I took an English class from Wallace Stegner in 1965 during the last quarter of my senior year, when he was on the threshold of his most productive period. I was majoring in European history, and I enrolled in Stegner's course almost as an afterthought. He turned out to be the faculty member who affected me the most. He helped me understand my identity as a Californian and even influenced the way I write about Europe.
Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, by Jackson J. Benson, '52, (New York, Viking, 1996; $32.95) is the first full-dress biography of Stegner. Benson, who teaches American literature at San Diego State University and is already the author of an award- winning biography of John Steinbeck, '23, produced the book over a 10-year period. During this time, Stegner granted Benson numerous interviews and permitted access to his personal papers.
Benson introduces us to a boy who seems an unlikely fit for the life that follows. Physically weak, burdened by poverty, lacking a permanent home, and coping with an irresponsible father, the boy nevertheless finds resources to cling to. He perseveres thanks to the love and strength of his mother, his innate intelligence and the family's love of words and stories. He also draws inspiration from the arid Great Basin landscape where he grows up and from the Mormons who welcome him even though he is not one of them.
With these resources, Stegner makes his way from Saskatchewan to Utah to Harvard, penetrates the Eastern literary establishment, and then reverses course to return to the West. At Stanford, he produces a series of distinguished fiction and nonfiction writings and founds a program that nurtures literary figures such as Raymond Carver, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Ken Kesey, Robert Stone, Tillie Olsen and Evan Connell.
The biography is also a study of literary craft and creation. Benson wants to help us understand where great writing comes from: how it starts in the mystery of inspiration, is shaped by self-awareness and attention to one's audience, and is made efficient by writing skills honed over a lifetime. For example, Benson walks us through Stegner's long reminiscence about the creation of his short story "The Women on the Wall," published in 1946. As Benson explains, this was not one of those stories "that mysteriously seemed to write itself, but one that had to be hewn out step-by-step by main force." Benson builds upon Stegner's self-analysis, showing how the story helped him learn consistency in point of view. The story also became a landmark in Stegner's discovery of one of the major themes of his writing--"the revelation of stark reality behind romantic appearances."
Just as interesting is Benson's analysis of Stegner's relations with other writers. We learn, for instance, about Robert Frost's influence on Stegner--and how this worried Stegner's friend, Bernard DeVoto, who once told Frost, to his face, that he was a great poet but an evil man. And there are "insider" accounts of Stegner's feud at Stanford with poet and critic Yvor Winters and Stegner's angry but polite relationship with radical students of the late 1960s. Ken Kesey was one such upstart who intensified Stegner's disillusionment with California and speeded up his departure from teaching. He began to wonder how he could consider himself a liberal yet feel left behind by America's forays across newer cultural frontiers.
There is a tone of urgency throughout Benson's book. He is worried that, just a few years after Stegner's passing, Americans are losing respect for the environment that the novelist defended so magnificently. Benson writes extensively about Stegner's environmental nonfiction, such as the impassioned letter in which he coined the phrase "the geography of hope." He also delves into the environmental themes Stegner increasingly wove into fictional works such as All the Little Live Things (1967) and Crossing to Safety (1987).
Benson's book has its share of flaws. We never get as clear a sense of Stegner's parents as we ought to, nor do we hear much about his shortcomings: In spite of an essential gentlemanliness, he could be vain, gabby and stubborn. Moreover, Benson's writing lacks color--literally. In more than 400 pages, he employs almost no adjectives evoking colors. This is a disappointing anomaly in a book about an author whose writings are prismatic, lush and painterly in their descriptions.
Then, too, there are the topics that could have been given more coverage. For example, Benson does not tell us enough about Stegner's links to members of California's congressional delegation, such as Sen. Alan Cranston, '36, who saw to it that many of Stegner's environmental concerns were embodied in federal legislation.
And, of course, there are the points we can argue with--productively, thanks to Benson. In an implied rebuke to what he considers California's--and Stanford's--current overemphasis on technocratic and materialistic values, Benson makes much of the fact that Stegner chose to have his ashes scattered not in California but in Vermont. This will be disconcerting to many who regard Stegner as the West's own.
The part of the book that may provoke the most interesting debate is Benson's first chapter, in which he argues that, in spite of many awards, Stegner has never been given adequate respect by America's Eastern-dominated literary power structure. While the snobbish Atlantic bias does exist, there may be more justification for it than Benson allows. Wallace Stegner was a great American writer, but not among our very greatest, like Hemingway or Faulkner. This is in part because he did not seek to attain their degree of mythic power.
One of the constants in Stegner's life we can now confirm, thanks to Benson's sound evidence, was his struggle against becoming intoxicated by the myths that led his own father to dissolution and eventual suicide. Stegner battled against excessive reliance on the Owen Wister/JohnWayne/Eldorado myths of the West that glorified the loner and depicted a place where abundance could be obtained by violent appropriation.
We must also remember that Stegner's greatness lies partly in his multifacetedness. He was a major force in literature and conservation and in the growth of Stanford. His presence was almost as large in the fields of history and environmental science. A life of such breadth deserves our highest respect.
Gary Messinger, '65, the author of two books on modern Britain, is director of foundation relations at Boston College.