Earning the title of ‘The Dean Of Western Writers’ amongst such company as Louis L’Amour, Zane Grey, and Larry McMurtry, you must know you’ve done something right. Wallace Stegner was given this title during his career as a writer.
Beginning his career as a professor at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University, Stegner settled eventually at Stanford University, and founded a creative writing program. During his tenure as a professor, Stegner taught Larry McMurtry who eventually became a peer in his novelistic genre.
In 1937 Stegner published his first novel, Remembering Laughter – a novel about an Iowa farmer’s wife whose sister comes to visit and falls in love with both the beauty and vitality of the land, and the way of life her sister enjoys. Stegner continued to produce works that were published steadily throughout the mid-20th century.
In 1971 he enjoyed great success with his novel Angle of Repose, which won him the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. He continued on in his writing career with his last published works being story collections in the late 1980’s and into the 1990’s.
Stegner’s life ended in 1993 when he succumbed to injuries received in a traffic accident in Santa Fe, New Mexico where he had travelled to deliver a lecture. He left behind a legacy that included an impressive list of published works, both fiction and non-fiction, several story collections, annual lectures, fellowships, and literary prizes named in his memory.
Stegner wrote passionately about an area of the country that some describe as mere scrub land – non-farmable, lifeless, and barren. Stegner himself once remarked that “You have to get over the color green; you have to quit associating beauty with gardens and lawns; you have to get used to an inhuman scale.” In his writing he overturned notions about iconic American figures of folklore and history like the cowboy and the bar maid and turned them into something that transcended the stereotypical images of Western themed movies, novels, and television shows.
Nearly two years ago now I took a ride with a friend to a book store in Bath, Maine. I had been there once before with a different friend and wanted to revisit it’s shelves and walkways bursting at the seams with books old and new. I purchased a couple of selections, and as we left the store we noted that there was another one up the street that hadn’t been there the last time I had visited. We decided to check it out, discovering it to be a ‘Friends Of The Library’ bookstore where most selections were to be had for a mere four dollars each. Nearly an hour and thirty dollars later I left the store with several more reads under my arm.
One of these books was Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Angle Of Repose. I had heard Stegner’s name one other time, and when I mentioned to the store clerk that I was developing a greater interest in mid-20th century literature, she recommended this book, and I took her up on the recommendation. I brought it home and started it a few days later, once my current read was done. In the pages I found a wonderful tale of a wheelchair bound historian who, lamenting a lost connection with his ex-wife and son, has decided to pen a chronicle of the life of his frontier-era grandparents, and in writing their story comes to add new chapters to his own. A tranquil, alluring book from start to finish.
More recently I revisited Stegner with his last published novel, Crossing To Safety, about a friendship that develops between two married couples in the 1940’s and lasts until their later years – and how the nature of our relationships with others can impact our relationship with ourselves in a ripple effect. Again, the quiet, temperate beauty of Stegner’s style and prose shone through and I found myself once again enchanted by this second venture into his works and the world he had created within.
Incidentally, five of Stegner’s novels were published in fine leather around the time of his Pulitzer Prize win. I have since traded in my original Angle Of Repose for the more durably bound edition, and purchased three of the other four, a bit of an indulgence for me, as far as what I typically invest in used books, but well worth the cost.
Wallace Stegner, to me, embodies the type of writer you want to pick up on a gray and somber day and curl up under a blanket next to a crackling fire to wile away the hours of an autumn afternoon. His brilliance was in the subtle rather than the sublime – his literary themes nothing more than the simplicity and complexity of human beings and their natures. He was a wonderful writer that I look forward to revisiting many more times before I exhaust my supply of his published works.