Matthew Stewart

Matthew D.  Stewart  ABD

Field of Study
Modern American, Intellectual History, American West

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Dissertation Title
Son of a Rolling Stone: Wallace Stegner and the Modern American West

Dissertation Description

Son of a Rolling Stone examines the intellectual life of the American West through the public life of Wallace Stegner. Stegner was born in 1909, published his first book in 1937, and wrote fiction, biography, history, and essays up until his death in 1993. He was most widely known as a novelist, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for Angle of Repose and the National Book Award in 1977 for Spectator Bird. In his writing, he told new stories about the West, both fictional and historical, that placed the past within the present, made ignored voices visible, and exposed the tragic consequences of allowing the myths of the Wild West to obscure the realities of life in the western present. These efforts have been explored by many scholars, but primarily in literary or popular modes. He has rarely been placed in thick historical context. I hope to expand this existing scholarship on Stegner's life and work-which will in turn contribute to the fields of modern American history in the West and American intellectual history-in two primary ways.

First, I plan to examine Stegner's work as a mentor to a whole generation of western writers and contributor to the development of literary networks in the West. In 1946 he founded the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University and was the director or co-director of the program until 1971. In this role, and through his correspondence with countless readers and writers, renowned and otherwise, Stegner played a key role in the development of a network of writers and readers of western fiction that had not existed before. While other scholars have described this historical change, the dynamics of the change have not been analyzed in granular detail at the archival level. Tracing this literary network is particularly important because it challenged myths about the West not just by providing new stories about the West but by making intellectual life in the West more visible and prominent. Writers telling their own stories about the West from the West made it more difficult to think of the West as simply the location for the reenactment of old myths. Mapping these networks geographically should lead to useful insights into Stegner's work, and into literary and intellectual life in the American West more broadly; it will make the circulation of ideas more visible, and demonstrate the development of intellectual life among people who were readers and writers, but not classified as “intellectuals,” and thus often left invisible. 

This project will also illuminate that broad swath of American reading publics covered by the term “middlebrow” in the years after World War II. It will help untangle the way this category has been constructed, and in turn, how it is has influenced American intellectual life by looking at it in terms of geography, which is generally not part of the conversation. This focus will foster insight into the qualitative dimensions of Stegner's work and trace the conversations it sparked. Stegner stood outside many intellectual trends in his lifetime, particularly after the 1960s. His lifestyle and literary style were both conventional, and he cultivated a moderate sensibility and sought unities in a time marked by culture war and polarization.