Conjuring images of the old American West is not hard to do: the empty plain and the big sky, the wagon train, cowboys versus Indians, the gold-crazed forty-niner or the oil baron, probably corrupt, in search of a financial bonanza. And of course we cannot forget the rugged individualist on horseback who rides into town at high noon and saves the day by gunning down the lawless evildoer before again disappearing over the mammoth horizonalone. If we have also learned to see beyond these compelling Hollywood tropes and the plots of pulp fiction, it will likely be due in no small part to the life’s work of Wallace Stegner (1909–1993).
Through his novels and essays, which some critics have ranked in the top tier of twentieth-century American letters, Stegner broadened and deepened our thinking about the West in several ways. Like Roman Polanski's Chinatown, which echoed a Stegnerian theme, the novelist put the scarcity of water, and the fight for its control and use, at the center of social and political developments in the West. He also focused attention on some of the contradictions between the West’s heroic image of itself and certain hard realities. The famously independent political spirit of the Western states and their allergy to government regulation, for instance, has tended to end just where the appetite for federal funds begins, whether the issue is government contracts or the financing of highway construction and maintenance. In addition to beginning to tell the straight story of the American West and the more everyday lives of its people, Stegner’s other significant literary accomplishment was, quite simply, to give the West a literature to speak of, which he did both directly and indirectly through the generation of writers he taught and influenced. But lest our own appreciation of the man turn into another installment in the saga of the Western hero, it is important to pick up Philip Fradkin’s new Stegner biography for balance.
Stegner once said that all his life he’d been going away East and coming home West, heading East to be educated yet inevitably reversing directions and returning to his native region to settle into the groove of life. One of the more interesting features of Fradkin’s book is the way he gently complicates this reassuring picture, suggesting that Stegner’s inability to adapt to the rapidly changing American West rendered him finally unable to feel himself at home in the very “region that had formed him and that he had defined and represented so eloquently.” Fradkin thus finds a measure of tragic deprivation at the core of an otherwise extraordinarily full and successful American life, a life that saw Stegner rise improbably from a background of economic and cultural poverty, in out-of-the-way places like Eastend and Great Falls, to eventually establish himselfa gifted teacher of creative writing at Stanford University, an internationally influential conservationist, and the Pulitzer Prize winning author of the novel, Angle of Repose.
An overall solid study, Wallace Stegner and the American West does not quite live up to the grandiosity of its title, but the symmetry one detects here between Stegner’s ultimate flaw and that of the land he famously inhabited partially redeems it. Although he does not announce it, Fradkin sees Stegner and the modern American West as being alike at least in the sense that both were unable to come to terms adequately with their respective and fractured histories. Yet their shared past flowed relentlessly into the present nonetheless.
The stated motivation for Fradkin’s biography, the third full-scale treatment to be attempted on the subject, is to recover Wallace Stegner, “the whole man.” There are two aspects primarily to this reclamation project: appreciating the full breadth of Stegner’s achievements as a conservationist and teacher, not merely as a literary figure, and avoiding any hagiographical ignorance of controversies and faults. In addition to the one already mentioned, in Fradkin's portrait, the most significant of these flaws was the endurance of Stegner’s anger. From Fradkin we learn, for instance, that Stegner’s undergraduate alma mater and the location of one of his first teaching appointmentsthe University of Utahcame to be the permanent repository of his personal papers rather than Stanford due to Stegner’s resentment of the more experimental direction he believed the creative-writing program had taken following his retirement as its director in 1971. Stegner was hurt, too, by the tepid reception New York critics gave his work and by the iconoclasm expressed in the social and campus upheavals of the 1960s.
In Fradkin’s plausible telling, however, the deepest cause of Stegner’s habitually submerged bitterness was also the source of his failure to be reconciled to his own past. Wally, as friends referred to him with Fradkin following suit, was never able to forgive his father George for the mistreatment of his cherished mother and, as Fradkin has apparently discovered, reciprocated this and other grievances by consigning the elder Stegner’s mortal remains to an unmarked grave. (The harshness of this retaliation is perhaps ameliorated in the reader’s estimation by Fradkin’s vivid depiction of George’s melodramatic and sordid death as the agent of a murder-suicide in a cheap Salt Lake City hotel in 1939. Stegner was thirty-one years old at the time and already a known, and consequently embarrassed, author.)
By dwelling initially upon these unhappier details of Stegner’s life and personalityand there are a few others reported in the volumeI could easily convey the false impression that Fradkin’s purpose is to cut down to size a man whom in life the New York Times Magazine belatedly coronated “the dean of Western American letters.” That is not at all the case, as the other half of Fradkin’s agenda to retrieve the whole Stegner shows even more plainly. If anything, Fradkin wishes to rescue Stegner from a perceived threat of obscurity by drawing attention to the full range of his normally underappreciated accomplishments. As a non-academic environmental historian and Pulitzer Prize winning reporter, Fradkin would seem to be well suited to play this recuperative role. And indeed Fradkin’s renderings of Stegner’s relationships first with Bread Loaf greats like Robert Frost and Bernard DeVoto and later with a number of the fellows who studied under him at Stanford are among the book’s highlights. Fradkin tells both how Stegner got in on the ground floor of teaching creative writing in this countrythe idea that writing as such could be taught, Fradkin reminds us, was then in its infancyand traces some compelling vignettes of successful Stegner students like Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, and Larry McMurtry.
We also find here the story of how Stegner, hardly a social activist by temperament, was gradually drawn into writing high-minded advocacy for conservationist causes and later even persuaded by interior secretary Stewart L. Udall to take a position on the National Parks Advisory Board while Lyndon B. Johnson was in office. Fradkin additionally goes a fair way to re-establish Stegner as an important and prolific writer of historical non-fiction, rating Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West as his best book, alongside Angle of Repose.
