EARLY IN THE MORNING, most mornings, Wallace Stegner practiced a habit he described as “warming up the fingers.” He would sit down at his typewriter and in the same two-digit hunt-and-peck style that carried him through thirty-four books and more than four hundred essays and articles, he would begin his day by writing letters. Those lucky enough to receive them — literary agents, editors, secretaries of the interior, family members, friends, former students, novelists and historians, devoted readers — would find themselves basking in the glow of Stegner’s generosity.
Selected by Stegner’s son, Page, the 286 letters that form this collection span the years 1933 to 1993 and touch on what seems to be every aspect of the writer’s working life and enough of his private life for a chaste glimpse into the Stegner home. A section titled “Reflections on the Works” offers rich insights into how Stegner thought about writing. Of Angle of Repose, he articulated an idea that would become a signature:
For years I have wondered why no western writer had been able to make a continuity between the past and the present, why so many are sunk in the mythic twilight of horse opera, why the various Wests have produced no culture or literature comparable to those of New England, the South, and the Midwest . . . Well, here was my chance to give it a try.
Stegner would soon learn to his great dismay that his careful attention to place would relegate his work to the cheap seats of “western regionalism” in the minds of many critics. Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, yet the New York Times famously failed to review it. The same newspaper would later anoint William Stegner “the dean of Western writers,” a title as weighty as “Marshal of the Kiddie Pop Parade.” It is clear from the letters that a lack of critical recognition and the rough handling Stegner sometimes received from his New York publishers rankled him.
Yet he persisted, steadily building a body of work remarkable for its breadth — history, biography, short stories, novels, and essays spanning subjects as diverse as race relations, the meaning of the frontier, marriage, natural resource conservation, and wilderness. Along the way, Stegner also created and ran one of the finest graduate writing programs in the country at Stanford University. One need only glance at a list of writers to see the influence he has had: Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, John Daniel, Ken Kesey, Bill Kittredge, Thomas McGuane, Scott Momaday, Tillie Olson, and Scott Turow, to name a few, all spent time in Stegner’s workshop.
Most significantly, Stegner stood alongside Aldo Leopold as one of the two twentieth-century literary giants in natural resource conservation and wilderness protection, and perhaps the most vital section of this book is the final one, titled simply “Conservation.” Here we get a glimpse of Stegner’s often reluctant, but always persistent, environmental activism. His 1960 wilderness letter to an obscure federal official in Washington helped clear the trail to the 1964 Wilderness Act. The book David Brower asked him to edit, This Is Dinosaur, not only helped save Echo Park from a pair of federal dams, but also proved the power of the literary voice in an arena where that voice had seldom entered.
Stegner had the courage to follow the things that moved his heart. Though not a historian, he wrote history because the people he loved most — westerners — needed to learn the history of their place. He wrote about nature and wilderness because he loved them and neither had a voice. The man was quite simply decent. In a letter to the editor and poet Jim Hepworth, the atheistic Stegner said, “conduct is what really matters to me: I’m a moral writer, if not a religious one. I don’t mean behavior, I mean conduct.” Perhaps more than any of his books, The Selected Letters brings into focus what Stegner meant by “conduct.” This may be the last and best thing he has to teach us.