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Feb 25th
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Home People & Lifestyle Book Reviews Wallace Stegner and the American West

Wallace Stegner and the American West

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Review by Allison Hood
Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist Philip Fradkin (Stagecoach; A River No More) trains his literary eye on the physical, emotional and intellectual landscapes of iconic Western writer Wallace Stegner in a new biography, Wallace Stegner and the American West. A well-executed biography often utilizes a specific angle colloquial to its subject's life and endeavors: Here Fradkin works a favorite Stegner literary device, synecdoche, as a pivotal conceit.


The use of specific example to illustrate generality, synecdoche is employed while the biographer visualizes Stegner's life as "the vista from which to gaze upon the panorama of the American West in the twentieth century." This grand gesture has the remarkable effect of putting the panoply of the western frontier in the background; pushed forward is a meditative, focused homage to the vital synergy between man and place.

Wallace Stegner was born in Iowa in 1909, the son of "a wandering boomer" father and a mother who longed for domestic permanence. Of his childhood, the eminent novelist, teacher and conservationist stated: "I was born on wheels. I know the excitement of newness and the relief when responsibility has been left behind. But I also know the dissatisfaction and hunger that result from placelessness."

For Stegner, that hunger was a raw unease that birthed a lifelong, deep connection with place, a fusion that dominated his literary, academic and activist pursuits. Fradkin investigates the writer's life from Stegner's youthful days on a bleak Saskatchewan plain and in the more hospitable environs of Utah; as a groundbreaking Stanford professor; a controversial Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist (for Angle of Repose) and a man passionate about wilderness preservation.

Fradkin's journalistic objectivity largely balances this work, however his emotional involvement with and respect for Stegner (though he met him only once) impart a glancing instability, resulting in an overlong defense against the accusations of plagiarism leveled at Stegner for Angle of Repose, and a slightly cloying epilogue. Overall, this is an engaging, holistic recounting of a rich, rough-and-tumble literary life, anchored in the rugged Western terrain, a fast-vanishing wilderness that Stegner would say we must preserve for our very sanity, a landscape crucial to our human "geography of hope."


Alison Hood writes from the urban wilderness of northern California.

Reprinted with permission from BookPage


People & Lifestyle