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Wallace Stegner – Lioness at Large

Wallace Stegner

(1909 – 1993)

Biographical Sketch

Wallace Earle Stegner (Lake Mills, IA, USA, February 18, 1909 – Santa Fe, NM, USA, April 13, 1993) was an American historian, novelist, short story writer, and environmentalist, often called “The Dean of Western Writers”.

Stegner taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University. Eventually he settled at Stanford University, where he founded the creative writing program. His students included Sandra Day O’Connor, Edward Abbey, Ken Kesey, and Larry McMurtry. He served as a special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and was elected to the Sierra Club’s board of directors for a term that lasted 1964 – 1966. In 1962, he co-founded the Committee for Green Foothills, an environmental organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the hills, forests, creeks, wetlands and coastal lands of the San Francisco Peninsula.

Stegner’s novel Angle of Repose (first published in 1971) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1972. It was partially based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote (first published in 1972 as the memoir A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West). Stegner explained his use of unpublished archival letters briefly at the beginning of Angle of Repose, but his use of uncredited passages taken directly from Foote’s letters caused a lasting controversy.

Stegner also won the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird in 1977; as well as, inter alia, the 1967 and 1976 Commonwealth Club Gold Medals for All the Little Live Things and The Spectator Bird, respectively, the 1980 Los Angeles Times Kirsch award for his lifetime achievement, the 1990 P.E.N. Center USA West award for his body of work and the 1991 California Arts Council award for his body of work. Stegner’s (semi-)autobiographical novels The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and Crossing to Safety (1987) likewise gained broad literary acclaim and commercial popularity. In the late 1980s, he refused a National Medal from the National Endowment for the Arts because he believed the NEA had become too politicized.

Stegner’s non-fiction works include Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West (1954), a biography of John Wesley Powell, who was the first man to explore the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and later served as a government scientist and advocate of water conservation in the American West. Stegner wrote the foreword of, and edited, This Is Dinosaur, with photographs by Philip Hyde, a Sierra Club book that was used in the campaign to prevent dams in Dinosaur National Monument and helped launch the modern environmental movement.

Although Stegner ist best-known for his books set in the American West, whose resilient people and stark natural beauty he cherished all of his life, a number of his works – including, in part, Crossing to Safety – are set in and around Greensboro, Vermont, where he lived part-time. Some of his character representations, particularly in Second Growth, were sufficiently unflattering that residents took offense, and he did not visit Greensboro for several years after the latter book’s publication.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman declared February 18, 2009 as Wallace Stegner Day, highlighting Stegner as “one of Utah’s most prominent citizens … a legendary voice for Utah and the West as an author, educator, and conservationist … [who was] raised and educated in Salt Lake City and the University of Utah, [and] possess[ed] a lifelong love of Utah’s landscapes, people, and culture.”

Read more about Wallace Stegner on Wikipedia.


Major Awards and Honors

Pulitzer Prize (USA)
  • 1972: Fiction – “Angle of Repose”
National Book Awards (USA)
  • 1977: Fiction – “The Spectator Bird”
Los Angeles Times Book Prizes
  • 1980: Robert Kirsch Award – Lifetime achievement.
Commonwealth Club of California Awards
  • 1967: Gold Medal, Fiction – “All the Little Live Things”
O. Henry Award for Short Fiction
  • 1942: Second Prize – “Two Rivers” (published in The Atlantic Monthly)
  • 1948: Second Prize – “Beyond the Glass Mountain” (published in Harper’s Magazine)
  • 1950: First Prize – “The Blue-Winged Teal” (published in Harper’s Magazine)
  • 1955: First Prize – “The City of the Living” (published in Mademoiselle)
  • 1964: First Prize – “Carrion Spring” (published in Esquire)



Novels and Novellas
  • Remembering Laughter (1936)
  • The Potter’s House (1938)
  • On a Darkling Plain (Clash by Night) (1940)
  • Fire and Ice (1941)
  • The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943)
  • Second Growth (1947)
  • Joe Hill (1950)
    A/K/A: The Preacher and the Slave
  • The Shooting Star (1961)
  • All the Little Live Things (1967)
  • Angle of Repose (1971)
  • The Spectator Bird (1976)
  • Recapitulation (1979)
  • Crossing to Safety (1987)
Short Story Collections
  • The Women on the Wall (1950)
  • The City of the Living and Other Stories (1956)
  • Great American Short Stories (1957)
    – Editor, with Mary Stegner.
  • Collected Stories of Wallace Stegner (1990)
Memoirs and Interviews
  • Wolf Willow (1962)
  • Conversations With Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature (1983)
    – With Richard Etulain.
  • Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992)
Essays, Lectures, other Nonfiction
  • Mormon Country (1942)
  • One Nation (1945)
  • The Writer in America (1951)
    – Lectures.
  • Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954)
  • This Is Dinosaur (1955)
    – Editor.
  • The Gathering of Zion (1964)
  • Teaching the Short Story (1965)
  • The Sound of Mountain Water (1969)
    – Essays.
  • Discovery: The Search for Arabian Oil (1971)
  • Variations on a Theme of Discontent (1972)
  • Robert Frost and Bernard DeVoto (1974)
  • The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto (1974)
  • American Places (1981)
    – With Page Stegner and Eliot Porter.
  • One Way to Spell Man (1982)
    – Essays.
  • The American West As Living Space (1987)
    – Lectures.
  • On the Teaching of Creative Writing (1989)
  • Marking the Sparrow’s Fall: Wallace Stegner’s American West (1998)
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction (2002)


A Selection of Quotes

Angle of Repose

“Before I can say I am, I was. Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were – inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.”

“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.

“I know no way of discounting the doctrine that when you take something you want, and damn the consequences, then you had better be ready to accept whatever consequences ensue.”

“If I spoke to Rodman in those terms, saying that my grandparents’ lives seem to me organic and ours what? hydroponic? he would ask in derision what I meant. Define my terms. How do you measure the organic residue of a man or a generation? This is all metaphor. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.”

“Civilizations grow by agreements and accomodations and accretions, not by repudiations. The rebels and the revolutionaries are only eddies, they keep the stream from getting stagnant but they get swept down and absorbed, they’re a side issue. Quiet desperation is another name for the human condition. If revolutionaries would learn that they can’t remodel society by day after tomorrow – haven’t the wisdom to and shouldn’t be permitted to – I’d have more respect for them … Civilizations grow and change and decline – they aren’t remade.”

“[The modern age] knows nothing about isolation and nothing about silence. In our quietest and loneliest hour the automatic ice-maker in the refrigerator will cluck and drop an ice cube, the automatic dishwasher will sigh through its changes, a plane will drone over, the nearest freeway will vibrate the air. Red and white lights will pass in the sky, lights will shine along highways and glance off windows. There is always a radio that can be turned to some all-night station, or a television set to turn artificial moonlight into the flickering images of the late show. We can put on a turntable whatever consolation we most respond to, Mozart or Copland or the Grateful Dead.”

“That night she wrote a hasty sketch and showed it to Oliver. “It’s all right,” he said. “But I’d take out that stuff about Olympian mountains and the Stygian caverns of the mine. That’s about used up, I should think.”

“It’s easier to die than to move … at least for the Other Side you don’t need trunks.”

Buenos dias,” she said in response to Hernandez’s soft greeting. They had a pact to speak only Spanish to each other, with the result that their conversation never got beyond hello and good-bye.”

“Towns are like people. Old ones often have character, the new ones are interchangeable.”

“We have been cut off, the past has been ended and the family has broken up and the present is adrift in its wheelchair. … That is no gap between the generations, that is a gulf. The elements have changed, there are whole new orders of magnitude and kind. […]
My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents’ side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.”

“What if I can’t turn my head? I can look in any direction by turning my wheelchair, and I choose to look back. Rodman to the contrary notwithstanding, that is the only direction we can learn from.”

“There is some history that I want not to have happened. I resist the consequences of being Nemesis.”

“Salt is added to dried rose petals with the perfume and spices, when we store them away in covered jars, the summers of our past.”

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.”

“[I]t is dangerous for a bride to be apologetic about her husband.”

“I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? It is not quite true that you can’t go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.”

“The moderns, carrying little baggage of the kind that Shelly called “merely cultural,” not even living in the traditional air, but breathing into their space helmets a scientific mixture of synthetic gases (and polluted at that) are the true pioneers. Their circuitry seems to include no atavistic domestic sentiment, they have suffered empathectomy, their computers hum no ghostly feedback of Home, Sweet Home. How marvelously free they are! How unutterably deprived!”

“Touch. It is touch that is the deadliest enemy of chastity, loyalty, monogamy, gentility with its codes and conventions and restraints. By touch we are betrayed and betray others … an accidental brushing of shoulders or touching of hands … hands laid on shoulders in a gesture of comfort that lies like a thief, that takes, not gives, that wants, not offers, that awakes, not pacifies. When one flesh is waiting, there is electricity in the merest contact.”

“You married me…but you didn’t marry what you could make out of me.”

“Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality.”

“You can’t retire to weakness – you’ve got to learn to control strength.”

“There must be some other possibility than death or lifelong penance … some meeting, some intersection of lines; and some cowardly, hopeful geometer in my brain tells me it is the angle at which two lines prop each other up, the leaning-together from the vertical which produces the false arch. For lack of a keystone, the false arch may be as much as one can expect in this life. Only the very lucky discover the keystone.”

“What do you mean, ‘Angle of Repose?’ she asked me when I dreamed we were talking about Grandmother’s life, and I said it was the angle at which a man or woman finally lies down. I suppose it is; and yet … I thought when I began, and still think, that there was another angle in all those years when she was growing old and older and very old, and Grandfather was matching her year for year, a separate line that did not intersect with hers. They were vertical people, they lived by pride, and it is only by the ocular illusion of perspective that they can be said to have met. But he had not been dead two months when she lay down and died too, and that may indicate that at that absolute vanishing point they did intersect. They had intersected for years, for more than he especially would ever admit.”

“Satisfying natural desires is fine, but natural desires have a way of being both competitive and consequential.”

“[Y]ou were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase [angle of repose] as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest. As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life … I wonder if you ever reached it.”

Remembering Laughter

“The perfect weather of Indian Summer lengthened and lingered, warm sunny days were followed by brisk nights with Halloween a presentiment in the air.”

Crossing to Safety

“Youth hasn’t got anything to do with chronological age. It’s times of hope and happiness.”

“He used to tell me, ‘Do what you like to do. It’ll probably turn out to be what you do best.”

All the Little Live Things

“It is the beginning of wisdom when you recognize that the best you can do is choose which rules you want to live by, and it’s persistent and aggravated imbecility to pretend you can live without any.”

The Spectator Bird

“The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callus.”

The Sound of Mountain Water

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed … We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in.”

On Teaching and Writing Fiction

“The flimsy little protestations that mark the front gate of every novel, the solemn statements that any resemblance to real persons living or dead is entirely coincidental, are fraudulent every time. A writer has no other material to make his people from than the people of his experience … The only thing the writer can do is to recombine parts, suppress some characterisitics and emphasize others, put two or three people into one fictional character, and pray the real-life prototypes won’t sue.”

“By his very profession, a serious fiction writer is a vendor of the sensuous particulars of life, a perceiver and handler of things. His most valuable tools are his sense and his memory; what happens in his mind is primarily pictures.”

“Ideas, of course, have a place in fiction, and any writer of fiction needs a mind. But ideas are not the best subject matter for fiction. They do not dramatize well. They are, rather, a by-product, something the reader himself is led to formulate after watching the story unfold. The ideas, the generalizations, ought to be implicit in the selection and arrangement of the people and places and actions. They ought to haunt a piece of fiction as a ghost flits past an attic window after dark.”

Find more quotes by Wallace Stegner on Goodreads.