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Portrait of Stegner, slightly skewed

New work cites landscape as center of life

The family Christmas card from 1942, taken in Greensboro, Vt. The family Christmas card from 1942, taken in Greensboro, Vt. (Stegner estate)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Floyd Skloot
March 30, 2008

Wallace Stegner and the American West
By Philip L. Fradkin
Knopf, 369 pp., illustrated, $27.50

Though he was born in Iowa in 1909 and raised primarily in Saskatchewan and Salt Lake City, though he lived for long periods in the Midwest and Northeast and was buried in Vermont in 1993, Wallace Stegner is strongly identified with the West.

He was the author of 22 books, winner of both the 1972 Pulitzer Prize (for the novel "Angle of Repose") and 1977 National Book Award (for the novel "The Spectator Bird"), but his reputation as a writer is mingled with - even diluted by - his reputation as a teacher (his students included Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Scott Turow, Thomas McGuane, and Wendell Berry) and conservation advocate (an influential champion of wilderness preservation and water protection).

Stegner was known for his anger and hefty grudges, but was also considered a man of modesty and balance. He was self-conscious about his small-town background and education but nevertheless taught at Harvard, Stanford, and the Iowa Writers Workshop. Widely regarded as a man of rectitude and strong frontier codes of conduct, he also found himself accused of plagiarism and ethical lapses, the result of his tendency to use real-life characters and borrow wholesale from their writings.

Most writers have complex inner lives, and many find themselves engaged in controversy. But clearly, any biography of Stegner must accept the challenge of its subject's unusually long, entangled, multifaceted, contradictory course. Philip L. Fradkin's "Wallace Stegner and the American West" is the second attempt at a biography since Stegner's death, following Jackson Benson's 1996 volume, "Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work." Where Benson wrote from the perspective of a literature professor, Fradkin approaches Stegner, as he tells readers in his introduction, from the perspective of "an environmental historian with no advanced degree." He sees his new book as part of an ongoing inquiry, over the course of several books now, into "the effect of landscape - meaning nature - on human destiny, history, culture, and character."

Unfortunately, this authorial mission subjugates Stegner's life to Fradkin's larger intention. In the process, he turns Stegner, for whom writing was the center of life, and the past and intimate relationships among families and friends its crux, into a kind of socio-environmental guru, someone centered primarily on the outer world and its landscapes, "the emeritus authority on the American West."

Fradkin unbraids the various strands of Stegner's life, telling the story with less regard for chronology or narrative cohesion than for thematic perspective. After a 75-page sketch of Stegner's wandering, hardscrabble youth, Fradkin devotes roughly equal space to separate sections chronicling Stegner as teacher, conservationist, and author. He moves back and forth across time as his trio of topics demands, seeing the life and work through a lens focused essentially on landscape, narrowing and limiting the overall view.

While this may make a certain theoretical sense, divvying up Stegner's life into topical elements makes for disjointed reading and, by slighting the central effort of his subject's life - writing - gives a distorted picture of his achievement. Fradkin devotes more pages to conversations with Berry or discussions of Kesey's career than to, say, an analysis of Stegner's early masterpiece "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" (1943). He mentions a smattering of details regarding the critical reception of some of Stegner's work, but skips past many of the books entirely, their composition, their connection with his other books. He asserts that "place to a great extent formed Stegner's character and the characters in his novels" but, in briefly summarizing those novels, reveals the truer shaping force: "He wrote books for mature readers on such topics as marriage and friendship that were devoid of explicit sex, violence, and experimental techniques." Place and landscape were factors, certainly, but the human heart and the damaging freight of one's past were the essence.

Despite its limitations, Fradkin's life of Stegner reveals a man of great determination, broad gifts, generous spirit, and impressive accomplishment. Readers glimpse Stegner's difficult youth, the violent father who eventually made his living as a bootlegger and committed suicide after killing his estranged lover. Piecing together an education, primarily at the University of Utah, reading voraciously, finding his way toward writing and then to the University of Iowa and its nascent writing workshop, Stegner struggled with a feeling of being an outsider that never fully resolved itself. Out of all this, he managed to make a marriage that endured from the mid-1930s until his death in the early 1990s. And he made a life for himself as an academic, working hard to integrate his own writing with the work he did away from his desk by developing the concept of professional writing programs at Iowa, the Bread Loaf conference in New England, and Stanford. Acclaim as a writer, and a permanent place among 20th-century novelists, came late but have lasted, as Stegner himself lasted in marriage and academia, a writer to his core.

Floyd Skloot received the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction for his memoir of living with brain damage, "In the Shadow of Memory." His "Selected Poems" will appear in the spring from Tupelo Press.

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