Biography Laud Stegner's Realistic Writing, Teaching Career

By McClatchy- | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 17, 2008 | Go to article overview

Biography Laud Stegner's Realistic Writing, Teaching Career


McClatchy-, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Wallace Stegner (1909-93) liked to refer to the hub of American publishing in the east as "headquarters." He said it deadpan, as a Westerner might, but his stature as his era's great literary "authority on the American West" conveyed the sardonic edge.

Stegner had good cause to be snippy. The industry's ever- changing enthusiasms -- from Jewish-American fiction to Indian- American fiction to graphic novels -- have never included fiction about Stegner's core territory of the "interior West."

For Manhattan editors, "going West" means heading crosstown to their apartments.

That sustains Stegner's importance. If, as Philip L. Fradkin states in his ambitious exploration of the novelist's life, Stegner remains our literary "spokesperson for the region," it's partly because the eastern literary establishment makes it so hard for anyone to replace him.

Yet does Stegner merit a third full-scale biography? He does. First, his 13 novels, eight nonfiction books and 242 articles, including "The Wilderness Letter" (1961), a modern manifesto for conservationists, carry weight. While Stegner didn't, like Saul Bellow, consistently turn out masterpieces, novels such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angle of Repose" (1971) and "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" (1943) endure as quality work, as do a number of his nonfiction books.

Second, Stegner, who started to teach writing after graduating from the University of Utah in 1930, continued to do so for 41 years, first at Iowa, Bread Loaf, Harvard and Wisconsin, then at Stanford, whose prestigious program he built. As a co-creator of the "creative writing industry," Stegner transformed literature by popularizing the idea that young people can be taught how to write it.

Third, Stegner established, in his own work and in that of mentorees such as Wendell Berry and Edward Abbey, an honored place for realistic writing about the West. Under his aegis, the West's vulnerable wilderness, bedeviling aridity and exposure to exploitation transcended the cowboy and Indian themes of pulp fiction.

Fradkin, an environmental historian, says the two earlier biographies of Stegner came from literature professors who didn't attend enough to his "flawed" humanity. Fradkin's chief feat is to dig deeper into Stegner's childhood bond with nature, which led the introspective author to become a "reluctant" conservationist toward the end of his career.

Stegner experienced a hardscrabble childhood. His father, George, a failed farmer and career bootlegger, dragged long-suffering wife Hilda and their two boys to remote locations. …

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