For three days during early March, the small coastal town of Pt. Reyes Station (Population 818) was the center of one of the most exceptional literary conferences ever held in northern California, Geography of Hope: Celebrating Wallace Stegner.
Sixteen writers of fiction, nonfiction and poetry books; newspaper and magazine journalists; literary agents and attorneys, book critics, and academics from the West Coast, New York City, and Canada gathered in Pt. Reyes from March 7-9 to talk about Wallace Stegner and his concept of “the Geography of Hope.”
This phrase ended Stegner’s famous 1961 wilderness letter and was a major factor in the passage of the Wilderness Bill a few years later. The ideas in the letter also encompassed his wider concepts of the American West. Pt. Reyes Station, forty miles north of San Francisco and adjacent to Pt. Reyes National Seashore, is the commercial hub of western Marin County where many of the land use concepts advocated by Stegner have taken root.
Stegner was the West’s best known writer of fiction and nonfiction, conservation advocate, and teacher of such writers at Stanford’s Creative Writing Program as Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Robert Stone, Larry McMurtry, Ken Kesey, and Scott Turow. He received countless awards and honors during his lifetime (1909-1993), including the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose and the National Book Award for Spectator Bird.
To honor Stegner on his 99th birthday, celebrate the publication of three new books and one journal that reflect his spirit and concerns, and to initiate a ground-breaking new program in the schools, his son and daughter-in-law, Page and Lynn Stegner, were present at the conference. Both are accomplished writers. Other panelists included Barry Lopez, Merrill Joan Gerber, William Kittredge, Rebecca Solnit, Philip Fradkin, Annick Smith, David Rains Wallace, Mark Dowie, Harold Gilliam, and Sharon Butala, who lives on a ranch near the small prairie town in Saskatchewan where Stegner was raised.
Also present at the conference was Carl D. Brandt, whose literary agency represented Stegner interests since 1937, and Jonathan Kirsch, author, attorney and book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. Melody Graulich is the editor of the journal of the Western American Literature Association and teaches Stegner’s books to students at Utah State University. The chair of the conference was Robert Hass, two-term U. S. Poet Laureate who has just won the National Book Award for his poetry. Hass was a student at Stanford when Stegner headed the writing program and they had frequent conversations.
Of this assemblage and the man they are honoring, California author and State Librarian Emeritus Kevin Starr said: “As a man of letters, Wallace Stegner excelled as a novelist, biographer, historian, and literary activist on behalf of environmental causes. And now, thanks to this conference, writers of comparable stature will be gathering to assess the legacy and lasting influence of a revered colleague in whose footsteps they are privileged to follow.”
The conference represented one of the most distinguished literary gatherings in the history of the San Francisco Bay Area and Northern California. Its panelists have received three National Book Awards, three National Book Critic Circle Awards, two Lannan Literary Awards, two John Burroughs Medals for Nature Writing, a Pulitzer Prize, three National Magazine Awards, a Pen/Faulker Award, a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, four Commonwealth Club of California writing awards, three Stegner Fellowships, the Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement from the Los Angeles Times (the first was received by Wallace Stegner in 1980), and numerous other honors including two members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the co-producer for an Academy Award film based on a prize-winning book about the West.
Education was all-important to the man who grew up on a prairie homestead, whose parents did not finish the sixth grade, and who made the journey from the Saskatchewan frontier to Salt Lake City to the University of Iowa to Harvard University to Stanford University and the higher echelons of the intellectual elite in this country. All proceeds above costs for the conference will go toward establishing a unique writer-in-the-schools program in West Marin. While writers are in residence in many universities, creative writing is badly neglected in grade and high schools. It is the hope of conference organizers to rectify that situation locally and provide a national model for others to follow.
Conference sponsors include Tomales Bay Library Association, Wells Fargo Bank, Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Point Reyes Books, Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Books, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and the Stanford Creative Writing Program.
BIOGRAPHIES OF PARTICIPANTS IN THE STEGNER CONFERENCE
CARL D. BRANDT: The firm of Brandt & Brandt, now Brandt & Hochman, is one of the oldest literary agencies in New York City and has represented Wallace Stegner and the Stegner Estate since 1937. First Bernice Baumgarten of the firm, a legendary agent who was married to the novelist James Gould Cozzens, then Carl’s father, mother, and lastly Carl represented Stegner.
SHARON BUTALA: This award-winning Canadian author, whose fifteen books center on life on the Saskatchewan prairie, has lived for the last thirty years on a ranch near Eastend, where Wallace Stegner spent his formative years. She and her husband Peter donated 13,100 acres of their ranch to the Nature Conservancy of Canada. Butala was instrumental in preserving Stegner‘s Eastend home as a retreat for writers and artists.
