Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

Angle of ReposeWhy this book:  I recently began hearing or reading references to this book – and I’d never heard of it.  So I did a bit of research, was intrigued, and  pressed my literature reading group to select it – noting that though it is la bit longer (630 pages) than our normal selection, it was time to again read a book of substance.  Indeed Angle of Repose had won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1972 and was ranked one of the top 100 novels in the English language in the 20th century.

Summary in 3 Sentences: The “story” is of a wheelchair-bound retired history professor researching and writing a biography of his   grandmother who had raised him, based on  her letters to her close friend back east after moving to the west in the 1870s with her new husband, the history professor’s grandfather.  It is fascinating that Stegner used as the model for the fictional grandmother a real woman, Mary Hallock Foote, whose letters he had obtained from her family, and from which he quoted liberally – so Angle of Repose is indeed part biography of the experiences of a real “gentlewoman” and her family, who lived in some very untamed and not-yet-civilized circumstances in the West.  But the story is also about the history professor and his impressions of what he learns about his grandparents, his guesses and assumptions about what is left out of the letters and what all that might mean to him, dealing with his own challenges in 1970.

My Impressions: I loved this book.   I keep reflecting on it, and how and why it had such an impact on me.  This is part of what I believe makes Angle of Repose truly great literature.   A very well developed writing style, and a very creative approach to weaving stories of courage and resilience, cultural change, love, marriage, anger and forgiveness, into a story that opens the door to understanding how American culture evolved.  It moves from the the refined center of Brahmin culture in upper class New York City, to the raw and unrefined version of American culture that was emerging in the American West in the late 19th century.  The book is presented in 9 parts and as such, it is a 9 course feast.  Like a great meal, it starts out a bit slow, and then builds in momentum, with each course adding to the last, each course bringing a new dimension and new depth to the meal.   But unlike a great meal, it does not climax toward the end and finish on a soft note with a satisfied sigh and a sweet dish “dessert” as an epilogue. The  momentum in Angle of Repose builds right up to the last chapter and the last page.

The characters in the story are people I could relate to in today’s terms – and their world  was comprehensible to me as not fundamentally different from my own, though very different on the surface.  Though much of it takes place in the American West of the 1870s and 1880s, Angle of Repose does not describe the world of cowboys and Indians that many of us grew up with on television or in movies – it describes a world more familiar to us.  Technological advances have certainly made a difference: Communication was slow and uncertain.  Travel was long and complicated.   There were dangers and health issues, and uncertainties which our society and science have since significantly mitigated.  But the old saw that “people are people”  is very evident here.  These are Americans, and the challenges, the disappointments, the drives and impulses that are very familiar to me are very much a part of the lives of the people in this world of 140-150 years ago.

The various environments in which Angle of Repose takes place are part of what makes this book fascinating, and Stegner’s wonderful writing makes them real and almost palpable, allowing the reader to experience and almost sense them.  From the world of Milton, NY,  and genteel New York City in which the book starts, to a mining camp in New Almaden (near San Jose), California, then to Santa Cruz, California, then Leadville, Colorado, then Michoacan, Mexico, then Boise, Idaho, and finally to a farm in Grass Valley in Northern California in 1970 (yes 1970 -which is the time and place in which the fictional author of the biography is writing)  we come to know our characters, their thoughts, concerns, their lives.

The “jewels in the crown” of this novel are the characters and how Stegner develops them.  These are no simple two-dimensional characters – each is a complex human being, with strengths weaknesses, palpable emotions, flawed, yet strong.  None of them got what they really wanted in life – none of them had their dreams fulfilled. Yet by and large, they refused to be victims, and carried on with courage and determination to make the best of what they had.

Stegner uses an unusual literary device to describe and develop his characters.  The novel is written in first person by an author researching the life of his grandmother, with the intent of publishing it as a biography.  We get to know the main characters through the eyes of one of their descendants, seeking to uncover facts about their lives to better understand them, their motivations, their disappointments, who they were.   He struggles with gaps in what he is able to ascertain from the evidence he has, so he adds his own conjecture and judgments, and in so doing we get to know the character of the fictional researcher writing the biography of his grandmother.

