Stenger received his B.A. in history from Stanford University in 1959, followed by a Ph.D in American literature in 1964. He served as a Professor of American Literature and Director of the creative writing program at the University of California, Santa Cruz from 1965 to 1995, at which time he focused his efforts on writing. He has received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1980), a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship (1981) and a Guggenheim Fellowship (1982). He is married to novelist Lynn Stegner. They live in Santa Fe, New Mexico.