JOHN DANIEL: A Stegner Fellow, lecturer at Stanford, and tenant of the Stegners in the mid-1980s, Daniel got to know the Stegners on a personal basis. He is the author of eight books of memoir, personal essays and poetry. Daniel’s most recent book is Rogue River Journal, for which he won a Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association award.
MARK DOWIE: The award-winning investigative journalist, former editor and publisher of Mother Jones magazine, and author of seven books, including Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century, teaches at the University of California Graduate School of Journalism and has been active in local environmental issues in West Marin.
PHILIP L. FRADKIN: The author of eleven books on the American West, including A River No More: The Colorado River and the West which Stegner praised as “looking illusion in the eye until it blinks,” Fradkin‘s biography Wallace Stegner and the American West will be published by Knopf in February.
MERRILL JOAN GERBER: The author of seven novels, one of which won the Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award, as well as five volumes of short stories and three books of nonfiction. Her most recent novel is The Victory Gardens of Brooklyn. Gerber has also contributed to numerous literary journals and teaches writing at the California Institute of Technology. She was a Stegner Fellow.
HAROLD GILLIAM: The former environmentalist columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle was a student of Stegner’s at Stanford University and followed him to Washington, D.C., where he also worked for Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall. He is the author of many books, among them Island in Time about the Point Reyes peninsula.
MELODY GRAULICH: A professor of English and American studies at Utah State University, Graulich is the editor of the journal Western American Literature. She teaches his books to students from the state where Stegner lived as a young man and has written a number of essays on his works. Graulich is currently editing a volume of letters of Mary Hallock Foote, on whose life and letters Stegner based Angle of Repose.
ROBERT HASS: A two-term poet laureate of the United States, twice winner of the National Book Critics’ Circle Award and a MacArthur Award, Hass is a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of numerous poetry books, editor of collections, and translator of the poetry of Nobel Laureate Czeslaw Milosz. Hass was acquainted with Stegner while a graduate student at Stanford in the creative writing program.
JONATHAN KIRSCH: The son of longtime Los Angeles Times book critic Robert Kirsch, who Stegner praised for his astute criticism, Kirsch is the author of ten nonfiction books and an attorney specializing in publishing law and intellectual property rights. He reviews books for the Times and for years specialized in reviewing books on the American West.
WILLIAM KITTREDGE: Raised on a ranch where he worked until the age of thirty-five, Kittredge was a Stegner Fellow and Regents Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Montana. After writing collections of essays, short stories, and a memoir he published his first novel The Willow Field in 2006 and was cited in the San Francisco Chronicle as being “one of the American West’s most respected fiction writers.”
BARRY LOPEZ: The essayist and author of works of fiction and nonfiction has written about the relationship between physical landscape and human culture in such books as Arctic Dreams, which won a National Book Award, and more recently on themes of resistance and reconciliation. Like Wallace Stegner and William Kittredge, he has taught at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
LYNN STEGNER: The daughter-in-law of Mary and Wallace Stegner has written four novels, the most recent being the critically-acclaimed Because a Fire Was in My Head. She edited and wrote the forward to Wallace Stegner: On Teaching and Writing Fiction. Stegner is the director of the Santa Fe Writer’s Workshop.
PAGE STEGNER: The only child of Mary and Wallace Stegner is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction and is the editor of a number of collections. His most recent book is The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner to be published this fall by Shoemaker & Hoard. He headed the creative writing program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
DAVID RAINS WALLACE: The author of sixteen books, Wallace won the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing for The Klamath Knot. His works include The Turquoise Dragon, The Quetzal and the Macaw, The Bonehunters' Revenge, and The Monkey's Bridge, which was named a New York Times Notable Book. Stegner wrote the forward for The Wilder Shore.
ANNICK SMITH: Bridging the worlds of films and books, Smith was a founding board member of the Sundance Film Institute, co-producer of the Academy-winning film A River Runs Through It, executive producer of Heartland, the author of four books, and co-editor with her longtime companion William Kittredge of The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology. She lives on a ranch in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley.
REBECCA SOLNIT: The author of twelve books - among them A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Hope in the Dark and Storming the Gates of Paradise - Solnit won the prestigious Lannan Literary Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award for River of Shadows in 2003. Along with Fradkin, she wrote the text for Mark Klett’s photography book After the Ruins: 1906 and 2006.