As a writer, Stegner has largely focused on the history and people of the American West. Most of his works not only have a western setting but also actively engage themselves, through the lives of their characters, in western historical and social issues. Stegner was a realist, and in his many novels he created characters with a psychological depth and social complexity far beyond the sterile formulas long associated with the western novel. His first major work, the autobiographical The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943), tells the story of Bo Mason, a latter-day boomer, whose latent violence and rough values find no place in a West in which the frontier has receded and become settled. Hemmed in by this new West, Mason's rootless independence, his search for "the big rock candy mountain" of fabled ease, can only rebound upon himself and his family with devastating consequences.
The Preacher and the Slave (1950; reprinted as Joe Hill in 1969), a fictional biography of International Workers of the World bard Joe Hill, takes Stegner's concern with the individual in history to new ground and troubling conclusions when the legend of the Wobbly martyr and the reality of hold-up man and troubled loner collide without resolution. The important later novel Angle of Repose (1971), for which Stegner was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, shows a West, both past and present, in which the social contradictions and historical paradoxes parallel those of the book's characters.
Stegner's several novels with a California setting show a concern with contemporary life--the ahistorical or hedonistic lack of values of the present impinging on the settled but sometimes narrow familial and social patterns of an older America--and the process of the salvaging of a personal past. They include A Shooting Star (1961); All The Little Live Things (1967); The Spectator Bird (1976), a tour de force for which he was awarded the National Book Award; and Recapitulation (1979), set in Salt Lake City.
As a historian, Stegner concerned himself with the issues of community and individuality, wilderness and its exploitation, and the meaning of the frontier. Wolf Willow (1962), his portrait of his boyhood home on the Saskatchewan prairies, combines the researches of the historian and the intuitions of the fiction writer to create a haunting and multi-faceted picture of a dying frontier. Stegner's works on the Mormons, Mormon Country (1942) and The Gathering of Zion (1964), present models of western settlement by a communally oriented, hierarchically led people who are a stark contrast to the exploitative boomers of the frontier. While Stegner's view of the Mormons is often admiring, he also sees them as individuals particular graces and flaws; and, in the latter book and in his later thinking, he viewed Mormons as a people sometimes at odds with democratic values and the darker side of their history.
Increasingly, Stegner became noted as a spokesman for the conservation movement. The Uneasy Chair (1974), his work on the life and achievement of Bernard DeVoto, his predecessor and mentor in this arena, and Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (1954), his earlier important biography of the prophetic scientist and explorer John Wesley Powell, underscored Stegner's long concern with the testing of individual and communal values against the forbidding aridity and fragility of the West's natural environment. Wallace Stegner died in 1993.