As literary spokesman for the American West, Wallace Stegner has known no equal.
As a proud native son who spent his growing years in Salt Lake City and received his college education from the University of Utah, he was incomparable. Stegner died in 1993 after a distinguished career as novelist, historian, biographer, teacher, environmental activist and a logical model for urbanity.
After two disappointing Stegner biographies by literary figures, Forest Robinson and Jackson Benson, Philip Fradkin, noted journalist and author of the classic, "River No More: The Colorado River and the West," has written what very well may be the definitive biography of Stegner, "Wallace Stegner and the American West."
Because Stegner, whatever else, was blessed with the gift for beautiful writing, it is only fair that his biography be equally well-written. With this classy, well-balanced book, Fradkin has outdone himself, presenting Stegner as the eminent scholar and writer he was, but also as a flawed human being who made mistakes.
Fradkin has produced a highly readable narrative of Stegner's life, yet he criticizes the great man whenever he deserves it without attacking him. Fradkin never intended to write a literary biography. "I wanted to write the story of a man's life and his work and the influence of landscape on him," said Fradkin during a phone interview from his home north of San Francisco.
In Fradkin's opinion, Stegner's life needed a writer who "operates outside the academic world, because Stegner did, too. He always taught only half time as a means of supporting his family. He would have done his writing full time long before he did had he been financially able to do so. He wrote for the general public in clear evocative language. You could never put Stegner in a niche."
It is not that Fradkin claims to have "captured" the man.
"Who knows the inner workings of another's life? I'm not in the family, I'm not a literary scholar, not a close friend. But I see him as a gracious, kind, abrasive presence who always kept his guard up. He had been hurt emotionally as a child by his father, and he had an all-consuming love for his mother."
In researching the book, Fradkin was no armchair historian. He had only met Stegner once, but he traveled to Saskatchewan, Salt Lake City, Canyonlands, Iowa and all the places that helped to mold his subject. "I try to touch history, and for me it's a wonderful, electric charge. He had to stand up straight to the winds on the prairie. He was a man of stature, always stood straight and, in his own words, he was a 'sticker."
The man Fradkin portrays was handsome, urbane, modest, charismatic and immensely talented. But he also had a considerable temper, often held a grudge, and he stood his ground in a number of intellectual controversies. He was genuinely angry that the American West of his youth had changed so much, and he thought Vietnam War protesters made a sacrilege of Stanford University, where his creative writing program thrived for so long.
Fradkin scolds Stegner for leaving out the negatives in "The Uneasy Chair" about the life of his friend and mentor, Bernard DeVoto, who also grew up in Utah, then became a great novelist and historian. According to Fradkin, Stegner left out of his DeVoto biography the allegations of his sexual infidelities.
And he expected his own biographers to leave his personal life alone.
In the literary controversy that troubled Stegner the most, he was accused by critics of plagiarism in the writing of what Fradkin considers his greatest novel, "Angle of Repose," a Pulitzer Prize-winner. He used the real-life diary of Mary Hallack Foote as a jumping-off point for the novel, assuring the Foote family that he was not writing the woman's biography and that in writing fiction he would use certain parts of her story but he would invent many other events.
But when members of the family read the book, they took it too literally and didn't care for Stegner's changes. Some critics accused him of "literary theft" for making it appear that Foote's life included elements that it didn't.
Fradkin sees this as "a gray area, but not plagiarism. He made some mistakes with the book, but so did the Foote family," Fradkin said. Later, when he used his closest friends, Peg and Phil Gray, as fictional subjects in "Crossing to Safety," Stegner was cautious. He asked the Gray family to read the manuscript and promised not to publish it if any of them objected to it. They didn't object.
Fradkin's rules of writing are simple. "Write accurately, be fair, but understand that objectivity is impossible. If there is another side, give it. If there is material that is irrelevant, don't use it. Don't go after someone you don't like with a hatchet. Finally, be readable. Try to make the work last."Currently, Fradkin, 72, is writing a book about the California coast, the geographic area he knows the best. It may be as good a book as his biography of Stegner, but it is unlikely it will exceed it.
If you go ...
What: Philip Fradkin's Lecture on Wallace Stegner and the American West
Where: University of Utah, S.J. Quinney College of Law, Sutherland Moot Courtoom, 332 S. 1400 East
When: Monday, 7 p.m.
E-mail: [email protected]