Wallace Stegner, Acclaimed Writer on West, Dies at 84 : Literature: Novelist, who won Pulitzer Prize for ‘Angle of Repose’ in 1972, succumbs to injuries from car accident.

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Wallace Stegner, the novelist whose sense of the land and the rootlessness of the West filled his books as well as his life, has died in Santa Fe, N.M., of injuries suffered in a car accident. He was 84.

Stegner, who lived in Los Altos Hills, Calif., was injured March 28 while in Santa Fe to deliver a speech and died Tuesday night at St. Vincent Hospital there.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “Angle of Repose” in 1972 and a National Book Award for “The Spectator Bird” in 1977, Stegner founded the creative writing program at Stanford University and ran it for more than 20 years.


That program included such students as Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines and James Houston. Stegner stopped teaching in 1970 to devote his full time to writing.

In 1980, the author received the first Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for the body of his work.

Last year, he was selected for a National Medal of Arts award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which was to be presented at the White House by then-President George Bush. Stegner rejected the medal, however, in protest of “political controls” exhibited by the agency when it refused to subsidize two art exhibits that displayed genitals.

Stegner always considered himself an outsider--a farm boy whose family tried to grow wheat on the exposed plains of Saskatchewan, a non-Mormon schooled in Utah, and an unsettled youth whose family moved from Iowa, where he was born on Feb. 18, 1909, to North Dakota; Seattle; Great Falls, Mont.; Saskatchewan, and Salt Lake City by the time he finished high school. His first big success, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” published in 1943, concerned an itinerant family much like his own.

After graduating from the University of Utah in 1930, Stegner earned his master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Iowa, where he also met and married fellow graduate student Mary Stuart Page in 1934. Stegner taught at Harvard and the universities of Wisconsin and Utah before going to Stanford in 1945.

Stegner’s writing came in several phases. After an early productive period in which he said he used up most of his autobiographical material, he decided he needed “to quit writing or to grow.” He was also disgusted with the critical reception for his 1950 novel about labor organizer Joe Hill, originally titled “The Preacher and The Slave.” So he spent many of his years at Stanford teaching and traveling and getting in touch with younger writers “of real capacity . . . who taught me a great deal about technique.”


He had been a “straightforward realistic storyteller from the West,” a self-described “Utah square.” His contacts with his students did not make him lose the realism, he said, but he “wasn’t as straightforward anymore.”

Then, in 1970, he left Stanford with a sour feeling, he said later, because the English department was torn apart over the dismissal of one of its members, Bruce Franklin. Some of his developing frustrations, in fact, were reflected in a novel called “All the Little Live Things,” published in 1967. He said he felt irritable because of the “diminishment of civility in all walks of life, and I suppose it’s not strange it should vanish from a university campus.”

Stegner decided that he had at most 10 more productive years--he was wrong, there were more--and that he was not going to spend them amid the campus turmoil of the 1960s. “Those times were not a good time to be an aging professor,” he said in a 1977 interview.

Prolific until his death, Stegner last year published a collection of essays, “Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West.” It was one of many of his works nominated for the National Book Critics Circle awards.

Stegner edited many collections of short stories as well as writing novels, short fiction, essays, biography and history, calling the latter “a place to light” for people so often trapped in the present. His histories centered on the Mormons and their trail west, and his biographical works focused on Western historian and environmental critic Bernard DeVoto and on John Wesley Powell, an early explorer of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River.

Along with poet Robert Frost, DeVoto was one of the primary influences on Stegner’s attitudes, which he described as “profoundly skeptical.” His book on DeVoto, titled “The Uneasy Chair” and published in 1974, was among his works nominated for a National Book Award.


Stegner also wrote a lengthy foreword to the expensive but arresting photography collection “Ansel Adams: Images 1923-1974.” He captured in words some of the same shadings and sensitivities to the land that Adams portrayed with his camera.

Many of Stegner’s credos, as well as his best descriptions of splashing streams and scoured canyons, can be found in a collection of essays, “The Sound of Mountain Water.” Stegner was a vehement environmentalist long before most Americans knew the word, and he warned Westerners that it was especially easy to harm their land.

“The history of the West,” Stegner wrote, “until recently has been a history of the importation of humid-land habits (and carelessnesses) into a dry land that will not tolerate them; and of the indulgence of an unprecedented personal liberty, an atomic individualism, in a country that experience says can only be successfully tamed and lived in by a high degree of cooperation. Inherited wet-land habits have given us a damaged domain.”

He despaired especially over the conversion of Utah’s Glen Canyon into Lake Powell by damming the Colorado River. Stegner acknowledged the recreational aspects of the new lake, but added: “In gaining the lovely and the usable, we have given up the incomparable.”

Stegner’s concern for the land was also reflected in one of his later books, “American Places,” which he wrote with his son, Page, also a novelist. Their text was accompanied by photographs by Eliot Porter. In chapter after chapter, Stegner stressed the relationship between people and the land and saved his highest praise for those who did not exploit their environment but rather respected it. He reiterated his concerns in a more recent book, “The American West as Living Space,” in 1987.

Perhaps by virtue of his years of teaching writing, Stegner was one of the most analytical observers of Western literature. Westerners came from a land that was still new, he said, and therefore they were still optimistic. They came by their sense of the land naturally “because it’s more spectacular and at the same time a lot more vulnerable. It doesn’t heal as grass country does. It doesn’t grow sod over its wounds, so you not only have a sense of guilt about helping to destroy a country, it’s a country you’re fond of.”


The West has yielded a rootless culture of people traveling from oasis to oasis, Stegner said, adding that they have acknowledged that they live in “a land of little rain and big consequences.” His novel, “Recapitulation,” published in 1979, brought the young man in “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” family home to Salt Lake, where he has no more sense of belonging than he had when he left years earlier.

This sense of rootlessness affected the way Stegner drew his characters, which often were not as clearly defined as his landscapes. The deprivation of roots, he wrote, left him professionally “unequipped with the enduring relationships from which the deepest understanding of people might have come.”

Because people of the West have not stayed put, they have not developed the same oppressive sense of place conveyed by many Southern writers, but neither have they been able to link together great sagas, Stegner said. But he added that as Westerners destroyed the land, their writing might become more nostalgic; someone might then create the West’s equivalent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County.

Stegner believed that people who wrote about the West, as opposed to those who wrote Westerns, did not get the attention they deserved from the Eastern Establishment of publishers and critics because of the innocence of their attitudes and the simplicity of their styles.

“It used to be almost axiomatic that you couldn’t make a literary reputation outside New York, that somehow you had to go and put in your time (although) you might not stay. I’ve been trying to prove that is untrue.”

California was somewhat immune from these Eastern attitudes, Stegner thought, even though Easterners considered it a kind of madhouse. It is not a truly Western state, Stegner said, because it had never been cut off from the rest of the world. “Nobody has ever been able to disparage it or write it off. It is too vigorous a place, too wealthy a place, too productive a place, too big a place.”


Despite his arguments, Stegner insisted that he was not “absorbed in trying to become a John the Baptist of Western literature. I’m really just trying to write books. But because of what I know and the experience I’ve had, I suppose I lean in this direction and every once in a while I get full of questions.”

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From Stegner’s Work

From “The Spectator Bird,” which won the National Book Award in 1977. The protagonist, Joe Allston talks about himself:

“I am just killing time till time gets around to killing me.”

“A wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past and understanding less with every year.”

From “Angle of Repose,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, the narrator Lyman Ward muses:

“In this not-quite-quiet darkness, while the diesel breaks its heart more and more faintly on the mountain grade, I lie wondering if I am man enough to be a bigger man than my grandfather.”