During a writing career that stretched over half a century, from his first novel, Remembering Laughter (1937), to his last book of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), and his death in 1993, Wallace Stegner produced 13 novels (one of which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972), three volumes of short stories, three historical and biographical works, and seven collections of essays. Although Stegner is best known to most readers for his fiction, many critics believe that his reputation as an essayist will eventually be just as strong.
Having spent his high school and college years, as well as the first years of his teaching career, in Salt Lake City, Stegner was well equipped to write Mormon Country (1942), a book which remains in print and continues to sell over 50 years after its first publication.
In 28 essays he writes about the culture and history of a religious group often misunderstood, deftly weaving the religious beliefs and practices, history, culture, and personalities of a distinctly American denomination into an engaging book. A reading of these essays makes it clear that Stegner highly respected the strength and faith of these people even though he did not share their theology.
Wolf Willow (1962), whose subtitle is A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, is an interesting blend of 19 essays in which Stegner deals with his youthful years from 1914 to 1920 in southern Saskatchewan. It is a loving evocation of the last years of the Canadian frontier in which he studies the relationship between the people and the harsh land in which they live. The town of Whitemud (actually East End) comes through in these pieces, Stegner says near the end of the book, as “a seedbed, as good a place to be a boy and as unsatisfying a place to be a man as one could well imagine.”
The Sound of Mountain Water (1969) contains 14 essays written over a period of more than three decades dealing with the American West, its history, local color, and culture.
Two of the essays, “At Home in the Fields of the Lord” and “Born a Square,” are among his best, the first dealing with the author’s experience in growing up as a “Gentile” (i.e. non Mormon) in Salt Lake City, the second with the difficulties of writers from the American West trying to find their way in a literary world dominated by East Coast editors and publishers who know and care little about the West.
American Places (1981), lavishly illustrated with color photographs by the eminent American photographer Eliot Porter, is a collection of 14 essays Stegner wrote with his son Page (himself a well-known writer) dealing with North American human and natural history, the relationship between Americans and their environment, and the people themselves, sometimes told in the words of America’s explorers and immigrants. Stegner wrote eight of the essays himself and collaborated with Page on one. One Way to Spell Man (1982), like American Places, was published after Stegner had retired from Stanford University, where he had directed one of America’s most distinguished creative writing programs. The book is a collection of 16 essays written over 30 years from the 1950s onward and previously published in a variety of quality magazines and as editorial introductions to literary works. In these pieces Stegner writes about the relationship of the arts to our understanding of the world around us, the craft of fiction, the problems of the young writer, the superfluity of four-letter words, adulthood, the seeking of excellence and pleasure, Canadian culture, the photography of Ansel Adams, and conservation. Three other essays are critical analyses of novels: Owen Wister’s The Virginian, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident, and A.B.Guthrie’s The Big Sky. All of these essays, like his others and his fiction, are infused with the spirit of Stegner’s statement in his preface: “I am terribly glad to be alive; and when I have wit enough to think about it, terribly proud to be a man and an American, with all the rights and privileges that those words connote; and most of all I am humble before the responsibilites that are also mine. For no right comes without a responsibility, and being born luckier than most of the world’s millions, I am also born more obligated.”
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), Stegner’s last book-length publication, brings together 16 essays previously published in magazines and books. He writes about, among other things, his migrant childhood in Canada and the American West, his relationship with his mother, Western American aridity, conservation, and the art of fiction; he also provides critical essays on George R.Stewart and John Steinbeck.
Stegner’s essays, like his fiction, are strongly permeated with a moral sense. Whether writing about the beliefs and folk ways of a Mormon village in southern Utah, the place of a library in a civilization, or the art of fiction, Stegner believes that things matter.
ROBERT C. STEENSMA
Wallace Earle Stegner. Born 18 February 1909 in Lake Mills, lowa. Studied at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, A.B., 1930; University of lowa, lowa City, A.M., 1932., Ph.D., 1935; University of California, Berkeley, 1932–33. Married Mary Stuart Page, 1934: one son. Taught at Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois, 1934, University of Utah, 1934–37, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1937–39, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1939–45, and Stanford University, California, 1945–71; also visiting lecturer or writer-in-residence at various universities and institutions. Staff member, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Vermont, from 1939. Editor, Houghton Mifflin publishers, 1945–53. Chair, National Parks Advisory Board, 1965–66.
Editor-in-chief, American West, 1966–68.
Awards: many, including several fellowships;
O.Henry Award, 1942, 1950, 1954; Houghton Mifflin Life-in-America Award, 1945;
Anisfield-Wolf Award, 1945; Pulitzer Prize, for Angle of Repose, 1972; Western Literature Association Award, 1974; National Book Award, 1977; Los Angeles Times Kirsch Award, 1980; honorary degrees from seven universities. Died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, 13 April 1993.
Essays and Related Prose
Mormon Country, 1942.
Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Metnory of the Last Plains Frontier, 1962
The Sound of Mountain Water, 1969
American Places, with Page Stegner, photographs by Eliot Porter, 1981
One Way to Spell Man, 1982
The American West as Living Space, 1987
Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West, 1992
Other writings: 13 novels (including The Big Rock Candy Mountain, 1943; Angle of Repose, 1972; The Spectator Bird, 1976; Crossing to Safety, 1987), short stories, biographies of John Wesley Powell (1954) and Bernard De Voto (1974), and works on history, especially the American West.
Colberg, Nancy, Wallace Stegner: A Descriptive Bibliography, Lewiston, Idaho: Confluence Press, 1990
Anthony, Arthur, editor, Critical Essays on Wallace Stegner, Boston: Hall, 1982
Benson, Jackson J., Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, New York: Viking Penguin, 1996
Lewis, Merrill, and Lorene Lewis, Wallace Stegner, Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972
Robinson, Forrest G., and Margaret G.Robinson, Wallace Stegner, New York: Twayne, 1977
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