Matthew Stewart

Matthew D.  Stewart  ABD

Field of Study
Modern American, Intellectual History, American West

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Dissertation Title
Restlessness and Repose: Wallace Stegner and the Problem of Community in the Cold War West

Dissertation Description

In 2009, over a decade after Wallace Stegner’s death in 1993, the journalist Timothy Egan described Stegner as the “uber-citizen of the West.” Though Stegner considered himself a novelist first and is still beloved by many readers for his novels, it is Egan’s designation that seems most accurate as a description of Stegner’s most lasting legacy. From the 1940s until his death in the 1990s, Stegner wrote fiction, history, essays, and biography set in various places in the American West in an attempt to understand the region that he found so simultaneously vexing and appealing. Over the course of his lifetime, the American West was undergoing rapid changes on a number of levels, whether as the foundation of a myth to be celebrated or denounced, as ground zero of the baby boom and suburban sprawl, as the home of the most influential politicians and political movements of the latter half of the twentieth century, or as the location for building and testing nuclear weapons. How did Stegner, the foremost interpreter of the West in his lifetime, make sense of these changes? What kinds of places and communities did such changes make possible or prohibit?

My dissertation is organized to examine Stegner’s attempt to understand possibilities for community in three distinct places in the West: Eastend, Saskatchewan; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Los Altos Hills, California. Stegner lived for extended periods of time in each location and revisited each place over the course of his life in person and in his imagination, and in different genres of writing. Organizing my dissertation in this way allows me to better understand the cultural milieu of three distinct western places, but also the ways that westerners lived in and thought about three key categories for organization of western space: the rural west, urban west, and suburban west. Further, I place my studies of these places in the context of broader discussions about place, region, and community in the American West and in the nation itself during the postwar era. I contend that my biographical approach towards a subject of the stature of Stegner in the context of these categories will yield new insights into Stegner’s significance as well as the robust but still provocative literature on the development of the American West as a distinct region over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.