Wallace Stegner’s death on April 13, 1993, was not, as the cliche has it, untimely. He had lived to the respectable age of 85, after all; had lived to see the wide-open West of his early years carved by bulldozers, devoured by cities, and filled with people. Untimely, no; but perhaps ironic, for Stegner died from complications following an automobile accident, a victim of the technological world he had long decried.

Books about Stegner are beginning to appear: to judge by them, it may take another 85 years fully to appreciate Wallace Stegner’s gift to the American West. His contributions were many, not the least of them his having helped shape the literature not only of the region but of points east, through the scores of graduates from the Stanford University writing program that bears his name. One of them was Edward Abbey, the Jeremiah of Western environmentalism, who cultivated a rough-and-ready, self-taught image, but who once told me that he became a writer not in the desert wilds but in the halls of Stanford. Another is Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet and farmer. Still another is Ken Kesey, who combined the cowboy ethos with hippie sentiment to shape novels of the New West like Sometimes a Great Notion and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Stegner was of the last generation to experience a truly frontier West. His father was a land speculator who dragged his family from one dusty town to another in search of easy riches, and who, Stegner recalled, “died broke and friendless in a fleabag hotel, having in his lifetime done more human and environmental damage than he could have repaired in a second lifetime.” His mother was old at 30, broken by a rootless marriage marked by one humiliation after another. It was not an auspicious beginning.

The transient youth found his home in the libraries of small towns like Yuma, Kanab, Alamosa, and Rock Springs. The books he read there, books like John Wesley Powell’s Explorations of the Colorado River and Mark Twain’s Roughing It, helped him put his life into a native context: when he began to write, first articles and then books, he did so as a proud Westerner, disinclined to apologize to Eastern readers for living by choice in the Great American Outback.

Stegner’s was an important shift in attitude. Most contemporary writing about the West concerned virtuous white women kidnapped by howling savages, straight-jawed lawmen battling snake-eyed gunslingers, and fifth-column renegades attempting to thwart Manifest Destiny. Much of that writing, in fact, came from the pens of men and women who never saw the West. One of them, the enormously popular writer Karl May, penned his dime novels inside the walls of a German prison while he did time for fraud.

Instead, Stegner wrote of the realities of Western life: whiskey-soaked cities, violent mining towns, ramshackle fishing villages and line camps, dusty farmyards. He wrote of honest emotions, of pain and love and loss. He wrote splendid novels like Angle of Repose and The Big Rock Candy Mountain, evoking all that is right and wrong with the West: a hauntingly beautiful land full of riches, but full of fools’ promises as well.

He wrote books of nonfiction, too, that helped restore a sense of real history to the backcountry. His collection of essays Mormon Country remains one of the best books ever to introduce Latter-Day Saints doctrine and culture to non-Mormon readers; his Beyond the Hundredth Meridian recounted the amazing feats of his boyhood hero John Wesley Powell as he surveyed the post-Civil War West; his Wolf Willow portrays a Colorado, Alberta, Utah, and Montana that exist now only in books and a few aging memories.

Years ago, Wallace Stegner called the American West “hope’s native home.” In the last decade of bis life, he grew less buoyant. Regarding the West as “less a place than a process,” he came to find cause to abandon hope at its gates, now that its great cities had grown “to the limits of their water and beyond, like bacterial cultures overflowing the edges of their agar dishes.” One of the few surprises in Jackson Benson’s serviceable—but only just—new biography of Wallace Stegner, in fact, is that at the end of his life Stegner was so depressed about the rape of the American West that he intended to move to Vermont, where, he rightly maintained, there was more wild nature to be found than in California.

In his last years, Stegner, who had disdained the young radicals of the Vietnam era, became a cultural rebel. In 1991, he declined a presidential National Medal for the Arts, citing his dislike of the government’s tampering with cultural affairs. More and more he criticized the get-rich-quick hucksters who guide so much of the West’s economy and politics, the Sagebrush Rebellion speculators who profit from the land’s destruction.

Wallace Stegner’s passing made the front pages of papers on the coasts, the inner or back pages of papers in the Western states he had long fought to describe and protect. Less ephemerally, it has also yielded a number of books, foremost among them Jackson Benson’s life of Stegner: a hurried, somewhat too reverential book that will disappoint students of Stegner the conservationist and regional chauvinist. For this, we must turn to Mary Stegner’s gathering of celebratory essays The Geography of Hope, which, although a Festschrift, has its merits. Benson, however, himself a professor of literature, has much to say about the content of Stegner’s books, so that his biography serves well as an on-the-fly compendium of literary criticism. He is especially helpful in discussing Stegner’s constant preoccupation with the development of personal identity, as well as his concern for creating unusual, tightly woven narrative structures.

Charles Rankin’s collection Wallace Stegner: Man and Writer, growing from a symposium at the University of Montana, is more useful. The strongest of the essays deal with Stegner’s work on many fronts, as conservationist and old school, socially conservative political activist; as historian, as freelance writer, and as teacher. Richard Etulain, who has done much good work as a chronicler of Western literary history, captures Stegner in reflective moments, in one of which his subject wearily assesses the curse of an active imagination and a seemingly limitless capacity for work. (“It’s like a beaver’s teeth—he has to chew or else his jaws lock shut,” Stegner tells Etulain. “A talent is a kind of imprisonment. You’re stuck in it: you have to keep using it, or else you get ruined by it.”) Considering whether Stegner’s fiction has had much influence on his younger contemporaries—as, for whatever reason, it seems not to have—William Bevis asserts that Stegner’s literary style, forever locked in conventional magazine formulae of the 1930’s and 40’s, failed to develop over time, not least because Stegner mistrusted literary experimentation.

All three books have their considerable uses, but they leave room for another combining their virtues, one that would fully account for Stegner’s place in modern Western literature, that would examine where Stegner got it right and where he got it wrong, that would travel the ground to see up close the landscapes that shaped Stegner’s character. Until we have that book we can content ourselves with returning to Stegner’s own writings, which offer a humane and hopeful vision that defies the region’s continuing transformation into just another hopelessly used-up place.


[Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, by Jackson Benson (New York: Viking Press) 488 pp., $32.95]

[The Geography of Hope, Edited by Mary Stegner (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books) 288 pp., $14.95]

[Wallace Stegner: Man and Writer, Edited by Charles Rankin (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press) 280 pp., $45.00]