What Wallace Stegner and the American West attains in breadth of coverage, however, it sometimes lacks in depth of analysisat least where Stegner’s literary legacy is concerned. Unlike Stegner’s earlier biographers, Fradkin is not an English professor or literary critic by profession, and the book does reflect the author’s lower degree of interest in Stegner just as the consummate craftsman of fiction. It is probably asking too much to expect every Stegner historian to imitate what Fradkin describes as Wally’s habit of writing history with the sensibilities of a novelist. Perhaps wisely, Fradkin does not even attempt such a feat, though a lengthy epilogue that describes the biographer’s transcontinental search for Stegner does bear a literary style reminiscent of some of Stegner’s autobiographical essays.
On the other hand, one does look for a book attempting to capture Stegner the man in full to be more focused than this one is on reading Steger’s fictional output precisely as fiction. Fradkin’s main interest in this line lies with showing how Stegner translated American history and, in particular, his own life experiences into literature, and I suppose this effort could contribute to the properly literary discussion of Stegner’s stylistic realism to which Fradkin on several occasions refers in general terms. From this perspective, Fradkin reads Recapitulation (1979) as Stegner’s most intense but finally failed attempt to “heal himself” by exorcizing the memory of his father through fiction. The lifelong friendship between academic couples sensitively depicted in Crossing to Safety (1987), Stegner’s last novel and one of his best books, is treated as a creative fictionalization of Wallace and wife Mary Stegner’s longtime friendship with Phil and Peg Gray.
Yet this approach to reading Stegner has its limitations, as becomes evident in the book’s lengthiest discussion of a single work. The chapter on Angle of Repose is in large part devoted to hashing out the plagiarism controversy that arose because of the way Stegner borrowed sections from Mary Hallock Foote’s letters and ideas from her early twentieth-century memoir in order to create Susan Burling Ward, the novel’s female protagonist, yet without explicitly crediting his inspiration. Fradkin, who, we are told, is telling us “the full story” for the first time, zeroes in on the ethical and legal question of whether Stegner, the Foote family, or the critics bore preponderant blame for creating any misunderstanding about the novel’s origins. Fradkin does not wade too far into what some would regard as the more interesting discussion about the aesthetic and historical value of this writing technique, nor does he draw any conclusions about Stegner’s success or failure in using it. And because this lack of attention to the technical and other inner workings of Stegner’s fiction pervades the biography, I doubt it will establish itself in the long run as the definitive account of the man who was, after all, a writer and novelist before he was anything else.
What Fradkin does contribute in this biography, however, is the rounded, well-traced picture, when one puts it all together, of Stegner’s social and conservationist vision. Fradkin maintains that Stegner was not in the strict sense a regionalist, but it is noteworthy that every aspect of his thinking about society and the natural environment shows the prevalent influence of Stegner’s Western experience. Stegner was on a lifelong quest for tradition, rootedness, and a sense of community that had been denied him by his peripatetic childhood and the individualistic outlook that surrounded him.
His early years in Utah had taught him about the benefits, even the necessity, of community for survival in a harsh natural environment, and Stegner recognized that it was the Mormons’ faith in God and in the future that had enabled them alone to carve out a respectable civilization in the North American desert. Wally never embraced Mormonism or any religious faith, but Fradkin believes that in a sense Stegner shared the Eastward orientation of this biblical people. The Mormons of Salt Lake City bury their dead beneath headstones that look back towards Zion. And Fradkin places much symbolic value upon the fact that Stegner chose for his own ashes to be scattered on his summer property in Greensboro, Vermont instead of near the Palo Alto home he had occupied for more than forty years. In part, Stegner’s decision may have been a testament to the comparatively stable, if flawed, local community he had discovered there. In Fradkin’s interpretation, it was also about Stegner’s belief in the greater capacity of this more verdant land to renew its own natural resources and reverse some of the grosser effects of human spoliation.
The environmental and even social perils of the West, on Stegner’s view, have been specially conditioned by an all but pervasive aridity that, among other things, freezes the effects of human exploitation into the landscape. In the more humid Eastern and Southern climes, the vertiginous wilderness is always poised to reclaim the land at least partially from human development and control. The practically necessary power plants, dams, mines, and sprawling housing developments of the West, by contrast, scar and damage the land in ways that are irreversible within any human timeframe. A New Deal Democrat who believed in the prudent use of governmental power, Stegner supported robust federal protection of the pristine wilderness areas that still remained west of the Mississippi, going so far as to invest with spiritual significance the preservation of some Western lands in a state as much unaltered by human influence as possible. He believed there were intangible and ancient resources in those places that might somehow sustain us.
With some pathos Fradkin relates how Stegner ultimately despaired over the future of a region whose landscapes he had once celebrated as “the geography of hope.” And it would not be too difficult to conclude that on the whole in the American West today we do live in the wreckage of Stegner’s dream for a mature society that has learned to restrain its growth and exist in harmony with both the natural environment and the complicated yet rich past of our nation and cultures. We may have learned to hope for less than Stegner did because the opportunity to forge the kind of American West he imagined has long since closed.
If nothing else, the endless banality of the strip malls and track homes and the seemingly ephemeral nature of so much that emanates from the mainstream culture of the West Coast constantly remind us of the sober fact. For all that, we Westerners are not yet entirely immune to the enticements of “the geography of hope.” We feel, perhaps as keenly as did Stegner, the need to make that whole journey of civilization in one lifetime. In light of his frequently painful, albeit impressive attempt to blaze this trail, we are naturally dubious about our own prospects of making that crossing safely.
Thomas Zebrowski, a native of San Jose, CA, is a Ph.D. candidate in Ethics at the University of Chicago, Divinity School.
Wallace Stegner and the American West by Philip Fradkin