra of “the Seattle spirit” prevailed. Hills were leveled, canals dug, and wetlands filled to create a waterfront. Labor problems were dealt with in time to capitalize on the demand for lumber in the early World War I years, when timber production was extremely profitable. The price of lumber peaked in 1912 and 1913, shortly after the Stegners arrived in town from North Dakota.

Wallace Stegner was too young to appreciate the economic vicissitudes of the Northwest, but he would soon be cognizant of the wheat boom on the northern prairie and all the subsequent booms and busts in the twentieth-century American West. His father had a habit of missing the main chance, leaving, and then appearing elsewhere when the next opportunity seemed imminent. Then the cycle was repeated.

From Redmond, George took off. “Then there was a bad time,” Wallace Stegner wrote years later in an imagined letter to his dead mother. “You left my father, or he you; nobody ever told me.”[9]

An aunt provided Wally with a sketch. George was joined in Redmond by a professional gambler he had known before he met his wife. The married couple opened a café, where Hilda Stegner did the cooking and took care of Wally and Cecil. Neither George nor the good-looking, well-groomed gambler was a typical restaurateur. The money came in too slowly for them. The pair departed for British Columbia, leaving Hilda to run the café, make the installment payments on the restaurant equipment, and care for the children. The café failed, and Hilda and the two young boys moved to Seattle. She got a job in the Bon Marché department store, where her sister, Mina Paulson, also worked.[10]

Hilda found it impossible to hold the job and adequately care for her children in the fall of 1913. The desperate mother deposited them in what their aunt euphemistically called “a private home” but in reality was the Sacred Heart Orphanage on Beacon Hill. To Wally, “it was a dump. It was literally an asylum of the old-fashioned kind.”[11]

The memory of the orphanage lodged permanently in young Stegner’s mind and was subsequently incorporated into his books and speeches. Homelessness had a great impact on him, as it would on any sensitive child. Hilda visited her children on Sundays, but the reunions did not lessen the traumatic experience for her sickly, scared four-year-old son. Cecil, who looked after his brother, was a six-year-old and more robust.

Wally recalled “the musty, buttery odor” of the stale bread crusts, some already half-eaten and resembling “bits of old shoe soles,” that were served as a midmorning snack. Hungry kids ran from all directions of the yard “like ravens.” The bread pan “was practically torn out of the woman’s hands. I never got any because I was little, and once in a while my brother would take pity on me and give me a bite.” He disliked the oatmeal that was served for breakfast and the tomato sandwiches at lunch. His appetite was deemed finicky, and the obdurate child was punished by the nuns for not eating. He was spanked with a ruler or with bare hands. Skinny Wally cried a lot.

The orphanage was also the product of boom times. It had been founded by Mother Francesca Xavier Cabrini in 1903 on Beacon Hill, from where there was a view of Lake Washington and the eastern half of the city. By 1913 it housed more than one hundred children, and the property had become valuable. The city wanted to level the hill. Through a miracle, as it has been described, Mother Cabrini found another property on the shore of Lake Washington. After the Stegner brothers departed, the remaining orphans moved to Sacred Heart

Villa in 1914, and Mother Cabrini went on to found sixty-seven institutions—schools, orphanages, hospitals, and the like—throughout the world and became the first American saint and the patron saint of immigrants.[12]


[1] Stegner was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. His former student Edward Abbey said he was “the only living American worthy of the Nobel.”
[2] Wendell Berry, “Author’s Legacy Extends Beyond Words of the Land to Its Preservation,” San Jose Mercury News, April 18, 1993.
[3] WS to James Hepworth, July 2, 1985.
[4] WS, “Greek Trip with the American Academy,” brown notebook, n.d.
[5] Kenneth Arrow, interview by Jackson Benson, August 9, 1988.
[6] WS, interview with Jackson Benson, January 27, 1988.
[7] WS, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (New York: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 457.
[8] Redmond is described on its Web site as “home to everything from one person start-ups to Microsoft.”
[9] WS, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (New York: Modern Library, 2002), p.30.
[10] Mina Paulson Heggen to WS, n.d. Mina Paulson returned to Iowa in 1914 and married Thomas Heggen.
[11] WS, interviews by Jackson Benson, May 7, June 2, and June 5, 1987. Reminiscences in the following two paragraphs also come from these interviews.
[12] Lynn Stegner, who had similar experiences in a later version of the same Seattle orphanage and school, pointed me in the general direction that enabled me to make the link to Sacred Heart.

From the Hardcover edition.
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  • Posted April 27, 2010

    Underated American Literary Author - Wallace Stegner

    Fradkin's inspiring biography of Stegner traces his life from simple beginnings in Canada, growing up in Utah, working in Iowa, the East, California, and elsewhere, all while writing about the real American West. It shows Stegner's lucky breaks were earned by hard work, determination and talent. Segner's influence on today's writers who attended his Stanford writing program include Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Tobias Wolff, Donald Justice, Robert Hass, Barry Lopez, Ivan Doig, and Terry Tempest Williams.
    Read Fradkin's work and become inspired to read Stegner and these authors. You'll also want to visit the American West Parklands and become renewed.

    "The sickness of our times is not a political sickness but a soul sickness." - Wallace Stegner

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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