Obituary: Wallace Stegner
Friday 16 April 1993
If the demographic centre of America has for long been shifting westwards, the literary monopoly of the country's east coast has been more resistant to change. True, New York is now enough a hell-hole that it is as earnestly avoided by aspiring young writers as once it was sought out, but its pre-eminent position in American publishing has only been mildly diffused. There is no Alfred A. Knopf in San Francisco.
This makes the long, productive and much-rewarded career of Wallace Stegner all the more remarkable. He was born in Iowa but spent most of his childhood in what was then a thinly populated and unfashionable North-west, where, as he later recalled, he 'grew up killing things'. This first-hand participation in the slaughter of nature made his conversion to conservation the more sincere (he was for a time a special assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall) and the more knowledgeable.
Outdoorsman though he was, Stegner spent most of his professional life as an academic, after an undergraduate education at the University of Utah and doctoral work at the University of Iowa. His closest and longest-lasting association, however, was with Stanford University in California, where he taught from 1943 until his retirement in 1971. There he was instrumental in the establishment and prominence of that university's creative writing program, which never matched the University of Iowa's machine-like production rate of published writers but was arguably the more distinguished for its humane treatment of its pupils.
The self-conscious newness of California made it the perfect spawning ground for Stegner the writer's imagination. As a novelist, he was obsessed with the past, perhaps because of a childhood of continual movement ('I grew up without history,' he claimed dramatically), perhaps because of the influence he sensed constantly looming from the east over the almost existentially 'new' state he had adopted as his home.
His novels are carefully, soberly written, but ambitious in their scope. His best, Angle of Repose (1971), which won the Pulitzer Prize, reflects Stegner's intense but ambivalent feelings about America's West. Set there, it is a tale of four generations in an American family, stretching from 1860 to 1970, focusing on the Victorian dynastic ambitions of a Westerner constrained by the cultivation of his eastern-bred wife. Through the eyes of a modern-day grandson, the novel shows how the Utopian promise of an Edenic West went wrong, and why. The narrator's account of his grandmother's life is supplemented by documents that give an authenticity to the book's historical basis; they also typify Stegner's propensity for painstaking research.
As Stegner himself admitted, he was never 'a rebel against tradition in general', and if he was a maverick in American literary terms, he none the less resisted caricature by his own fictional deflation of the stereotypical cult of individuality in the West's popular depictions.
His novels, he argued, were as much social as individual or psychological, and his relentless historical searchings undermine the popular American view of the West as the Land of the New.
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