A thorough if somewhat detached life of the dean of Western American letters. Best remembered as an environmentalist and historian, Stegner (1909-1993) was also an accomplished novelist who, Benson points out, had won ""nearly every major award given to a writer except the Nobel Prize"" but whose works generally sold only modestly. Benson (The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, 1983) charts the course of Stegner's development as a writer. He has little to say about his subject's early years except that they were marked by ""emotional isolation and feelings of deficiency and failure,"" but he warms up when dealing with the adult Stegner, armed with a doctorate and occupying influential positions at Harvard and, later, Stanford, where he founded the fellowships in creative writing that bear his name. (Among his students were Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, and Robert Stone.) Stegner documented his own life so well, in books like the semiautobiographical novel The Big Rock Candy Mountain and Wolf Willow, a blend of history and memoir, that Benson can sometimes add little to the portrait Stegner left us. But Benson, himself a professor of literature (San Diego State Univ.), has much to say about the content of Stegner's books and the manner of their composition. Benson stresses Stegner's preoccupation in his books with the development of personal identity, as well as his unusual, tightly woven narrative structures. There are also a few thought-provoking surprises, as when Benson points out that at the end of his life Stegner was so depressed about the rape of the West that he intended to move to Vermont, where, he maintained, there was more wild nature than in California. Admirers of Stegner's work will find this a useful but uninspired companion.