Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

stegnertrytwoFebruary 18 marked the centenary of Wallace Stegner’s birth, so this post is some days late.  Given that Lincoln, Darwin and Mendelssohn all were born in years ending in ’09, his centenaries are likely to be overlooked — ’09 appears to be a good year for budding geniuses to be born.

I only became aware of this centenary through an exceptional New York Times online column from Timothy Egan (read it here).  For the last few months I have been berating other bloggers about Stegner — this seems an appropriate time to insert my own opinion.

As Egan notes perceptively, many of us who live in the west half of North America have a chip on our shoulder when it comes to “the East” (that would include me, if you are wondering).  “The East” denigrates our achievement, penalizes success and generally persists in regarding “the West” as an uncivilized frontier.

In Stegner’s case, that meant that Angle of Repose was not reviewed or recognized until after it won the Pulitzer in 1971.  As Egan notes, when the Times did get around to recognizing him, they called him William, not Wallace.

Stegner is certainly celebrated in western North America, with festivals and awards.  He set up the creative writing program at Stanford and ran it until his retirement in 1971.    His students include Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry and Tobias Wolff, so most readers will have to admit that he has had an impact on our world.  The old saw says that “those who can’t do, teach” . Stegner not only taught, he did — and he did exceptionally well.

He is  one of the authors that I admire most (I admit, partly because of where I have lived) and for me Angle of Repose is his best book, but it is a contest.  Big Rock Candy Mountain and Joe Hill would be up there, but if you don’t know Stegner, this is the book where you should start.

The story is narrated by Lyman Ward, crippled by a calcium-related disease, his right leg amputated, his head immoblized.  He has retreated to Grass Valley, California  to review his grandmother’s papers — and avoid his son who wants to move him into an extended-care facility at Menlo Park.  That is stream one — the lesser stream — of this exceptional book.

Grandmother is Susan Burling Ward, a child of New York, an illustrator and “journalist” and, perhaps most important, a letter writer.  Much of the book is based on her letters (themselves based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a source of some controversy which I will overlook here).

We first meet Susan Ward in New York City in 1868 — the New York of Edith Wharton and Henry James (and Stegner inserts both those authors into the book).  Raised at Milton upriver on the Hudson, she is staying with upscale friends (in the Wharton and James sense) while she attends the Cooper Institute.  Wharton and James sent their characters east to the cultured capitals of Europe — Stegner sends his west, to the hardscrabble world of mining in western North America.  While Angle of Repose periodically returns to New York, the rest of the book is set in New Alamaden, Leadville, Mexico and Idaho in the mining country that is producing the minerals that the expanding United States needs.  That mining country extends from Alaska and the Yukon in the north (the Klondike) through the lands of the San Francisco Gold Rush into Mexico.  I live in that area and I can assure you Stegner captures a picture of a century of life that is incredibly real — one of my first assignments as a newspaper reporter in 1970 was a coal mine collapse.

“Angle of repose” is a mining term that refers to the ideal angle at which overburden or waste will fall.  If you stack it too steep, you create an avalanche.  Too gentle and you waste both space and energy.  It is a perfect metaphor for human relationships, as Stegner uses it here:  push them too hard and you create turmoil, crisis and disintegration.  Too gently and the relationship never realizes its potential.

He addresses the issue directly about one-third of the way through the book when his son, Rodman, comes to make yet another effort to take Lyman to the extended-care facility and wonders what his crippled father is doing:

“I’m not writing a book of Western history,” I tell him.  “I’ve written enough history books to know this isn’t one.  I’m writing about something else.  A marriage, I guess.  Deadwood was just a blank space in the marriage.  Why waste time on it?”

Rodman is surprised.  So am I, actually — I have never formulated precisely what it is I have been doing, but the minute I say it I know I have said it right.  What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in.  What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.  That’s where the interest is.  That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.

