'The wise man of the West,' Wallace Stegner RETROSPCTIVE

April 15, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

"I spent my childhood and youth in wild, unsupervised places, and was awed very early, and never recovered," Wallace Stegner once wrote. ". . . I packed a gun before I was nine years old. But it is not my predatory experiences that I cherish. What I most remember is certain moments, revelations, epiphanies, in which the sensuous little savage that I then was came face to face with the universe. And blinked."

Throughout his 84 years, Wallace Earle Stegner never lost that sense of appreciation, of awe, for the great American West that nurtured him. He died late Tuesday night in a Santa Fe, N.M., hospital of complications from injuries received in a March 28 automobile accident. A longtime resident of Los Altos Hills, Calif., Mr. Stegner was visiting Santa Fe for an awards banquet of the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Association, which was honoring him for his recent essay collection, "Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs."

In work after work -- novels, essays, short stories, histories, biographies -- he wrote of the West's peoples, its cultures and traditions, its myths and its magic. With his death, America lost one of its great teachers and voices.

"He was one of the first people to encourage me, at a time when it was very important to me," says novelist Robert Stone, who studied under Mr. Stegner at Stanford University in the mid-1960s and now teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. "In a way, he was my mentor, and without his support it would have been a lot tougher for me.

"I always thought of him as the consummate Westerner, because he was tough and clear-eyed and sensible," Mr. Stone recalls. "But at the same time, he was a very American figure."

We're now used to Western writers having a bit of legitimacy; indeed, itseems that the state of Montana is home to half of America's authors these days. But before there was William Kittredge and Larry McMurtry, before Ivan Doig and Thomas McGuane, there was Wallace Stegner, writing about the West in such classic novels as 1943's "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." That book had strong autobiographical strains; like the book's Mason family, the Stegners had a rough-and-tumble existence in early 20th-century America, bouncing from one town to another as they followed their dreamer of a father.

Mr. Stegner was born Feb. 18, 1909, in Lake Mills, Iowa, the son of Scandinavian immigrants. He lived in numerous places in the American and Canadian West before graduating from the University of Utah in 1930. Along the way, he picked up the sensibility of the West that would stay with him all his life.

He loved the region's majesty, and appreciated the spirit and basic decency of its people, but also was skeptical of the many myths about the West that developed over the years. He was interested not in cowboys but in what he called "stickers" -- settlers who toughed it and endured under the most difficult circumstances.

There were other important Western writers, especially A. B. Guthrie ("The Big Sky") and Walter van Tilburg Clark ("The Ox-Bow Incident"). But Mr. Stegner in particular showed the region, and the rest of the country, that the sensibility of the West was to be taken seriously, at a time when the dominant Eastern literaryestablishment did not.

"As he grew older, his circle of influence grew wider and wider," says Richard Etulain, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico and editor of "Conversations With Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature." "I think he should have been a Nobel Prize winner. I've often said that Wallace Stegner was sort of the wise man of the West. But you don't want to just make him a Westerner, because he was interested in universal themes."

"He was one of the last American men of letters," says writer Stephen Dixon, who, like Mr. Stone, teaches at Johns Hopkins and studied under Mr. Stegner at Stanford in the mid-'60s. "Robert Penn Warren was one, and Stegner was another. But there were not many who had his range -- mentor, instructor, environmentalist and rancher."

Indeed, in assessing Stegner's career, it's hard not to feel a certain wonder at his energy and breadth of talent. He was a major novelist, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for "Angle of Repose" and the National Book Award in 1977 for "The Spectator Bird." "Angle of Repose" is an especially haunting work: It centers on a crippled old man who, through reading the letters of 19th-century relatives, begins to understand himself and his own situation better.

"I think it's the best Western novel ever written," says Ann Ronald, dean of the College of Arts and Science at the University of Nevada-Reno and executive secretary of the Western Literature Association.

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