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Wallace Stegner: Man of letters



By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Wallace Stegner earned his reputation as the “dean of Western writers.” He wrote 30 books, founded the creative writing program at Stanford University and mentored countless authors while teaching for 50 years.

Stegner was a capable historian, a brilliant biographer, an ardent preservationist, and a reluctant environmentalist.

Those who knew him talk about a reserved man with a quiet integrity. Nearly a quarter of a century after his death, his words are as fresh and relevant as ever.

His final publication, “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West” is a collection of essays published in 1992 that examines the West as “hope’s native land.”

The title of the book, like his early novel “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” is taken from an old hobo ballad that Stegner associates with a naive optimism about the West that he saw, thankfully, receding. In its place, he saw the real Western virtues of fortitude, resolution, and magnanimity beginning to take hold.

The collection begins on an autobiographical note. He recounts his nomadic childhood in “Finding a Place,” and the migrations he endured with a father who was “a boomer, a gambler, a rainbow-chaser, as footloose as a tumbleweed in a windstorm.” His “Letter, much too late” is a heartrending attempt to come to grips with the death of his mother five decades after she passed. 

The essays then move to questions about the unique habitat and climate that is the West. Stegner still has much to teach us about the aridity and fragility of the landscape beyond the 100th meridian.

The final essays turn to writers and the craft of writing itself. In his Emersonian “Coming of Age,” Stegner delivers a veritable Declaration of Independence for Western literature from the dominion of the Boston/New York publishing axis. 

His discussions of Norman Maclean, John Steinbeck and Wendell Berry are masterpieces of literary criticism, not mere descriptions but lessons in how to read these authors.

Stegner’s rootless childhood gave him a keen sensitivity to the places he lived, even if he were there for only for a little while. Few, if any, writers have described the “freshest and youngest of America’s regions” with such clarity and precision.

After reading these essays, you find a deeper appreciation of the land that’s fair and bright.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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