Stegner says that he is not writing history, but he cannot avoid it — and it is one of the great strengths of the book.  He knows the West so well that he writes our history without even trying.  (Those who have seen HBO’s Deadwood will note the reference above — Oliver does go there to work for George Hearst and Stegner does ignore it because Susan is not along.  Having said that, the Deadwood portrayed on the screen does reflect the mining communities of this book.)

Consider this excerpt, as Stegner describes his grandfather Oliver’s plans to create an irrigation scheme on Idaho’s Snake River (if you drink beer in the Western U.S., you are benefitting from this scheme today):

As a practitioner of hindsight I know that Grandfather was trying to do, by personal initiative and with the financial resources of a small and struggling corporation, what only the immense power of the federal government ultimately proved able to do.  That does not mean he was foolish or mistaken.  He was premature.  His clock was set on pioneer time.  He met trains that had not yet arrived, he waited on platforms that hadn’t yet been built, beside tracks that might never be laid.  Like many another Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong.  Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality.

If there is a better paragraph describing the development of Western North America than that one, I would like to know what it is.  Oliver Ward, the grandfather who is present throughout this book, is a man with his eyes so firmly fixed on the future that he totally misses the present.  The ongoing story of how he and Susan try to find their angle of repose is a wonderful romance, set against a most imposing background.

Stegner was an ecologist and environmentalist long before the term was part of the language.  As Egan’s column notes “there are rivers undammed, deserts vistas unspoiled and forests uncut in the wondrous West because of his pen.”  Again, the author said this book was about a marriage but it is much more than that because Stegner cannot restrain his natural love of the country where he locates his story:

The mountains of the Great Divide are not, as everyone knows, born treeless, though we always think of them as above timberline with the eternal snows on their heads.  They wade up through ancient forests and plunge into canyons tangled up with water-courses and pause in little gem-like valleys and march attended by loud winds across the high plateaus, but all such incidents of the lower world they leave behind them when they begin to strip for the skies:  like the Holy Ones of old, they go up alone and barren of all circumstance to meet their transfiguration.

There is little point in trying to determine “who is America’s greatest author?” — but there is value in putting together a shortlist.  Wallace Stegner deserves to be on that list.  Angle of Repose is not just a great novel, it is three great novels — the story of a marriage, the story of the West and a celebration of what the West was and is.  I know a lot of visitors to this blog do not know this part of the world very well — this book is a perfect start to understanding it.

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17 Responses to “Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I do love Wallace Stegner, but my knowledge of him is very limited. Honestly, I know of him only because I lived in the West and read several of his short stories, all great. I’ve been negligent with his novels, though. Thanks for the reminder! You can now start getting after me about reading his novels. And just as I was finishing The Age of Innocence . . .

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I do think Angle of Repose relates to The Age of Innocence: Wharton (and James) went east to Europe to explore their fiction and Stegner, a generation later went west. I know you taught at BYU and I do think this book has a lot to say to that experience. Having said that, I also think it is a great book for those who know nothing about the American West. Wolff in the Egan piece I mentioned laments that students at Stanford today do not read this amazing author — I could not agree more with that assessment.

  3. Trevor Says:

    I’ll do my best to at least change my own neglect, and hopefully I can influence a few people around me. I just ordered his collection of short stories to remember why I enjoyed him so much. The novels will follow.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds tremendous Kevin, and here am I trying to cut back on my book purchases (my reading rate this year has been very slow, not sure why just yet).

    Still, I shall have to add this to the pile. Unlike Trevor I’d never even heard of this chap until you brought him to my attention, but then I read blogs such as yours precisely in order to be introduced to writers I might otherwise miss or unjustly neglect.

  5. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do think Stegner is a most under-rated writer — and I think you will find him most interesting. Sorry to be adding to your TBR pile, but he is definitely worth the effort.

  6. sheila O'brien Says:

    Gosh, KFC, you do have exhalted connections. Now “O Twist” is reading you, and begging for more. And I get why he’s such a fan.
    “Angle of Repose” review is wonderful.

