Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work

Academic journal article Journal of Leisure Research

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work

Article excerpt

Jackson J. Benson. (1996). Wallace Stegner: His life and work. New York: Viking. ISBN #0-670-86222-3, cloth, 472 pp.

In From these beginnings: A biographical approach to American history, Roderick Nash tells the story of the United States through the lives of sixteen prominent individuals. It is engaging reading. From Christopher Columbus to Thomas Jefferson to Mark Twain to Jane Adams to Gifford Pinchot to Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, Nash recounts the lives of a few in a way that illuminates the lives of the many.

Jackson J. Benson's Wallace Stegner: His life and work had a similar effect on me. Benson, a professor of American literature at San Diego State University, set out to write an objective biography that would focus principally on Stegner's professional life, a biography that would culminate in an assessment of Stegner's place in American literature. While Benson succeeded on both counts, it was Stegner's life as synecdoche for the larger 20th Century American experience that captured my imagination. Indeed, were Nash to revise his text, the life and work of Stegner would be a worthy addition.

For those unfamiliar with his writing, Stegner was a Pulitzer Prizewinning author (Angle of Repose, 1971), a critically acclaimed historian (Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West, 1954), a professor of writing at Stanford, and a mentor to the likes of Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Ken Kesey, to name but three. On top of this, Stegner was involved throughout his adult life in conservation matters, serving on the Sierra Club's board of directors, and writing numerous articles promoting environmentalism. He was, in sum, a highly gifted writer who practiced what he preached.

Benson traces Stegner's life from his birth in Lake Mills, Iowa to his boyhood years in Eastend, Saskatchewan, Great Falls, Montana, and Salt Lake City, Utah. This is important territory to cover because Stegner's writing would eventually become testimony to the influence of place and upbringing on perspective and world view. Benson then explores Stegner's development as a university student, aspiring novelist, professor, and environmental activist. Finally, Benson places Stegner, the accomplished writer, in the company of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and John Steinbeck among 20th Century American authors.

Prior to reading this work, I was unaware of Stegner's efforts in the 1940s to speak out against prejudice and racism. His book, One Nation (1945), commissioned by the editors of Look Magazine, was highly critical of a country divided along racial and religious lines. This early demonstration of his social commitment was a precursor to Stegner's later environmental commitment. He epitomized what Nash and others have called our expanding liberal democratic tradition, a gradual extension of ethics outward from self to others to the environment as a whole. …

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