WALLACE STEGNER AND THE AMERICAN WEST
By Philip L. Fradkin
Knopf, 369 pp., $27.50
Sturdy and fact-packed, Philip L. Fradkin’s “Wallace Stegner and the American West” will satisfy anyone who wants to know what Stegner did and when and where he did it. Those who want to know why and sometimes how may find themselves frustrated.
Fradkin lives near Point Reyes, has been an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times and an editor for Audubon magazine, and is the author of numerous books about the American West, including “A River No More: The Colorado River and the West.” So it’s not surprising that the best parts of his biography are the ones about Stegner as conservationist.
Stegner was acutely aware of the central problem of the American West: “the aridity that breeds sparseness and the denial of that condition, which leads to overdevelopment.” In his book “Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” he examined the causes and the consequences of the exploitation of the West. As Fradkin summarizes it, “Myth, which was supported by western politicians, said there was water for everyone and every use. Science … said, Wait a minute. Let’s determine how much water there really is and what it can support. … In the end, Science was defeated by Myth.”
“Stegner could not deal with the second western constant – the first being aridity and the second rapid change,” Fradkin writes. “Change would alienate Stegner from his native place.” Los Altos Hills, where he had built his home during his early years at Stanford, changed from a rural retreat to a prime location for the mansions of
Fradkin is a great admirer of Stegner, whom he sometimes refers to as "Wally." But while Fradkin does a good job of depicting Stegner the conservationist, he stumbles in his treatment of Stegner the writer and teacher. Of Stegner’s works of fiction, the only one that Fradkin deals with in any great detail is the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Angle of Repose.” The novel is based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote, a writer of the late 19th and early 20th century who was married to a mining engineer. Foote’s heirs gave Stegner permission to use as much of her private papers and letters as he desired, and he borrowed heavily from Foote’s writing, sometimes with only minor changes. But when the book appeared, the family was shocked by some of his alterations in Mary’s life story, and when critics and scholars examined Stegner’s sources, there were charges of plagiarism – countered by the defense that Stegner had only creatively adapted a source that he had acknowledged, albeit vaguely. Fradkin does an excellent job of exploring the plagiarism controversy, coming down on Stegner’s side, while admitting that Stegner could have been more candid with both Foote’s descendants and his readers.
Fradkin also deals with the cavalier dismissal of “Angle of Repose” by the country’s most powerful book section, the New York Times Book Review. John Leonard, then the editor of the book review, called the novel “another in a long, apparently endless, line of Pulitzer disappointments: Forthright, yes; and morally uplifting; and middlebrow.” Yet Fradkin does little to demonstrate that the novel, or indeed any of Stegner’s novels, deserves more to be taken more seriously than Leonard did.
Comfortable in amassing the details of Stegner’s life and exploring his work as a conservationist, Fradkin seems ill at ease in discussing Stegner’s fiction, which also makes for a rather tedious account of Stegner as teacher. He tells us that Stegner’s students “constitute a virtual hall of fame of American letters (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, and Scott Turow, to name just a few).” But that’s a “hall of fame” that apparently contains no African-Americans, Latinos or women, and to most readers will sound like a rather thin sampling of contemporary American writers. And while Fradkin quotes one former student after another praising Stegner’s “teaching technique,” no one seems to be able to come up with any particulars about what made him such a good teacher.
Stegner could be, one gathers, a bit of a porcupine, erecting his quills against even the presence of an enemy. Fradkin tells us of his fights with David Brower, the “Archdruid” whose ouster from the Sierra Club Stegner supported, and with his Stanford colleagues Yvor Winters and Albert Guérard. Eleven years after he left Stanford, Stegner’s enmity toward Guérard led him, in 1982, to threaten to take his name off the Stegner Fellowships because of the appointment of Gilbert Sorrentino – whom Stegner called “a coterie writer of minimum distinction” – as a creative writing teacher. Stegner backed down on the threat, but subsequently decided to donate his papers to the
But Fradkin mostly downplays this prickly, even irrational side of the man. Though he says Stegner’s son, Page, told him he didn’t want “another hagiography,” the book seems over-discreet. There is little, for example, about Stegner’s relationship with his son, except for Page’s period of rebellion in adolescence and the time an angry Stegner chased Page with a scythe. And there’s even less about Mary Stegner, his wife, who suffered from various ailments (she may have been a hypochondriac) but who outlived him. As for Stegner’s own family background, we learn that he was a “mamma’s boy,” and that he hated his ne’er-do-well father so much that, 40 years after George Stegner died in a rather lurid murder-suicide, “Stegner vowed he would never buy a tombstone for his father’s grave.” But Fradkin doesn’t use these details to give us insight into the man Stegner became or the books he wrote.
At best, what Fradkin has given us is a partial portrait of the man and the writer, set inside a fuller portrait of Stegner’s relationship to the lands he loved and defended – lands for which he mourned when he saw them transformed by a civilization unprepared to cope with their harsh demands.