The perspective and life of our narrator, that researcher biographer, is a key part of Angle of Repose.   This researcher narrator is clearly a version of Stegner himself, since Stegner was using essentially the same real letters as his fictional character to create the story.   The narrator of Angle of Repose is clearly sharing much of Stegner’s own perspective on the historical characters whose lives he is recounting, as well as on the world of 1970 in which he lives.

In writing the book,  Stegner argued that the main characters in the historical narrative – Susan and Oliver Ward – though built largely on the real-life characters Mary Hallock Foote and Arthur De Wint Foote in the letters he was quoting, are indeed fictional.  We learn in the introduction that Stegner made clear that as a fiction writer, he used his creative license to create experiences and aspects of the characters in Angle of Repose that were not reflected in the actual letters upon which he based his story; he bent and shaped the historical characters and their experiences to fit the fictional story he sought to tell. We also learn in the introduction, that some of the actual ancestors of the Foote family accused Stegner in his story of Susan and Oliver Ward, of plagiarizing the lives of Mary and Arthur Foote, since he had based so much of Angle of Repose on  their real stories and personal letters.  It is an interesting aspect of this book.

Let me briefly add here that Jackson Benson’s  introduction to the book, written in 2000, provides a great context for understanding Stegner, his style, why and how he wrote the book. It also explains some of the controversy around the relationship between the fictional characters in the book, and the historical characters on whom they are based.

So much is fascinating about this book.  But I will simply provide a brief synopsis of my impressions of the 3 main characters in Angle of Repose.

Susan Ward– Since we get to know the story of the Ward family almost exclusively through Susan Ward’s letters to her girlhood friend Augusta, it is Susan we get to know best.  She is the central character of the narrative that takes place in the 1870s and 1880s.  She was a well-educated and thoughtful young Quaker woman of her time, and grew up aspiring to a life of engaging and charming conversation in the well-appointed parlors of the upper class homes in New York City.  Her very close girl-hood friend Augusta indeed did marry into that life-style, and throughout the book, we sense Susan’s envy of Augusta, as well as her desire to convince Augusta that Susan continued to maintain her standards of civility and culture, even in places as uncivilized as the mining camps of  New Almaden, Ca, and Leadville, Colorado.  She always wanted to be welcomed and easily fit into that world of which she dreamed and to which she aspired to return.

Susan was very much a product of Victorian morality and sensibilities, and had always sought to emulate the civility and gentility in the world of the English upper classes that she had experienced as a young woman in New York. She marries the engineer Oliver Ward with the intention of going west to follow his “career” for a few years, and then return to the New York with fascinating tales about life in America’s outback.  For indeed this is what the upper classes of England did in her day – live for a few years in the uncivilized colonies, then return to their cultured roots with tales of life among the barbarians and savages.  Susan never was able to fulfill her dream of returning to that life of comfort in well-heeled society.   She did return to New York from time to time, but only for short visits.  Though her lifelong dream was never fulfilled, over time, she did indeed evolve to becoming more adventurous herself, quietly and unconsciously adopting some of the values of the world in which she lived, and began to truly value the hardiness and resilience she had acquired.

It is easy to ridicule Susan from our 21st century perspective – her Victorian morality, her occasional snobbery and pretensions to upper class gentility.  But she was courageous and resilient and sought wherever she went to make the best of where she found herself.  Her struggles with her Stoic husband Oliver, who was very much in love with her and who did what he could to cater to her refined needs, is a constant sub-theme of the book.  While some may find her narrow in her prejudices and lacking the courage to truly stand up for what she wanted, I think that is an overly harsh judgment of a woman raised in the Victorian era.  She is in many ways a tragic figure, but faced her circumstance with courage and resilience, and was stronger and more positive than most men or women I know. This complexity of character is an important part of what makes her such fascinating character.

Oliver Ward– We only know Oliver through what Susan says of him in her letters and through a few reminiscences and comments of our narrator, who remembers his grandfather from when he was a young boy.  Oliver Ward is a very intelligent and honorable man, a man of great integrity and humility, conscientious and hard working, capable of great love and friendship. He is clearly an admirable character. And he is also a tragic one, since those virtues also made him vulnerable to opportunists and scalawags, and more than once he was a victim of betrayal, corruption and perfidy, which leads to sadness, disappointment and heart-ache both for him and for Susan and their family.  It is frustrating to see this good and innocent man miss opportunities, to see him be manipulated and his trust and good nature taken advantage of by selfish and unscrupulous opportunists.  At the same time, his virtues also brought him great friends, trust, support and other opportunities.  He too is a complex character who it is easy to love and admire, while also finding him frustrating.

