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Wallace Stegner: Biography & Books

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

You may know Wallace Stegner as a popular American writer, but how much do you know about his personal life and career? In this lesson, you will learn about Stegner's experiences and how they inspired a lifetime of writing.

Wallace Stegner: Growing Up

Wallace Stegner did not have a normal childhood. He was born on Feb. 18, 1909, in the tiny town of Lake Mills, Iowa, but this was not the place that he called home. His father was a man filled with get-rich-quick schemes and moved the Stegner family from place to place in the hopes of finding his next big break. As a kid, young Wallace found himself in Saskatchewan, Canada, while his dad periodically left the family to find his fortune. Ultimately, Stegner's father met a horrible end: He killed a woman and then killed himself. Stegner was set on not growing up to be like his father--can you blame him? He achieved his goal by turning to books and education.

Education and Early Career

Stegner was a self-made man. He put himself through college at University of Utah, then paid his way through graduate school at the University of Iowa, where he earned both master's and doctorate degrees. After graduating in 1935, he began teaching at different universities around the country. Around this time, Stegner married Mary Stuart Page. The two were married for 59 years.

In 1937, Stegner got his first big break as a writer. He entered a publishing contest and won the grand prize for his book Remembering Laughter. The prize was $2,500 (which is equal to about $41,000 today)! For Stegner, this was life-changing. The book a big success and gained him recognition as a writer and professor. He was invited to work at Harvard University, where he taught composition until 1945. While at Harvard, Stegner published three books between 1940 and 1942, though with little success.

In 1943, however, he hit a home run with his semi-autobiographical novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain. The story is based on his own experiences with an unreliable father who looked at the American Frontier as a place to use for his own personal gain, regardless of the consequences.

Stanford University and Awards

After several years living on the East Coast, Stegner headed west. He accepted a job with Stanford University in 1945. In a little over a decade, Stegner put Stanford's writing program on the map, shaping a generation of writers, including a future Poet Laureate. Stegner stopped teaching in 1969 but directed the program for another two years before dedicating his life to writing.

While at Stanford, Stegner was acknowledged repeatedly for his incredible contributions to literature. He was granted two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation Grant. Stegner's writing also won numerous awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Life as an Activist

Growing up around the American West and in Saskatchewan, Stegner had a strong love and appreciation for life in the wilderness. These early experiences became a huge influence on his writing. His stories, both fiction and non-fiction, carry warnings about the dangers of damaging the wilderness. While many of his fiction books carry this theme, his nonfiction works truly advocated his position.

Imagine writing something so moving and powerful that it changes the course of American history. For Stegner, this was a reality. In 1955, Stegner wrote This Is Dinosaur, a book about a national monument in danger of ruin as the result of a new dam project. Stegner's work ultimately helped save Dinosaur National Monument from the effects of flooding. Five years later, Stegner wrote a powerful speech entitled 'Wilderness Letter' that led to a federal bill that created the National Wilderness Preservation System.

In addition to teaching and writing, Wallace Stegner also worked as an assistant to the Secretary of the Interior, who oversees the National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management. After his time in the Department of the Interior, Stegner stayed on the National Park System Advisory Board and was a member of the board of directors for the Sierra Club, an environmental organization.

Wallace Stegner's Books

Like so many other writers, Wallace Stegner's inspiration came from his personal life and passions. He's considered to be one of the greatest Western writers in history, which comprises those who write about the American Frontier. Not all of Stegner's books were set in the American West, but he does include similar themes throughout his writing. Stegner's fiction books explain the ways the past informs the present and the lessons that people can learn from history and their own personal experiences. His books, both fiction and nonfiction, emphasize the importance of conservation and the inherent dangers of damaging the American wilderness.

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