DESCRIBING WALLACE STEGNER as an "author" is like describing a grizzly as "brown." He did write 15 novels and 16 works of nonfiction, and his myth-busting western realism earned every major American literary honor, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for Angle of Repose. But as two new books show, Stegner, who was raised in Washington, Saskatchewan, North Dakota, Montana, and Utah, shaped the landscape of the west as much as it shaped him.
In Wallace Stegner and the American West, an absorbing biography by environmental historian Philip L. Fradkin (Knopf, $28), we see how Stegner adhered to his conviction that "our fiction is likely to be as frivolous or as serious as our lives are." Rather than hiding within his success, Stegner used his longtime teaching position at Stanford to nurture Western writers from Edward Abbey to Thomas McGuane. His most enduring legacy, though, might be his efforts on behalf of the land itself. His 1960 "Wilderness Letter" arguing for protection of America's wilds, which Stegner saw as "a geography of hope," helped convince Congress to pass the 1964 Wilderness Act; his work with David Brower to save the Grand Canyon and Dinosaur National Monument, Fradkin argues, molded "many of the tools, techniques, and attitudes of present-day environmentalists."
The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, edited by Wallace's son, writer Page Stegner (Shoemaker & Hoard, $30), is a handy companion to Fradkin's book. Whether Stegner is venting to Barry Lopez about the press in 1991"novelists have to take over the functions of reporters, especially on environmental matters"or cutting the anti-establishment poet Gary Snyder down to size in 1968"I have spent a lot of days in the meetings that ultimately save redwoods, and I have to say that I never saw there on the firing line any of the mystical drop-outs or meditators"we see a man whose literary greatness stemmed from equal doses of love and anger. "Too many writers are far too little involved," he wrote in 1961. Right up until his death, in 1993 at age 84, Stegner proved an exception to that rule.