Nature and Environmental Book Reviews

Short List of Best Nature and Environmental Books

 

 

Nature and Environmental Book Review:
Wallace Stegner and the American West

Book Review by David Yarian Ph.D.

Wallace Stegner and the American WestWallace Stegner and the American West
Philip L. Fradkin

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was the premier chronicler of the 20th Century western American experience. His novels Angle of Repose, which won the Pulitzer Prize, and The Spectator Bird, which won the National Book Award, brought the life and landscapes of the West to national and international attention.

Fradkin traces Stegner's hardscrabble and nomadic childhood on the Canadian frontier and in Utah, seeing elements of his close observation of nature and landscape in these early years of boyhood adventuring around the margins of small frontier settlements.

Stegner had a complicated relationship with his father, a bootlegger and a gambler, and loved his mother, who died of cancer when he was in his early twenties. His brother, his only sibling, also died when Stegner was in his twenties.

Education served him well; without a specific goal to become a writer, but by dint of hard, persistent work and by taking advantage of opportunities that were presented to him, Stegner worked his way through college, and entered graduate school at the University of Iowa just as it was becoming a literary center. He had found his career.

Marriage, a son, and teaching followed – at the University of Utah, the University of Wisconsin, then writers' conferences (particularly Bread Loaf in New England). Stegner approached his writing with determination and single-mindedness. He chose jobs that allowed him latitude for spending time on his writing.

In 1945 Stegner was recruited by Stanford University to create and run a graduate program in creative writing. He led the Stanford Creative Writing Program until his retirement in 1971, perfecting the workshop method of teaching writing, and impacting an entire generation of American writers.

Some of the writers who came through Stegner's program at Stanford were Ed Abbey, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ed McClanahan, Ernest Gaines. He offered consultation and guidance to many other writers who corresponded with him: Barry Lopez, Ivan Doig, William Kittredge, Harriet Doerr, Terry Tempest Williams, Gretel Ehrlich and Rick Bass.

Wallace Stegner was a son of the West, and though living part-time in New England at the end of his life, saw himself as a citizen of the western landscape. His novels and stories were set in the West, and his writing, teaching and mentoring of younger writers began to create an body of work that, while set in the West, transcended the category of regional writing. Stegner often railed against the provincialism of the New York literary scene, which he saw as prejudiced against anything written west of the Mississippi.

After leaving Stanford in 1971, Stegner was drawn increasingly into environmental writing and activism. He was galvanized by the encroaching development surrounding his seven acre home site in the hills outside of Palo Alto. His efforts to fight the creeping sprawl of what we now call Silicon Valley failed, but they had the larger effect of motivating him to use his reputation and talents to serve the growing environmental movement.

In 1960 Stegner wrote his famed "Wilderness Letter", originally a private communication with his peers on the board of the Sierra Club. He closed by saying, "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."

The letter was read at the Sierra Club's Seventh Biennial Wilderness Conference, and later published in full in the Washington Post. It was an important impetus to the growing national consensus that led to the Wilderness Act of 1964, which created the legal definition of wilderness in the United States, and protected some 9 million acres of Federal land.

Fradkin's book is important on several levels. It is a detailed and thoughtful biography of the life of a famed and influential writer and teacher of writing. It also makes use of Stegner's biography to tell an important part of the story of the American environmental movement in the last half of the twentieth century. Finally, it gives context to the development of American nature writing in general, and writing about the West in particular.

Return to top of page