  7. Tate Says:

    I love Wallace Stegner, all of Wallace Stegner – novels, essays, whatever – but my favorite is “Crossing to Safety” if, indeed, a favorite is possible.

  8. Mary Gilbert Says:

    I’ve just finished Angle of Repose – a truly great novel. I’m in one of those situations where I can’t decide what to read next because I want to allow the impact of this beautifully written book to sink in. I’m very struck by Stegner’s ability to write from a woman’s perspective something not usually found in male American writers of his generation. Perhaps the fact that he is a writer from the West accounts for the fact that he’s less well known than others of his generation. Best book so far in 2010!

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for the comment — it brings back very fond memories of one of my favorites of all time as well. I would also recommend Big Rock Candy Mountain. While I don’t think that it is quite as good as Angle of Repose it is another very good book, also set in the American West.

  10. Cheryl Collins Says:

    I read Crossing to Safety a couple of months ago and have just read Angle of Repose in 36 hours because one of Stegner’s most obvious gifts is as a storyteller, bringing you into the world of his characters so you have to know what happens to them on the inside perhaps, more than outside events. This is easily the best book I have read this year, and I know it will deserve many more readings before I can begin to appreciate all its riches. I loved the descriptions of the western landscape, it reminded me of Isabella Bird’s travel memoir ‘ A lady’s life in the rocky mountains’ ( hope I have the title right there) written about the same period, and certainly given someone who has only been the coasts of north america a vivid sense of place. I was even more fascinated by the flawed characters and their relationships. I am desperate to discuss the character of Susan Burling Ward with another woman in particular to see how our reactions relate to one another ( no offence Kevin, though I’d be really interested to hear more of your thoughts on the central character and her relationships). She was certainly a completely realised and believable character but how I longed to give her a slap at various points ( in a spirit of Christian love of course).

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Cheryl: Stegner got you just like he gets me — once you pick up the book you cannot put it down. Of course once you know that, you just set aside two or three uninterrupted days every time you pick up one of his novels (and yes I do reread them).

    I am going to duck your question about Susan Ward and wait for a woman to respond. I too wanted to give her a slap every now and then, but she comes from a different world and reflects that world. This Western mining stuff is a bit strange, after all.

    I do hope you try Big Rock Candy Mountain — I have it noted for another read later this year or early next. Memory says it is not quite as good as Angle of Repose, but we shall see.

  12. Jen Says:

    So I’m reading Angle of Repose right now and I was delighted to see your review of the novel since I really enjoy your blog…even thought I’m commenting literally years later.

    It’s beautifully written, and I’m really savoring it. I’m about 400 pages in, I’d guess?

    That being said, there’s a really weird thing that’s been bugging me about the book. A few months ago, I read “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” and I’m struggling with the fact that this novel set in the American West completely dodges any real mention of the removal of native populations, etc. Could it really be that in all that time in the West, Susan would be completely oblivious to those issues? To be not at all influenced or even aware be those events? I don’t know. It’s really bothering me. I guess it’s the ultimate in white privilege to leave that on the road—and if that’s what it is, is it indicative of something about the characters? Is it telling us something about Susan or Lyman? Or is it Stenger himself who didn’t know or care? It’s always on my mind as I’m reading, and it’s similar to why I can’t (or won’t) read novels about the glorious Confederate South. Something’s missing, and I’m feeling the whole at the middle of it.

    Is that crazy?

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Jen: First a welcome and thanks for the comment.

    Stegner based his novel on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote (published as A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West), so I would suspect the absence of those issues in this book is a reflection of the attitude of the times and does say something about the characters. Having said that, one would have thought Stegner could have underlined that with some reference to native peoples. The absence did not affect my response to the novel, but I can see your concern.

  14. donaldww Says:

    Jen: If you would like insight into Wallace Stegner’s deep understanding of the west — including personal and historical perspectives on native populations —, I recommend his autobiography: Wolf Willow – A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier. The book is beautiful and heartrending: an admixture of personal memories, historical vignettes, and fiction.

