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He wrote the West

Wallace Stegner and the American West; Philip L. Fradkin; Alfred A. Knopf: 384 pp., $27.50

February 10, 2008|Peter Richardson | Peter Richardson is the author of "American Prophet: The Life and Work of Carey McWilliams." His book on the history and influence of Ramparts magazine will be published next year.

PHILIP FRADKIN'S skillful biography of Wallace Stegner may induce a mild case of lifestyle envy. As director of Stanford's creative writing program, Stegner had it made: light duties, a pleasant setting and extravagantly gifted students. When he and his wife weren't horseback riding to the nearby coastal mountains, they traveled widely, usually on someone else's dime; a pride of prestigious fellowships saw to that. Unlike his fellow academics, Stegner wrote for general audiences on various topics. Even more scandalously, some of his books sold well. This is nice work if you can get it -- or rather, create it.

It could have been otherwise. Stegner was born into a troubled family that roamed the hardscrabble northern prairies and intermountain West, failing at every stop. Unaware of indoor plumbing until age 11 and forever at odds with his bootlegger father, Stegner eventually found his way to the University of Utah. He graduated in 1930, the year after Wyatt Earp died quietly in a Los Angeles apartment.

Stegner's fortunes then rose steadily. A professor directed him to Iowa, where he entered the nation's first writing program and left with a PhD. While teaching at the University of Wisconsin, he absorbed the work of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who famously emphasized the closing of the frontier. Another mentor landed him a staff job at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, where he met Bernard DeVoto, Robert Frost and other heavy hitters; that led to a teaching appointment at Harvard. Along the way, he lucked into a relationship with a top-notch literary agency. After World War II, he accepted a full professorship at Stanford, where his department chair asked him to create the nation's second creative writing program. The funding came from the chairman's brother, a Texas oilman who had $75,000 to spare.

Over the next quarter-century, Stegner's program assembled a long roster of first-rate writers, including Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Thomas McGuane and Edward Abbey. Many followed Stegner in focusing on what fellow regionalist Carey McWilliams called "the authority of the land." In the process, Stegner and his students thoroughly reimagined the literary West.

In Stegner's fictional version of that region, readers are more likely to encounter a labor organizer or literary agent than a cowboy or Indian. For Stegner, it was a point of honor not to propagate the Western myths of an earlier generation. He solved that problem, perhaps not always so imaginatively, by adapting his own thinly veiled experience -- or, in the case of his most celebrated novel, "Angle of Repose," by lifting material from the Mary Hallock Foote papers archived at Stanford. (This was the closest he came to scandal.) Stegner rendered his fictions realistically in prose that was spare and supple, finished but never fussy. Like other midcentury Westerners (McWilliams, DiMaggio, Ansel Adams), he made it look easy. It's not.

Father-son strife runs through Stegner's personal history and fiction, and a similar tension -- this time with him in the paternal role -- characterized his campus relationships in the 1960s. A liberal Democrat, he had little sympathy for privileged students who reflexively disdained authority, tradition and order. He became exasperated and then withdrawn as the decade wore on. He got along with most of his literary progeny, but Kesey's stylistic experiments, acid-fueled lifestyle and filial competitiveness strained his patience. For Kesey, a psychedelic Huck Finn, the frontier wasn't closed at all, and he lit out for the territories whether Uncle Wally approved or not. Fradkin is especially strong on the challenges Stegner faced from the younger generation, including New York critics who either ignored his fiction or dismissed it as old-fashioned and middlebrow.

Well before he quit teaching in 1971, Stegner turned to environmental issues. His interest in water conservation -- and conflicts -- was long-standing. A boyhood neighbor in Saskatchewan had been shot dead over a water dispute, and Stegner early discovered John Wesley Powell, who explored the Colorado River and later directed the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Ethnology. Stegner's 1954 biography of Powell, "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," remains one of his most popular works. He admired Powell's attempt to check mindless Western expansion with good science, and he challenged the myth of rugged individualism by emphasizing collective efforts, including those of the Mormons, to develop the arid West. Later, when the environmental movement was gaining momentum, Stegner wrote a letter in defense of wilderness that became a widely quoted manifesto.

A Los Angeles Times reporter turned environmental historian, Fradkin tells Stegner's story adroitly and evenhandedly. His work complements two earlier biographies, mostly by shifting the focus from Stegner's literary achievement to "the whole man . . . set against the passing backdrops of his life." The attention to place is fitting, and though Fradkin's tour of Stegnerian sites in the epilogue may seem inapposite, what precedes it reveals a canny, forthright, major figure in 20th century American letters. Stegner disliked the epithet "dean of Western writers," but many authors, readers and environmentalists are grateful he earned it. Fradkin's clear-eyed biography is another occasion for their gratitude.

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