On this, the centenary of his birth, countless admirers will fondly recall the late Wallace Stegner as a Western writer. But what does that mean, exactly?
He was a man of the West -- he grew up in Saskatchewan, Montana and Utah -- who wrote about the West, though not exclusively, in histories and essays, short stories and novels, most of them explaining the land and its people and how one shaped the other.
He also was a teacher of writing, and he helped many another ink-stained wretch -- Wendell Barry, Larry McMurtry, Edward Abbey were among them -- to find his voice.
He wrote 30 books. One of his best novels, Angle of Repose, won a Pulitzer Prize. Another, The Spectator Bird, won a National Book Award. But the prizes are not the reason that Stegner is remembered. Rather, it has to do with how he helped those of us who live where he lived think about ourselves and our relationships to one another and the land.
One of his most influential writings also happens to be one the shortest, the product of a single afternoon. The "Wilderness Letter," which Stegner wrote to a federal bureaucrat in 1960, explained his case for the preservation of wild lands as an "intangible and spiritual resource." It pushed along the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and remains a gospel of the environmental movement.
Stegner's study and interest in conservation can be traced to his boyhood on the vast plains of Saskatchewan and in the mountains and canyons of Utah. They must have played a role in his decision to write Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West. Published in 1954, it brought the story of Powell's scientific exploration of the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869 to a national audience, and with it, an awareness of Powell's prophetic understanding of the natural limits the arid Western climate places on human civilization here, a lesson that Westerners still are learning.
Stegner was not a Mormon, but he spent his coming-of-age years in Salt Lake City, where he gained an admiration, though not an uncritical one, for the Mormon people. He graduated from East High School and the University of Utah, where he taught writing for a time. His The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail, published in 1964, remains one of the most engaging tellings of the Mormon exodus.
All of which helps to explain why there is a Wallace Stegner Center at the U. and an annual symposium there, which this year convenes March 6-7. But the only way to really appreciate Stegner, of course, is to read him.