I’m not sure why Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose was never on my radar, particularly considering my interest in recent years with novels of the West. But I had never heard of it until recently, when I read mention on some blog or other (that is the problem with reading so many bookish sites–I lose track of where I hear about things). It was called a classic of Western literature, Stegner’s masterpiece, and so forth. A few days later I happened to spy a copy at the local library book sale, so it seemed fate was telling me to read it.
This is a very, very good book, and perhaps it is Stegner’s masterpiece (it’s another winner of the Pulitzer, 1972), but for various reasons, I am not sure it lives up its laurels. It starts out rather slowly, narrated by Lyman Ward, a retired historian who suffers from an unknown debilitating illness which has left him with an amputated leg and skeletal stiffness. He is confined to a wheelchair and needs help with daily tasks, yet he has retired alone, to his son’s displeasure, in his grandparent’s house in rural Grass Valley, CA. There he has set a task for himself to sort through his grandmother’s letters and to reconstruct the remarkable and historic path his grandparents cut through the mid-1800’s West in the early years of their marriage. His grandparents’ marriage suffered a series of disappointments and great tragedies (no spoilers) that led them to live out their remaining years at an “angle of repose” rather than in a fully engaged and loving relationship. Lyman’s grandfather, whom he adored, was an engineer. The titular phrase refers to the engineering concept of the steepest angle at which loose matter can be piled before it slips down the slope. Lyman’s own marriage has suffered its own disappointments (he is estranged from his wife), and it becomes clear as the novel progresses that he is searching not only to understand how his grandparents arrived at this angle themselves, but also how he might resolve his own emotional conflict about his ex-wife.
So, the book is split between Lyman in his wheelchair in his grandparents house, sifting through old correspondence and newspaper clippings, and then telling us his grandparents’ story. Often, we are aware that Lyman is narrating his grandparents story, or we read long (wonderful) excerpts from her letters. Sometimes he lets go and the novel slips into his grandmother’s head and world in third-person omnission, and it’s glorious. Easily, the grandparents’ story was the most interesting part of the book to me, and for a couple hundred pages, I could not put it down.
Susan Burling Ward (Lyman’s grandmother) was a well-educated, well-connected, East coast socialite who married a hardworking, honest, and smart-but-not-refined engineer, Oliver Ward. His work took him to the untamed West, where he worked in mines and on huge irrigation projects in remote areas of the country: the Sierras, Idaho, Michoacan, Mexico, and Leadville, Colorado. From the beginning of their marriage, we know that while Oliver and Susan love each other, she has a hard time accepting who he is. He knows that she has standards of refinement that he can only hope to accommodate as best as possible in such wild places, and yet he makes a solid, forthright go of it, never trying to change who she is. The same cannot be said for Susan; she struggles to accept him and it is the great failing of their marriage.
I loved reading about the Wards’ experiences at that time, in so many places in the country that I’ve visited or lived near (California and Colorado). There are wonderful descriptions of gold rush towns and characters, and wild landscapes where they build houses and tried to create a life of civilized domesticity suitable for the likes of Susan Burling Ward. Susan was an accomplished artist, and despite her high Victorian standards, she was tremendously inspired by the sights and people she encountered in their various rough and wild homesteads. In fact, she was tougher and more adventurous than her adherence to tight-laced corsets and propriety would allow her to admit. She even ends up supporting the family with her illustrations and stories by selling them to one of her connections in the East, because Oliver’s work frequently did not make enough for them to live on–rather a shocking state of affairs for a well-reared Victorian lady.
About three-quarters of the way through the book, I was so enraptured by Susan’s story, I began to google, wondering if she might be based on a real person–she was simply too fascinating, the letters too real-sounding. And this where I get to my But…
Stegner did base the book on real people: Mary Hallock Foote, a famous artist of the day and published author, and her engineer husband, Arthur. Apparently, Stegner was given access to Mary’s letters by her family and he used her story for the basis for the book He thanks the family in the dedication to the book without mentioning Mary by name (he had agreed to conceal her identity). But my googling also caused me to stumble on the sad claim by the Foote family that Stegner used sections of Mary’s letters verbatim in the book, without giving credit to her authorship. It’s one thing to fictionalize a real person’s life, but to plagiarize? Ugly, sad, and perhaps an example of the Teflon entitlement of an important “man of letters” in the twentieth century as Stegner was only half criticized and certainly never fully taken to task for his usage or omissions. Additionally, Stegner’s claim that Mary’s letters and life form only the basis of the book are now viewed as suspect. The novel uses the real names of more than a dozen people Foote knew and follows her life events extremely closely, minus, perhaps, the great tragedies and marital discontent of the novel. Much of what I learned about this sad business came from a terrific article in the LA Times, Tangle of Repose, from March 2003 (credit where credit is due!). I can’t help but wonder if Stegner would have felt so free to lift the words and story of a man as he did a seemingly unimportant Victorian lady.
So. I really, really enjoyed Angle of Repose, but…I lost respect its authorship. For me, the master knocked himself out of the masterpiece. Now I’d like to read some works by Mary Hallock Foote in her own words.