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1909-1993

Wallace Stegner

By Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

The West, perceived as the wilderness, the frontier, the virgin land, the Garden of the World, long dominated both American history and the American imagination. If in recent times the mystique and memory of the West have given ground the accelerating demands of an industrialized and urbanized nation and an exigent and exasperating world, the West still remains vital to our understanding of the republic—and of ourselves as Americans. The West has undergone its share of vicissitudes, of violations, deceptions, disillusionments, both in actuality and in the literature. But in our own times no one has done more to reclaim the West for American understanding, no one has written about the meaning of the West with more scrupulousness, perception and wisdom, more historical objectivity mingled with controlled passion, more lyrical evocation mingled with dark foreboding, than Wallace Stegner.

Wally died last April at the age of eighty-four from injuries received in an automobile accident. Born in Iowa in 1909, he grew up western, as he liked to say. His family was always on the move, pursuing an American dream that was already over for everyone else, forever seeking that big rock candy mountain. He never saw a water closet or a lawn, he once wrote, until he was eleven years old. He never knew the first names of three of his grandparents. Between his twelfth and twenty-first years his family lived in twenty different houses. Neither of his parents had finished grade school.

Yet out of the chaos of his upbringing, Wally, in a recapitulation and distillation of an American experience, persevered in his own right, caught fire, worked his way through the University of Utah as a forty-hour a week clerk in a rug and linoleum store, took a Ph.D. at the University of Iowa, taught at the Universities of Utah and Wisconsin, then at Harvard where I first met him in 1940, and in 1945 returned to the West he loved and found his lasting home at Stanford. He explored his West in a variety of modes—for himself, in camping on the mountains and fishing the rivers and, for the rest of us, in thirteen novels, in three volumes of short stories, in a dozen works of history and biography, and in innumerable essays.

He exulted in the West’s wild beauty, in its open spaces, its dry, lucid, accurate air, its forested mountains its geyser basins, its plateaus and mesas and canyons, its sagebrush deserts, its forms and lights and colors. He felt, as he said, “the surge of the inextinguishable western hope,” the hope of building there a new civilization. But he was no sentimentalist. He saw through the myths the West contrived about itself and understood the depredations wrought by greed, by the “extractive frenzy,” by the western instinct for self-destruction. He knew the damage done by those westerners who, from the white man’s first invasion, pillaged the West—pillaged and ran.

Wallace Stegner belongs not only to literature but to politics in the high sense—to the formation of public policy in the interests of a civilized life. “We may love a place,” he wrote, “but still be dangerous to it.” His hope for the West was a “civilization to match its scenery.” In the footsteps of two men about whom he wrote exemplary biographies—John Wesley Powell and Bernard DeVoto—he threw himself in the battle to preserve the West in its original contours. He was active in the Sierra Club and the Wilderness Society, and in the Kennedy years served as a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall. He became a vigorous participant in the fight to defend the balance of nature against “careless ruin,” against the avaricious private interests, against agribusiness, against the stockmen and the miners and the grazers; and against as well the misguided public improvers, dam-builders, water-diverters, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Army Corps of Engineers; above all, against the human delusion that makes man the center of the earth and produces the “hard determination to dominate nature,” the domination that drives nature in the end to exact its own revenge in grazed-over grasslands, diminished water tables, the silting and drying up of the great rivers.

But Wally never deserted the craft of literature. He was as great teacher and, as director of the Stanford Creative Writing Program, encouraged, advised, scolded, and nourished so many talented young, among them Raymond Carver, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Tillie Olsen, Edward Abbey, Ernest Gaines. He cherished the hope of developing an infrastructure for literary life in the West—publishing houses, critical magazines, bookstores, a reviewing corps independent of eastern and international opinion, an alert reading public—and saw most of this come to pass.

And his own distinguished writing, in its disciplined precision, in its sense of the drama of the average, in its fidelity and grace, showed how to render the West without stereotype and melodrama and won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 (for Angle of Repose) and the National Book Award in 1976 ( for The Spectator Bird). In 1992, without fanfare, he declined the National Medal for the Arts in protest against the capitulation of the National Endowment for the Arts to right-wing censorship. He was always a quiet man. “In fiction,” he wrote, “I think we should have no agenda but to tell the truth. The shouters in thunder roar from their podiums and pulpits…They speak to the deaf, but it takes good ears to hear me, for I want to be part of the common sound, a not-too-dominating element of the ambient noise.”

His ambition was to make sense of an ordinary American life, to delineate the historic continuities between past and present and thereby to help transform natural chaos into human order. He succeeded triumphantly in his books, with their unforced penetration and power. And he succeeded triumphantly in his own life. He was not only a great teacher but a generous-hearted, warm-hearted, stout-hearted friend, a man of wry humor, imperturbable courtesy and great charm. With Mary Stuart Page, to whom he was married for 59 years, he enjoyed a personal and literary partnership of singular felicity.

Wallace Stegner reminded his nation of what it owed to the West—and reminded the West what it owed to the nation. And he did this with keen intelligence, poetic apprehension, and a serenity that will long abide.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1993.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters