"'You don't go there to find something,' he once said about wilderness, 'you go there to disappear,'" is how John Daniel remembered his friend and mentor Wallace Stegner (Daniel, 1996, p. 81-82).
Stegner was a remarkable man who used his talents as a writer to speak passionately and honestly for the wildness in land and people. His voice and perspective were clear in his fiction, nonfiction, and personal actions. His novel Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972, in itself a great achievement. But, perhaps his work that has had the most lasting effect is the "Wilderness Letter" that he wrote in 1960 to the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission:
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it.
Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved - as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds - because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there - important, that is, simply as an idea.
- Stegner, 1960, n.p., [online]
Stegner is seen as one of the preeminent voices for the American West, and in the course of his life, he spent time in nearly every Western state. He was born in Lake Mills, Iowa on February 18, 1909 to George and Hilda (Paulson) Stegner. Wallace had one sibling, an older brother named Cecil. The family soon moved west. George Stegner was a wanderer, always looking for the next best place where he would find the opportunities that would help him strike it rich.
George's wanderings led the Stegners first to North Dakota, then Washington State, East End, Saskatchewan, and Great Falls, Montana, before settling in Salt Lake City, Utah. Even within the city, the Stegners moved nearly a dozen times in the next ten years. One of Stegner's strengths as a writer and a wilderness advocate was his ability to connect with and convey a strong sense of place-spending his early life constantly making a new home in new surroundings may have contributed to that talent.
In 1927, when Stegner was 16, he entered the University of Utah. He majored in English and was active on the tennis team, as well as continuing to hunt, fish, and explore the outdoors. In 1930, Stegner left Utah for a graduate teaching fellowship at the University of Iowa. He had, at this point, no intention of becoming a writer. "I didn't know that you could be a writer," he one said (Benson, 1996, p. 48).
1930 through 1934 were extraordinarily eventful years for Stegner, for better or worse. His older brother died of pneumonia in the winter of 1930; he finished his graduate work in Iowa in 1932 and moved briefly to the University of California at Berkley for doctoral work until1933; his beloved mother died of cancer in November of 1933; he returned to Iowa for doctoral work in 1934, and met and married Mary Stuart Page in September of 1934.
The Stegners moved back to Salt Lake City in 1934 so that Wallace could teach at the University of Utah while working on his Ph.D., which he completed the following year. Stegner continued to teach at the University of Utah until 1937, while writing stories that received greater and greater attention. The couple's only child, (Stuart) Page, was born in Utah in 1937. Page was born days after Stegner won the $2500 Little, Brown prize for his short novel Remembering Laughter.
Due to the Depression economics, the University of Utah was unable to keep Stegner on as an instructor at that time, and the family moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where Stegner taught for the next two years. From Wisconsin, Stegner went to teach at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in Ripton, Vermont, where he became friends with Robert Frost, among other environmental and literary luminaries. Stegner migrated further east and taught at Harvard University from 1939 until 1945, while publishing approximately a book a year.
In 1945, Stegner went home to his beloved west as a professor in the English Department at Stanford University. He directed the University's Writing Program for the next twenty-six years. His settling into California as a professor and a writer lent his writing a more and more environmental and conservation tone. Aside from his prodigious outpourings as an author, Stegner was also taking up conservation in a more day-to-day activism. Despite his growing stature as a famous writer, he and Mary were active on various neighborhood boards and groups that worked to prevent uncontrolled growth in their part of California, efforts that had moderate success.
However, as his fame as a writer grew, he was willing, and able, to use his position to highlight environmental concerns. Stegner became involved in the Sierra Club in 1954. Upon the Sierra Club Executive Director David Brower's enthusiastic insistence, Stegner edited This is Dinosaur: Echo Park Country and Its Magic Rivers, which through essays and pictures helped to foster the public support necessary to preserve Dinosaur National Monument. Such books did a great deal to capitalize on and galvanize growing public interest in legislation to create and protect wild places. "If the national park is, as Lord Bryce suggested, the best idea America has ever had, wilderness preservation is the highest refinement of that idea," wrote Stegner (Benson, 1996, p. 228).
His 1960 "Wilderness Letter" helped to bolster testimony in favor of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall had scrapped his own speech at a 1960 conference on the need for legislation to protect and preserve wild places in favor of simply reading the Wilderness Letter. Stegner's eloquence in his letter is reflected in the passionate language of the Wilderness Act itself. While Stegner was not involved in the drafting of the Wilderness Act itself, though his public support and writings on the need for wild places, the man helped, through his love of wilderness and wildness to protect those very ideals. As he wrote in The Sound of Mountain Water, "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be …a part of the geography of hope," (Stegner, 1969, n.p. [online]).
In 1961, due in large part to the public appreciation for his letter, Stegner was appointed Assistant to Udall. From 1962-1966 Stegner served on the National Parks advisory board. Through these new environmental duties, Stegner continued his extensive writing, as well as his work with the Stanford writing program.
Who Stegner was as a writer, and who he was as an activist became more and more inseparable. In 1992, Stegner refused the National Medal for the Arts, the United States' highest national art award. His refusal was in protest of the way he felt that the National Endowment of the Arts had become politically censored. Stegner's letter to the Endowment refusing the award stated that he was "'distressed by what has been done to the Endowment of the Arts by its congressional and administrative enemies … I believe that support is meaningless, even harmful, if it restricts the imaginative freedom of those to whom it is given,'" (Benson, 1996, p.5).
Stegner died of complications from a car accident on April 13, 1993. His legacy is one of unconditional support for wildness, both the external geographies of wilderness, and in the internal wildness of human freedom. Through his efforts and in his writing, the something that might have been lost, or allowed to go out of us as a people had wilderness been destroyed, has been encouraged to live on. We have gained the ability to retain, to reclaim, something wild in ourselves and our surroundings, to live in Stegner's "geography of hope."
Benson, Jackson J. (1996). Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work. New York: Viking
Daniel, John. (1996). The Cultivated Wild of Wallace Stegner. In P. Stegner and M. Stegner (Eds.) A Tribute to Wallace Stegner: The Geography of Hope (pp. 75-82). San Francisco: Sierra Club Books
Lewis, Merrill & Lewis, Lorene. (1972). Wallace Stegner. Boise: Boise State College
Stegner, Page & Stegner, Mary. (Eds.). (1996). A Tribute to Wallace Stegner: The Geography of Hope. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.
Stegner, Wallace. (1960). Wilderness Letter.
Stegner, Wallace. (1969). The Sound of Mountain Water. Penguin Books.