Remembering Wallace Stegner

When I arrived at The Wilderness Society in 1984, I did not know the name of our newest board member: Wallace Stegner. That’s a sad commentary on my expensive education. It also reflects the unfortunate fact that Stegner was often pigeon-holed as a “western writer.” I was a product of the East.

I quickly discovered how wonderfully he wrote and had a chance to spend a little time with him when he visited our office. I remember how crushed all of us were on that April day in 1993 when we heard that “Wally” had been in a fatal car crash in Santa Fe.

Stegner is on a lot of minds today (February 18) because it was on this day in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa, that this literary titan was born. If you heard Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” on public radio this morning, you heard Keillor say:

“His father had big dreams of striking it rich in a Western boomtown, so the family moved around constantly while he tried his hand at various harebrained schemes — farming in North Dakota, running a lunchroom in the backwoods of Washington state, bootlegging liquor in Montana, selling redwood trees in California as firewood, and using the family's savings in an attempt to invent a machine that would detect gold in the ground. It wasn't an easy childhood for young Wallace, but he grew to love the West, and wrote about it in many of his novels.”

Over a 60-year career Stegner wrote 30 books, according to The novels include The Big Rock Candy Mountain; Angle of Repose (Pulitzer Prize); The Spectator Bird (National Book Award); and Crossing to Safety. The nonfiction includes Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West. Although Stegner is called "the dean of Western writers," not all of his fiction is laid in the West. For example, Crossing to Safety takes place in Wisconsin and Vermont.

“But the prizes are not the reason that Stegner is remembered,” said an editorial in today’s Salt Lake Tribune.

“Rather, it has to do with how he helped those of us who live where he lived think about ourselves and our relationships to one another and the land. “

He became involved with the conservation movement in the 1950's while fighting the construction of a dam on the Green River at Dinosaur National Monument. In 1960 he wrote his famous “Wilderness Letter” on the importance of federal protection of wild places. Best known for the phrase “the geography of hope,” this letter was used to introduce the Wilderness Act, which established the National Wilderness Preservation System in 1964.

In his famous letter, Stegner wrote:

"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; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste…”

Stegner also served as assistant to John Kennedy’s interior secretary, Stewart Udall. In addition, Stegner taught, at the University of Utah, University of Wisconsin, and Harvard, and he started the Creative Writing Program at Stanford. Among his students were Wendell Barry, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, Thomas McGuane, John Daniel, and Edward Abbey. In 1992 Stegner turned down the National Medal for the Arts because he was "troubled" by the political controls placed upon the National Endowment for the Arts.

You can read more about this great man in a 2008 biography by Philip Fradkin: Wallace Stegner and the American West.