Date of Award

June 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


American West, California, Environment, Fiction, Place, Suburbs

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities


This dissertation explores the life and work of the writer Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) and his intellectual efforts to create, clarify, and defend the contours of a “geography of hope” in the American West. Chapter 1 begins with Stegner’s move to California in 1945. In the context of his developing regional vision as expressed in early articles and books, it traces Stegner’s attempts to build a range of institutions in California as well as his first writings that either adopted the state as its subject or used it as a setting for fictional work. Chapter 2 explores a research project that Stegner undertook with funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation and as a member of the Stanford Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) in the mid-1950s. This project reflected Stegner’s understanding of western history and his own past in more comprehensive terms and the chapter traces his growing commitment to fiction as a resource for addressing the questions he thought most important to explore in his historical moment.

The subsequent three chapters include close readings of three novels: All the Little Live Things (1967), Angle of Repose (1971), and The Spectator Bird (1976). The novels are united by location, themes, and a first-person narrator who opens the book with ruminations and something of a thesis. Two of these three books won major awards, so they also marked the summit of Stegner’s national recognition as a writer of American fiction. Each of the readings reveals ways that Stegner and his readers addressed the cultural changes of the 1960s, adding nuance to the historiography of an era that has more often been marked by an emphasis on polarization. The conclusion is focused on Greensboro, Vermont, the place where Stegner chose to have his ashes spread after his death. Greensboro served as a realistic but still at times utopian foil for Stegner’s exploration of the western “formless non-communities” that are the focus points of the previous chapters. Together, these chapters illuminate the different ways that Stegner attempted to understand the limits of community in the American West while deepening understanding of the era and the theme of place in American history more broadly.


Open Access