Wallace Stegner, who died in 1993, is frequently referred to as the dean of the new American West writers. In the world of serious writers, the term dean can often be a form of damning with faint praise, meaning that one was an important early contributor to a movement but perhaps not its best example, not its apogee. Marking the Sparrow's Fall: Wallace Stegner's American West demonstrates that the term is both positive and deserved. Edited by Stegner's son Page, this anthology both defines in nonfiction what the North American West was and is with the mythology stripped away and provides excellent examples of some its best fiction. It also proffers examples of the harsh, unromantic life of the cowboy who, in Stegner's view, is a poorly paid agricultural worker whose one inviolate dictum is that the well-being of his animals comes first. Stegner fought a lifelong battle with the myth of the American cowboy which, he admitted, he lost. Stegner was not, however, a mere cowboy writer not by any means. Among his 30-some books are important works on conservation and the environment. Stegner's west is a big dry place; aridity is common to most of what he calls the West as he explains in an essay called Living Dry. Understandably then, the wise and equitable use of water was one of his major concerns. And in a larger sense, Stegner's famous Wilderness Letter remains one of the environmental movement's most eloquent statements.
Stegner was also a teacher, an academic at some of the nation's best universities. As a young man, he attended the University of Iowa, the site of America's first and finest creative writers' program. In 1964, he founded the nation's second great writers' program at Stanford University where he taught until 1971. Among his students were Ken Kesey (who claimed to dislike him), Wendell Barry, Larry McMurtry, Ernest Gaines, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, and RobertHaas to mention a few who credit much of their development to Stegner's tutelage. Abbey once called him the only living American writer worthy of the Nobel. Stegner's colossal output (as his son calls it) of 35 books may be daunting to a reader new to his work. Where does the Stegner initiate start? Obviously, with Marking the Sparrow's Fall which presents a fine cross section of essays, travel pieces, sketches, and fiction. And it concludes with one of the most powerful pieces of western realism to be found anywhere the chilling novella Genesis. As noted earlier, Stegner used aridity as a defining characteristic of the North American West. He wrote, aridity and aridity alone, makes the various Wests one. While it may define the West, dryness is definitely not a feature of Stegner's writing.
Writer, environmentalist, professor Wallace Stegner was all of these, but he was also a consummate westerner. All of these facets are represented in Marking the Sparrow's Fall. Once a westerner himself, writer Jim Grinnell lives in DeKalb, Illinois.