Lyman Ward– is the biographer and narrator of this book, and it is through his eyes and voice that we get to know the world of Susan and Oliver Ward.   As he tells the story of his grandparents,  we also get to know him and his world.  The perspective of the book goes back and forth from lives of his grandparents in the 1870s and 80s, to 1970, when he is writing their biography.   From his insights and comments on the lives and circumstances of his grandparents, we also get insights into his character and values.  But we also watch him deal with being painfully confined to a wheel chair, unable turn his head, unable to do for himself much of what most of us take for granted in our own lives. He needs others to prepare his meals, to bathe him, to prepare him for bed, to get him dressed in the morning.  He is curious and conscientious about exploring the lives of his grandparents, but he is also angry and opinionated about his own life and times.   He is not at all shy about sharing his thoughts about the 60s culture in California and what he believes it is doing to America.   He is indeed something of a curmudgeon – a very intelligent and articulate one, and his sarcasm and cynicism are often amusing while also well informed and insightful.

I hope I have left no doubt that I truly loved this book and highly recommend it – but like all great literature, it is not a quick, light read. But it is very much worth the time and effort.

A few quotes that I thought I’d share, (page numbers from the 2014 Vintage paperback edition.)

Lyman Ward: There  was no reason Oliver Ward should not have been, except character. Pioneer or not, resource-raider or not, afflicted or not with the frontier faith that exploitation is development, and development is good, he was simply an honest man. His gift was not for money-making and the main chance. He was a a builder, not a raider. He trusted people (Grandmother thought too much), he was loved by animals and children and liked by men, he had an uncomplicated ambition to leave the world a little better for his passage through it, and his notion of to better it was to develop it for human use.            p 206

Lyman Ward:  I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved and absolutely submitted to?  It is not quite true that you can never go home again. I have done it, coming back here. But it gets less likely.  We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.        p 303

Lyman Ward: What she resisted was being the wife of a failure and a woman with no home.  p 303

Lyman Ward: She came before the emancipation of women, and she herself was emancipated only partly….  The impulse and the talent were there, without either inspiring models or full opportunity.  A sort of Isabel Archer existed half-acknowledged in Grandmother, a spirit fresh, independent, adventurous, not really prudish in spite of the gentility. There was an ambitious women under the Quaker modesty and genteel conventions.   The light foot was for more than dancing, the bright eye for more than flirtations, the womanliness for more than mute submission to husband and hearth.                               p 350

Lyman Ward: One of the charming things about nineteenth-century America was its cultural patriotism – not jingoism, just patriotism, the feeling that no matter how colorful, exotic, and cultivated other countries might be, there  was no place so ultimately right, so morally sound, so in tune with the hopeful future as the USA. p 352

Lyman Ward: 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 other Western pioneer, he had heard the clock of history strike, and counted the strokes wrong.  p 423

Lyman Ward: They were in no race for wealth…they were makers and doers, they wanted to take a piece of wilderness and turn it into a home for a civilization.  I suppose they were wrong – their whole civilization was wrong – but they were the antithesis of mean or greedy. Given the choice, any one of them would have chosen poverty, with the success of their projects, over wealth and its failure.  p 427

Lyman Ward: We have only switched prohibitions and hypocrisies with them.  We blink pain and death, they blinked nudity and human sex, or rather, talk about sex.  They deplored violations of the marriage bond and believed in the responsibilities of the unitary family and thought female virginity before marriage a guarantee of these, or at least a proper start.  But wild boys and young bachelors they winked at because they must, and both wandering husbands and unfaithful wives they understood, and girls who “got in trouble” they pitied as much as they censured. They could tell a good woman from a bad one, which is more than I can do any more.   p 498

Susan Ward: He is so good a man I want to weep, and what makes me want to weep most of all is my failure of faith in him. For I cannot help it.   p 537

Oliver Ward: But this general business of trusting people, I don’t know. I doubt if I can change. I believe in trusting people, do you see?  At least till they prove they can’t be trusted. What kind of life is it when you can’t?  p 551

About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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1 Response to Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner

  1. Pingback: My Five Favorite Novels | Bob Schoultz's Corner

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