Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work

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In a career spanning more than fifty years, Wallace Stegner (1909–93) emerged as the greatest contemporary author of the American West—writing more than two dozen works of history, biography, essays, and fiction, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose and the bestselling Crossing to Safety. Jackson J. Benson’s Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work is the first full-dress biography of this celebrated “Dean of Western Writers.”

Drawing on nearly ten years of research and unlimited access to Stegner’s letters and personal files, Benson traces the trajectory of Wallace Stegner’s life from his birth on his grandfather’s Iowa farm to his prominence as an award-winning writer, critic, historian, environmental activist, and teacher, and as founder of Stanford’s creative writing program.

But Benson’s book is as much a consideration of Stegner’s literary legacy as it is a retelling of his life. His critical reassessment of the entire body of Stegner’s work argues convincingly for his subject’s place in the literary canon—not merely as a “regional” Western writer but straightforwardly as one of the great American writers of the twentieth century.

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Editorial Reviews


“In this engrossing work, Benson offers a portrait of a resilient truth-seeker, steadfast moralist, obsessive realist, and compassionate humanist who became the standard-bearer for western regionalist writing.”—Booklist
California Territorial Quarterly

"Benson is doing a fine job re-discovering Western writers."—California Territorial Quarterly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
When he was in his late 50s, Stegner (1909-1993) described himself, through a fictional character, as "a tea bag left too long in the cup," but he lived into his 80s, dying in an auto accident in 1993. In his middle years three of his finest novels, Angle of Repose, The Spectator Bird and Crossing to Safety, were yet to come. Always associated with university writing programs, notably at Stanford, his was not a career from which it is easy to mine urgent biographical narrative. Yet Benson (The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer) makes the most of Stegner's stark Saskatchewan childhood and felonious father, both of which later energized the ambitious epic Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). Stegner's disappointment at his often tepid critical reception is a continuing motif. Asked by students what a Pulitzer Prize (which he would win in 1972) would mean to him, he scoffed: "I'd drink a better brand of bourbon." Yet he confided to a colleague that he had given up short fiction because "you can't have a major reputation on the short story." All of Stegner's considerable output, including histories, biographies and essays, evince a sensitivity for moral verities and the threatened land. Benson's admiring biography, begun with Stegner's cooperation, still reads disconcertingly in places as if his subject were alive. Still, the biography will help to solidify Stegner's place in the literature of his time. Illustrations not seen by PW. Author tour. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Wallace Stegner (1909-93) was a prolific writer of history (The Gathering of Zion, LJ 2/15/75; Univ. of Nebraska, 1992. reprint), biography (Ansel Adams, Bulfinch, 1988), novels (the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose, LJ 4/1/71; Penguin, 1992. reprint); short fiction; and essays. Benson (American literature, San Diego State Univ.), the biographer of Steinbeck (The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, Penguin, 1990. reprint), has written with admiration and fairness this first full-scale study of Stegner's life and accomplishments. Benson's thorough research included a study of Stegner's private papers and extensive interviews with Stegner and his wife, Mary. Benson does not touch on every detail; we learn, for example, almost nothing about Stegner's relationship with his son. But this is generally a good study of Stegner's personal life, describing his youth in Saskatchewan and Salt Lake City; his career as a teacher, including the founding of the Stanford University Writing Program; and his development as a writer, with extensive, cogent analyses of his work and his involvement with the conservation movement. Highly recommended, particularly for academic and public libraries in the West.Judy Mimken, Boise P.L., Id.
From Barnes & Noble
In a career that spanned more than 50 years, Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) emerged as a great contemporary writer of the American West whose impressive body of work included the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose and the best-selling Crossing to Safety as well as works of history, biography, and essays that spoke of the American experience. Drawing on nearly ten years of research and unlimited access to Stegner's letters and personal files, Benson traces Stegner's life from his birth on his grandfather's Iowa farm, his frontier childhood on the prairie in Saskatchewan, and his teenage years among Salt Lake City's Mormons, through his prominence as an award-winning writer, critic, historian, and teacher at Stanford University's Creative Writing Program, which Stegner founded. This reassessment of Stegner's life and work offers a close look at one of the great American writers of this century, many say worthy of the status of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803225374
  • Publisher: UNP - Bison Books
  • Publication date: 5/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 504
  • Sales rank: 1,400,061
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 3.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jackson J. Benson is a professor of English emeritus at San Diego State University. He is the author of several books, including The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer, The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography of Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and most recently, Under the Big Sky: A Biography of A. B. Guthrie Jr. (Nebraska 2009).
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Table of Contents

Preface vii

Acknowledgments xiii

List of Illustrations xvii

Introduction: Against the Grain-A Heritage of Integrity 1

1 The Last Homestead Frontier: A Prairie Childhood 16

2 From Primitive to Intellectual: The Education of Wallace Stegner 39

3 From Student to Professor: The Further Education of Wallace Stegner 54

4 Becoming a Novelist: Write a Novel and Win a Prize 68

5 Accomplished Writer, Harvard Teacher, and Friend to the Famous: What More Do You Need? 83

6 Hard Work at Harvard: Climbing the Big Rock Candy Mountain 99

7 Looking Back at the West From Cambridge 116

8 From the Fight Against Rugged Individualism to the Fight Against Prejudice and Racism 132

9 Back to Fiction, On to Stanford 151

10 Abandoning the Novel and Embracing the Short Story 171

11 From Short Story Writer to Environmentalist 192

12 To the Barricades for the Environment 211

13 Travel, Travel Literature, and the Search for Narrative Voice 233

14 An All-Star Cast 248

15 The Struggle to Locate Oneself 267

16 Historian and "Contemporary" 290

17 Trouble in the Sixties 311

18 A New Life 333

19 The Pulitzer and Beyond 344

20 Back to Biography and Another Prizewinning Novel 364

21 The Past That Comes Back to Haunt Us 381

22 Crossing to Safety 396

23 Giving all to Time 412

Notes and Documentation 423

Index 457

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