Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,234

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,234


This is the grave of Wallace Stegner.

Born in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa, Stegner grew up in various in the West–Montana, Saskatchewan, Utah. These experiences–especially being a non-Mormon in Utah–influenced him greatly and the West would become the canvas for his long writing career. Stegner was in Utah as he graduated from high school and he went to the University of Utah, where he gradated in 1930. He then went back to Iowa for graduate work, finishing a PhD at the University of Iowa in 1935. He was an English professor who got a job at the University of Wisconsin before moving up in that world and getting jobs at Harvard and then Stanford.

But this is of course not why we remember Stegner. He was important as an English professor and he established the creative writing program at Stanford where he mentored the next generation of American letters–Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone. Sandra Day O’Connor was even in the program! That alone would be an important contribution to American letters. But it was Stegner’s actual letters that made him famous. He started publishing his fiction in the 1930s. His first novel was Remembering Laughter in 1937 and he would remain pretty productive through the rest of his life.

Stegner isn’t super heavily read today outside of a few of his books. The first one his books that is really remembered today is his 1943 novel Big Rock Candy Mountain, which is a semi-autobiographical pioneer novel about the kind of people he grew up with, dreamers who kept moving around the West looking for the next big chance that never materialized. His 1950 book The Preacher and the Slave was an exploration of the martyred IWW songwriter Joe Hill. His 1954 non-fiction book Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West was a major work at an important time–coming at the peak of American dam building and the rapid population growth of the Southwest, Stegner reminded readers about Powell’s warnings about development in that arid region, which were not heeded alas. Always interested in the Mormons he grew up around, he published The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail in 1964, which combined that with his interests in the pioneer stories.

Stegner’s most important book and the one by far that is the most read today is 1971’s Angle of Repose. Minus the disastrous last chapter, it’s one of the great American novels. Telling the story of the narrator’s grandparents, who were a late 19th century mining engineer and his long-suffering wife, it is a deep dive into life in the hard regions of the country, the sacrifices made to live this way, and how it impacted people’s relationships. The book is juxtaposed with the problems our disabled narrator has with his ex-wife (who never actually appears) and his young hot shot professor son who is an asshole. Then there is his caretaker and her hippie daughter, who makes a rather notable appearance. Unfortunately, the 1960s turned Stegner into a bitter old man–he wasn’t the only one. So our hippie character is not exactly painted with sympathy, nor is the counterculture or new sexual mores portrayed with much less than contempt in the rest of his works. Then Stegner damn near blows up his whole great novel with said disastrous last chapter, in which all women are monstrous. It’s a terrible, no good, awful ending. But the rest of the book remains one of the great American novels. Just pretend like the book ends with Stegner’s death or something and ignore that last chapter. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Stegner was also a major conservationist. He spent some time in the 1960s as an advisor to Stewart Udall, Lyndon Johnson’s amazing Secretary of the Interior. He later joined the board of the Sierra Club and was heavily involved in preserving areas around San Francisco from development in the 1960s. He was also heavily active in the campaign to save Dinosaur National Monument from its planned damming, writing the forward to This is Dinosaur, the Sierra Club produced book of photographs that helped galvanize support for the campaign.

Later in life, Stegner moved to Vermont and he wrote about this new area he came to love. He wasn’t so enamored of the residents though and he wrote about them and they hated their new neighbor, to the point that he left the area for a bit. Among his later books that received a lot of attention are his 1976 novel The Spectator Bird, which is a sort of trans-Atlantic romantic novel about a literary agent and which won the National Book Award in 1977, and his last major book, Crossing to Safety. That was published in 1987, which is another semi-autobiographical novel about English professors who vacation in Vermont. I haven’t read this, but I assume it is more interesting than it sounds.

Stegner also spent a lot of time at a home in Santa Fe (shocking I know for a rich white guy to end up there) and that is where he died in 1993. He was 84 years old.

Stegner still has his admirers who wonder why he isn’t accorded the same spot in the literary canon as other midcentury writers, such as this 2020 New York Times piece. It’s possible, as that linked piece suggests, that some of the problem is that Stegner wrote about a West quite lacking in anything other than white people. That’s certainly true, but if it is, it also speaks to most of American white literature. It is notable though that the Library of America recently anthologized the vastly inferior Rudolfo Anaya (sorry, I flat out don’t like his work and his mystical New Mexico that always seems a lot more appealing to whites than it did to the Hispanos of his own background, who often criticized him for this) while Stegner remains out of the series. More recently, Stegner has been accused of lifting from Mary Hallock Foote for Angle of Repose, which is a pretty serious charge and which could permanently impact his reputation. It is at least worth noting that the author of said linked piece admits to hating the novel anyway. So I don’t know. I still find it worth reading, except of course for said last chapter.

Wallace Stegner is buried in Lincoln-Noyes Cemetery, Greensboro, Vermont. I find little real information on his wife Mary, but many say it was a “literary partnership,” which probably meant she typed his work and shared ideas and never received credit, which is all too common in the history of American letters.

If you would like this series to visit other winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Jean Stafford, who won in 1970 for her Collected Stories, is in East Hampton, New York, and Eudora Welty, who won in 1973 for The Optimist’s Daughter, is in Jackson, Mississippi. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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