February 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.