The California writer Wallace Stegner is well known to readers for novels such as "Angle of Repose" and "Crossing to Safety." But Stegner had another dimension, as an advocate for a literary West -- especially the West of mountains and desert and big sky -- not often enough heard from.
The West, wrote Stegner -- who was born in 1909 in Iowa and grew up in Montana, Utah and elsewhere before settling in Northern California's Los Altos Hills until his death in 1993 -- was a place defined by its restlessness. It was a region, in other words, from which people largely moved on, with considerable literary consequences.
Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac and pointed out that other classic Western novels, such as Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It," were odes to a West that had already vanished.
He founded the West's most prestigious writing program, the Stegner fellowships at Stanford University in 1946, and ran it through 1971. During this period, he shifted the center of gravity of the American literary world.
With the publication for the first time this month of Stegner's letters, edited by his son Page and published by Shoemaker & Hoard, his considerable ability to inspire, exhort and engage those around him -- on issues central to the West as well as many others -- is being given a new stage. Perhaps most striking to read today are his many letters that take up now-trendy environmental issues, including an eloquent and much-quoted 1960 missive that asserts, "Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases."
The literary and the environmental were never far apart for Stegner. He wrote of his hope that the West would someday develop "a civilization to match its scenery," which meant not only artists and writers, but also readers, critics, journals and writing programs.
His students, many of whom became dedicated writers of the West, include Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, James D. Houston, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey, editor Gordon Lish, Larry McMurtry and Tillie Olsen.
Stegner's influence isn't limited to people who studied with him. "I think he made novels about the West less 'regional,' " said Ron Hansen, who attended Stanford post-Stegner and whose novel "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford " was recently made into a film. "He was kind of the frontiersman: By the time I came along, no one gave it much thought. He had cut down all the weeds and hacked the bramble so I could walk through."
"All of us outlanders are pushing against the Northeastern cultural orientation that the arts have had for a long time," said Berry, the poet and essayist who studied with Stegner in the late '50s and returned to his native Kentucky a few years later. "I'm not a Westerner, but I'm an outlander -- I'm not from a great center of culture. I think all of us who have been in that predicament owe a debt to him."
In the collection, there are letters to friends and former students filled with support and warmth. There are letters about politics (he famously turned down an award from the National Endowment for the Arts because of what he called, in a letter to PEN West, "the dominance exerted over the NEA by its reactionary congressional and administrative enemies," abetted by President George H.W. Bush).
There are letters about history, one of his passions, and about his preference for realism in literature. There are several letters about a controversy -- over his use of the life and letters of writer Mary Hallock Foote in "Angle of Repose" -- that would, for some, stain his reputation.
And there are letters on the literary West in which one can see him searching for a way to square his passion for the wildness and freedom of the West with his respect for cultural discipline and tradition.
"I grew up in a cowboy culture," he writes in a tough-minded but gentlemanly 1968 letter to Beat poet Gary Snyder, "and have been trying to get it out of my thinking and feeling ever since."
Or, in a 1982 letter to Anne McCormick about James D. Houston's "Californians": "It is astonishing how few considered and searching books there are about contemporary California. . . . There is a lot more to California than kooks."
Said Jackson Benson, Stegner's biographer: "He was a Westerner and very attached to the land, always going out and camping and observing nature." But his public commitment to the West came over time, first in his early novels and later through teaching and nonfiction.
"As the ecological and environmental movements got going" -- Stegner served as an advisor during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations -- "he became more and more outspoken in regard to the West," Benson said. This came partly out of his sense that the West was essentially a dry and, consequently, fragile region. (Many of his thoughts on the topic are collected in the 1992 book "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West.")
The man's missions
Stegner was driven, in part, by a sense that literary capital was still tied up in New York and the East.
The Western sage
In his advocacy for the American West, author Wallace Stegner was a man before his time.
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