America's literary landscape encompasses a seaboard from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Massa-chu-setts to Ellen Glasgow's Virginia. It reaches inland past Ohio to Illinois, and even beyond, to Willa Cather's Nebraska. But Cather and the other Midwestern nobles - Twain and Howells, Dreiser and Farrell and Sandburg - all went to New York or Boston or Philadelphia to gain the favor of their fellow authors and the critics' brotherhood. They embraced the Eastern Literary Establishment and became a part of it. Wallace Stegner has not done that.

Many writers who live in the American West and write about it - Stegner among them - believe they never get a fair shake from New York's cultural dictatorship. Sufficiently mesmerized by William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter (both of whom paid club dues up north), the haughty Easterners grudgingly have admitted Southern authors to their pantheon, but they consistently hold Western writers at a distance.Steinbeck? If he's the exception to prove the rule, it took him all of a decade to pass muster with Manhattan's literary power brokers. The earlier "Tortilla Flat" and "In Dubious Battle" and "Of Mice and Men" only became classics after the epochal success of "The Grapes of Wrath."

Wallace Stegner's novels have sold respectably, from "Remembering Laughter," his 1937 debut piece, to "Crossing to Safety," a modest literary event only five years ago; but his name never has adorned the best-seller chart.

Stanford's legendary professor emeritus, now in his 84th year, has produced a dozen novels, several story collections, some estimable works of informal history, other nonfictional depositions and a valedictory essay collection, "One Way to Spell Man" (1982). He is a philosopher in every mode of prose.

Stegner is the distinguished man of letters whose "Angle of Repose" took the Pulitzer Prize for 1971 and whose "The Spectator Bird" was the National Book Award fiction title for 1976. Both awards suggested overdue payoffs to compensate earlier critical neglect. They did not make Stegner a household name; yet his champions from the Western states insist that he is America's greatest living writer. Certainly he is in the front rank, and his fourth novel ought to be an American classic.

This is the 50th anniversary of the publication of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," a major novel in every measure of size and scope. As a sympathetic study of an impoverished family persistently seeking the American Dream, it also is Stegner's own "Grapes of Wrath." In 1989 the Steinbeck novel was again a literary event in a 50th anniversary hardback edition, but a Stegner novel few people remember cannot be thus glorified.

Bo Mason is a Wilkins Micawber in the American West, confident that the next town, the next state, the next "country" will spell riches for him and Elsa and their two sons. The Masons' chronicle of despair begins in 1906 and carries to "the present" (1942) while exploring a geographic range from the Western United States to Canada and Alaska. Bo fails at many endeavors and is most nearly successful as an illegal rum-runner.

Stegner does country marvelously, be it mountain, canyon or prairie. He reveals an influenza epidemic in Canada with heartbreaking power. The writing in "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" is raw and direct, where Stegner grew more consciously "stylistic" in subsequent efforts. Yet the hallmark of this beguiling novel is characterization: Bo and Elsa Mason are raffishly endearing losers, but are heroic in their vitality and resiliency.

The 1943 Pulitzer Prize in fiction went to Martin Flavin's decidedly inferior "Journey in the Dark" when the trustees overturned the jurors' recommendation of "The Big Rock Candy Mountain." Those trustees must all have been Easterners.