Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

STEGNER, WALLACE (1909-1993)

Wallace Stegner, one of the West's most important authors not only as novelist and short story writer but as historian and environmentalist, made major contributions to both American and Canadian western literatures. Born in Lake Mills, Iowa, on February 18, 1909, to George and Hilda Paulson Stegner, he grew up in towns across the West, wherever his father's restless frontier spirit led the family. Most influential in Stegner's development were the childhood years in Eastend, Saskatchewan, from 1917 to 1920 and his youth in Salt Lake City. He earned a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Utah and a master's and doctorate from the University of Iowa.

Stegner combined his writing with a distinguished teaching career that extended from Harvard to Stanford, where he founded the creative writing program and directed it from 1945 to 1971. His first book of fiction, Remembering Laughter, won the Little Brown Novelette Prize in 1937, and he went on to write or edit thirty-two books of history, biography, and fiction, including a dozen novels, as well as scores of articles on the land and literature of the West.

One of Stegner's greatest achievements was his contribution to a sense of place for traditionally uprooted westerners. He gave the western landscape a concrete, vivid, sensory presence on the page, and among the most intensely realized of his western places are the Saskatchewan Plains in his major autobiographical novel, The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), and in Wolf Willow (1962), the book of history, reminiscence, and fiction that became an inspiration to Canadian Prairie regionalists. "Place" also encompasses the people and culture of the West, which became Stegner's explicit subject in nonfiction writings, including the essays in The Sound of Mountain Water (1969) and histories such as Mormon Country (1942).

While Stegner loved the land, he expressed a lifelong ambivalence toward western American culture. His major writings are charged with a fundamental opposition between frontier individualism and civilizing community. In fiction it takes the dramatic form of tension between characters such as the restless frontiersman Bo Mason and his humane and cultivated wife, Elsa, in The Big Rock Candy Mountain. In Stegner's most celebrated novel, The Angle of Repose (1971), the polarities are more balanced. Frontier engineer Oliver Ward's succession of idealistic failures are as admirable, in their way, as Susan Ward's devotion to culture and human relations. As historian and environmentalist, Stegner was less ambivalent. He saw westerners as cut off from their past by a frontier myth that obscures and distorts it, and he warned of the folly of unbridled individualism in an environment where survival depends on cooperation. Central to his environmentalism is his biography of conservationist John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), and articles in national magazines kept him at the forefront of the movement.

Recognition of Stegner's achievements gathered momentum in his mature years, including a Pulitzer Prize for The Angle of Repose at age sixty-two and a National Book Award for The Spectator Bird at sixty-eight. Stegner remained an active, major writer, publishing the novel Crossing to Safety (1987), his Collected Stories (1990), and two collections of essays in the last six years before his death on April 13, 1993.

Dick Harrison Sechelt, British Columbia

Arthur, Anthony. Critical Essays on Wallace Stegner. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982.

Rankin, Charles E. Wallace Stegner: Man and Writer. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Robinson, Forrest G., and Margaret G. Robinson. Wallace Stegner. Boston: Twayne, 1977.

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