Angle of Repose (Wallace Stegner)
"Wallace Stegner's Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel is a story of discovery -- personal, historical, and
geographical. Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to
write his grandparents' remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving
civilization into the surface of America's western frontier. But his research
reveals even more about his own life than he is willing to admit. What emerges
is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American
"Thun of a bith!" he said. "Lyman!"
He pumped my hand. I was afraid he was going to pound me on the back, but I should have known Al
better. Having been a freak all his life, he has a tenderness for other freaks. Even while he was
still shaking my hand and thun of a bithing and saying, Thay, boy, ith nithe to thee you, those
odd compound eyes were touching and taking in, and shyly withdrawing from, the chair, the stiff
neck, the crutches in their cradle, the stump under the pinned flap of trouser leg.
"Thomebody told me you were back living on the old plathe, " he said. "I been thinking I might
drop out and thay hello, but you know. Bithneth. Haw are you, anyway?"
His laughter had already modulated into sympathy. "Tough." He shook his head, and in the middle
of a shake I saw him realize that I couldn't shake mine, that I was looking up at him under my
eyebrows because I couldn't tilt my head back. He sat down quickly on the Bendix crate to bring
himself closer to my level. Few people are that understanding or that
This is the voice of Lyman Ward, the retired historian whose joints are locked by degenerative arthritis.
His angle of repose is typically vertical, torso jammed upright into a wheelchair; he expects this
angle to soon become horizontal, permanently. Lyman has been abandoned by
his wife Ellen who is unable to cope with his rage at the disease, and attempts to distract himself from
his pain by starting a biography of his grandparents, on the assumption that they had
led a long and happy life together. Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward are based on
the 19th century illustrator Mary Hallock Foote and her engineer husband Arthur DeWint Foote -- partners in a marriage that
neither succeeded nor failed but finally rested at an 'angle of repose' - the geological term for
the diminished incline that will halt a landslide, or conversely the steepest gradient that a pile of loose
debris can sustain. Lyman's understanding of Susan and Oliver grows -- distilled from diaries,
pictures and letters -- and he gradually finds that they were more bound by guilt than by
affection; and this knowledge gives him the comfort that loyalty is not necessarily the moral
superior of abandonment. We find him at the end of book still twisted with pain but wondering if
he and Ellen can hope to find their own angle of repose. While 'repose' suggests a condition of
peaceful stasis, a slope at this angle is in fact everywhere on the verge of failure; we
live in this world with others in an uneasy equilibrium which can be placidly stable
to the outward eye yet disappear at a moment in an avalanche. One has to live
knowing both the angle of repose and its fragility.
Wallace Stegner (1909-93) wrote Angle of Repose in 1971 -- having himself just
retired from a founding tenure of Stanford's Writing Program. The novel was voted the best Western novel of the 20th century in a poll taken by the San
Francisco Chronicle. The Eastern Establishment tends not to like
such works -- after the book won the Pulitzer in 1972, the New York Times refused to review it --
a palpable snub against the Western school (the editors apparently preferred Rabbit Redux, by John
Updike). Even today I can't find a single review of Stegner -- a man some of his
contemporaries believed would win the Nobel -- in the archives of the venerable
New York Review of Books. A second controversy was an accusation of plagiarism by scholar Mary Ellen Williams-Walsh who objected to Stegner's taking
the real letters of Mary Hallock Foote and calling them the letters of Susan Burling Ward, a
fictitious character. According to Stegner, however, the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, a sizable
collection which might take "about a year" to read through "had the same function as raw
material, broken rocks out of which I could make any kind of wall I wanted to."
So in a sense Angle of Repose is a historical novel, drawn from real characters,
echoing their real words. The historian John Demos writes that his initial reaction to Angle of Repose was "almost painful", because he recognized it as "a deeper, more powerful evocation of 'family history' than anything done by scholars."
John Lukacs has speculated that the recent "nonfiction novels" of Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, have merely
been flawed instances of history's ongoing metamorphosis. "It is indeed possible,"
Lukacs writes, "that in the future the novel may be entirely absorbed by history." Yet
Lyman Ward's voice, critical, unromantic, cynical of certainty, keeps us
grounded in the present: "Thun of a bith."
A common theme in all of Stegner's work is the beauty of the Western wilderness. Susan Burling Ward started
West for California in 1876. John Muir, who had, around that time, walked in San Joaquin Valley through waist-high wildflowers and into the
Yosemite high country would write: "Then it seemed to me the
Sierra should be called not the Nevada, or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light...the most
divinely beautiful of all the mountain chains I have ever seen." While old-school painters like Bierstadt were
still painting storms over the Western mountain ranges, drunk with the
unbearable light (above), Picasso and the 'modern' were being born in Europe. The Eastern
Establishment was industrializing, harnessing, inventing the 'modern'
America. Robber-baron capitalists were appearing, new hungers were tearing into earth and forest. Muir
drew attention to the devastation of mountain meadows and forests by ranching and mining. This
sense of a beauty that might be lost is always below the surface of Angle of
Repose. In his "Wilderness Letter" of 1960, Stegner wrote:
"Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be
destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic
cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to
extinction; if we pollute the last clean air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved
roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their
country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never
again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the
world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the animals, part of the
natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed
wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our
technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We
need wilderness preserved--as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds--because it was the
challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance
that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set
foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring
briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old
simply because it is there--important, that is, simply as idea."
Our human debris, too, have to know both
our angle of repose against the planet, and its fragility.