Book Shelf, Book 1 — Wallace Stegner and the American West

August 15, 2008

Wallace Stegner and the American West

By Philip L. Fradkin
Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, $27.50

Reviewed by Laura Paskus

In his new book, Wallace Stegner and the American West, Philip L. Fradkin delves into the writer's upbringing, passions, his artistic influences and his demons.

Stegner influenced generations of writers but was disgusted by the counterculture movements of the 1960s and left his teaching position at Stanford with "a sense that I had wasted a lot of years of my life," Fradkin writes.

Most of all, Stegner wished to be known for his novels; he taught and wrote non-fiction to support his family. But ultimately he became best known for his non-fiction accomplishments: He was Bernard DeVoto's biographer, penned seminal works of non-fiction such as Beyond the Hundredth Meridian and was a fierce protector of the West's natural resources. He fought the damming of the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument as well as sprawl in southern California; as a member of the National Parks Advisory Board, he advocated for expansion of the National Park system.

And if Stegner "reluctantly acted as a spokesperson for the region," as Fradkin writes, it seems his reluctance came down to his desire to spend more of his time writing novels. Here's an excerpt from a letter Stegner wrote while working at the Department of the Interior at the pleasure of then-Secretary Stewart Udall:

"You speak of the writer's involvement in his society. I think too many writers are far too little involved. They sit in the middle of their own skulls, or their endocrines, and snipe at the saints, politicians, working people, housewives, and bureaucrats who have to keep their world running. This doesn't mean I am anti-literary. The highest thing I can think of doing is literary. But literature does not exist in a vacuum, or even a partial vacuum. We are neither detached nor semi-detached, but are linked to our world by a million interdependencies. To deny the interdependencies, while living on the comforts and services they make possible, is adolescent when it isn't downright dishonest. And I would as soon say it to Henry Miller as to the book reviewer on the Des Moines Register."

That's not an idle boast, either. As Fradkin points out, Stegner wouldn't back down from fights with students, fellow professors or other prominent writers. In 1992, he even declined the National Medal of Arts from George H.W. Bush, citing the administration's habit of censoring rather than supporting the arts.

Fradkin's engaging and compassionate book provides insight into Stegner's personal and professional life, offers up juicy gossip from the literary world of the first half of the twentieth century, but also reminds readers that even the most illustrious writers are complex and yes, flawed human beings.

"Stegner was a good man," writes Fradkin, "but he was not the perfect man he was eulogized as being."

And what a relief that is to know.

Laura Paskus is a freelance writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008. 

Topics on the Beat: