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 family."  (Book Jacket)

"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?" 

..."Bone disease."

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 considerate.

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.