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Wallace Stegner (1909-1993)
by Janice Albert

Cottage setting of "All the Little Live Things"

Relationship with Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) is claimed by many states: Iowa, Saskatchewan, Vermont, Utah. The California claim asserts itself in connection with his long career at Stanford University, where in 1964 he founded the creative writing program. Stegner himself would probably laugh at this regionalism. He spoke for the West, a land he saw possessed of a challenging aridity, a land which required cooperation for survival, and a land whose wilderness was needed for deeply spiritual reasons.

Born in Iowa, he moved frequently as his restless father took the family from North Dakota to Washington State, Montana and Utah. From 1914-1920 he lived in Eastend, Saskatchewan, an experience captured in Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier (1962).

Stegner entered the University of Utah at the age of sixteen and received his Bachelor's degree in 1930. James Thalman, writing in the University of Utah magazine Continuum, says Stegner "fell in love with books at the U. under the tutelage of the noted Idaho author Vardis Fisher, his first English instructor. "

Here is where he had his first love affair and his first broken heart. Here is where he lost his left ring finger, amputated when it became badly infected after being stepped on during a touch football game…. Later, as a teacher at the U, he wrote his first short story and first novel, Remembering Laughter, which won his first major literary prize. Here is where he buried his mother, brother and father.

In 1937, now husband of Mary, father of Stuart Page, and doctor of philosophy, Stegner accepted a teaching job at the University of Wisconsin. The following year he joined the staff of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Vermont, where he became friends with Robert Frost and Bernard DeVoto. Throughout the years of WW II, he taught at Harvard and produced four novels, including Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943). In 1945, he was offered the directorship of the writing program at Stanford University, a position he held for twenty-five years until 1971.

With the publication of Beyond the Hundreth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954) Stegner became a spokesperson for the West and for learning to live with the iron laws of nature that govern the West. Under the Democratic administration of Kennedy/Johnson, he served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, and as a member of the National Parks advisory board.

In the year of his retirement, 1971, he published Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1972. Two controversies are connected with this book. One is the fact that the New York Times refused to review it. Stegner's supporters considered this a snub by the Eastern Establishment against the West.

A second controversy was articulated by scholar Mary Ellen Williams-Walsh who accuses Stegner of plagiarism in taking the real letters of Mary Hallock Foote and calling them the letters of Susan Burling Ward, a fictitious character. According to Stegner, the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a sizable collection which might take "about a year" to read through "had the same function as raw material, broken rocks out of which I could make any kind of wall I wanted to." In conversation with Richard Etulian, he asserts that Foote's granddaughter, Janet Micoleau, "didn't think we ought to use the real name, since what I was writing was a novel. So the acknowledgment I made was thanks to J. M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors." Disguising the acknowledgment, to honor Micoleau's wish that no names be used and that the source of the book not be identified as her grandmother, Stegner says, led to an error that he regrets: "I also left the quotation marks so they could be read as Lyman Ward's quotation marks instead of mine."

In 1992, protesting government involvement in the arts, he turned down the National Medal from the National Endowment for the Arts, saying government "has no business trying to direct or censor [the arts]. The creation of art is three quarters error. As Lewis Thomas said, 'It was only by making mistakes that mankind blundered toward brains.'"

In addition to the body of his work, Stegner's legacy is best remembered in the work of writers who trained with him at Stanford, a list that includes Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Ernest Gaines, Larry McMurtry, N. Scott Momaday and Tillie Olsen. In addition, his writing about the environment continues to be a source of strength for his followers. It is interesting, in this regard, to compare Stegner's views with those of the poet Robinson Jeffers. Both ardently write of the beauty of wilderness, yet for Jeffers, wilderness ought to be preserved because it alone is beautiful. Humanity, in its propensity toward cruelty and excess, is deeply flawed. Stegner, on the other hand, upholds the cause of wilderness because it is the great teacher, humanity's one hope of learning to live humbly, with courtesy and restraint.

In his "Wilderness Letter" of 1960, Stegner writes:

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste.

Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum Exhibit near San Jose, California. -This is where Mary Hallock Foote lived for eighteen months, and it is one of the sites of Stegner's Angle of Repose. 

And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there--important, that is, simply as idea.

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