One measure of success for a book like Philip L. Fradkin’s Wallace Stegner and the American West (Knopf, 369 pages, $27.50) is whether it inspires readers to take up books by the biographer’s subject. At a minimum, readers of Fradkin’s modest but compelling biography will want to dip into Stegner’s two big novels—the autobiographical Big Rock Candy Mountain and the controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning Angle of Repose—as well as his iconic portrait of explorer John Wesley Powell, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Stegner combined elements of autobiography, history, geography and pure imagination in almost everything he wrote—in ways that often landed him in trouble. Fradkin’s book is a handy field guide to these literary fault lines as well as an astute assessment of Stegner’s legacy as both a teacher and a conservationist.
The author devotes a lot of room to Stegner’s formative years, which included Huck Finn-style adventures with lethal firearms, being forced to live in an orphanage while both his parents were still alive, coping with a booze-smuggling father who ran gambling dens and speakeasies, and falling in love with two very different women in rapid succession—one of whom makes a surprise reappearance in the epilogue. As monumental a writer as Stegner was in his own right, his role as founder of the creative writing program at Stanford University would define the literature of the American West for the second half of the 20th century. Writers as various as Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Peter S. Beagle, Robert Stone, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, Evan S. Connell, Thomas McGuane, Scott Turow, N. Scott Momaday and Barry Lopez either studied under Stegner or confessed a creative debt to him. And despite a heart as big as the great outdoors, Stegner emerges as a sometimes petty academic infighter who was prone to nurse a grudge.
This is the first Stegner biography to examine the Angle of Repose “plagiarism” controversy in careful detail, and Fradkin offers a painstakingly fair analysis. If Fradkin errs, it is to lend Stegner’s critics too much credence. He persists in comparing the dispute to the plagiarism controversies that would later swirl around historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose cases were entirely different. Ambrose and Goodwin were celebrity hacks who, succumbing to sloppiness and overwork, misrepresented the words and ideas of others as their own. The Stegner brouhaha stemmed from his use of the letters and journals of a mostly forgotten Western artist, Mary Hallock Foote, as the launching point for a fictional novel—something he did with the full knowledge and permission of the Foote estate. Fradkin’s may not be the last word on this complex topic, but it should serve as the definitive one.
READ: Philip L. Fradkin appears at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, March 13. Free.