    What may come as a surprise is that Stegner’s boyhood was spent on a remote homestead in southern Saskatchewan, Canada, from 1914 to 1920. In this book we see he knew natives and Metis intimately. He grew up with them and went to school with them. But he also knew Greeks, Chinese, a family of Syrians, Catholics, Jews, Anglicans, cowboys, the RCMP: newcomers with dreams of adventure, riches and land ownership.

    Moreover, Stegner absorbed an acute understanding of prairie geography and weather. His reflections on its influence and power are so insightfully rendered that they can at times leave you breathless.

    From 1. The Question Mark in the Circle:

    “Desolate? Forbidding? There never was a country that in its good moments was more beautiful. Even in drouth or dust storm or blizzard it is the reverse of monotonous, once you have submitted to it with all of your senses. You don’t get out of the wind, but learn to lean and squint against it. You don’t escape sky and sun, but wear them in your eyeballs and on your back. You become acutely aware of yourself. The world is very large, the sky even larger, and you are very small. But also the world is flat, empty, abstract, and in its flatness you are a challenging upright thing, as sudden as an exclamation mark, as enigmatic as a question mark.”

    From the Introduction, written by his son, Page Stegner:

    “Nowhere in Stegner’s writings are these habits of conduct more dramatically expressed than in the novella, “Genesis,”, the fictional centrepiece of Wolf Willow and perhaps the finest piece of short story fiction he ever wrote…In it a young Englishman named Rusty Cullen comes to Canada looking for adventure…[he] undergoes a rite of passage that is as relentless and exacting as any ever faced by a fictional hero…one might observe that Sir Ernest Shackleton trapped in the polar ice of Antarctica’s Weddel Sea had a better time of it…”

    Kevin: thanks for your blog

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Donald: Thank you for your thoughtful comment. It is a reminder that I should make room in the schedule for another Stegner since it has been quite a while since this review.

    (And thanks for bringing the post back to the top of the comment list for Stegner’s birthday!)

  16. coetsimer Says:

    I began to read Wolf Willow many years ago and my memory of that is I stopped midway because I could not endure the description of the blizzards and the bitter cold in the tale of a late fall round-up. Since I was in those days an often foot-bound traveller in the young sprawling and often transit-less suburbs of Calgary, Stegner’s account bit too close to the bone. Obviously I wasn’t miles from shelter, but I knew the pain of long hours spent outside in -30-degree weather. Still in my enduring curiosity about all things related to the Prairie-Foothills home of my youth, I recently picked up Wolf Willow again (in a comfortable chair in a place and climate far distant from a Prairie winter) and found it to be a wonderful evocation of place, the eastern range of the Cypress Hills, rooted in Stegner’s own boyhood. The book is, as its subtitle says: ‘A History, A Story, and a Memory’, a special narrative blend, full of variety and honest perspective. I wonder when the book was first published whether it was much welcomed by the residents of southwestern Saskatchewan, as one of its themes is the marginality of one of the last struggling frontiers of the North American west. Stegner displays no cloying sentimentality about the past, and his hard but sympathetic early ’60s verdict on the place is that, in spite of the locale’s extraordinary nature, it cannot offer the full range of experience for a wholly fulfilled life. It turns out he may have been slightly premature or pessimistic given the prosperity brought by oil and potash to the neighbourhood. But the community of Eastend, Saskatchewan appears to have given their verdict on their native son. The old Stegner home is now preserved as a retreat for writers to polish their craft while experiencing the sweeping horizons and (in summer) the bouquet of wolf willow.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    coetsimer: Thanks for that account of your experience with Wolf Willow — a Stegner book that I have not read. The better known Western novels are set further south but his ability to capture the harsh realities of climate is present nonetheless. You make some excellent points and I appreciate your thoughts.

    And for a more contemporary view of Cypress Hills country, check out Dianne Warren’s Cool Water — you’ll find some things have not changed that much.

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