I’ve been thinking about how to write fictionally about real events, people, and history. A fellow writer suggested I read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. I did, and I love this book.
Angle of Repose follows Susan Burling Ward during the 19th century, but the essence is the evolving consciousness of Susan’s grandson and the novel’s narrator, Lyman Ward. Lyman is a retired amputee historian with a bone disease who becomes consumed with piecing together his grandmother’s life while bitterly protecting his lonely independence. Stegner winds multiple plot lines spanning centuries, using them to illuminate each other. The novel is a meditation on marriage (what it takes, and what it takes out of you), time, the pioneer American West, home, and nature.
Angle of Repose was famously not reviewed by the New York Times, fomenting West Coast resentment against the East Coast Establishment’s obvious bias. (After the novel won the Pulitzer in 1972, it was mentioned by the New York Times, but they managed to get Wallace’s name wrong, calling him William.)
Then there’s the controversy about Stegner’s use of Mary Hallock Foote, an author and illustrator best known for portraying the mining communities of the turn of the century American West. Writers often use real life narratives and personages to build fiction. Richard Yates famously wrote his initial drafts using the real life names that inspired his characters, only to change the names slightly upon publication. That in-between area cost Yates relationships but was integral to his fiction. Stegner drew from real characters, echoing their real worlds, although none so completely as Foote’s in Angle of Repose. “I quite honestly don’t quite know where fiction ends and nonfiction begins,” Stegner wrote in 1956, “in my own stories or anyone else’s.”
Stegner, with the permission of Foote’s granddaughter, used Foote’s life and letters to propel his novel. Approximately 10% of the novel is taken from Foote’s letters (a total of about 66 pages in a book of 555 pages), resulting in accusations of plagiarism.
Perhaps there wouldn’t have been a problem had Stegner not created such a thought-provoking and multi-dimensional female character. Stegner writes, “The novel got very complex before it was done. It gave me trouble: I had too many papers, recorded reality tied my hands. But a blessed thing happened. In the course of trying to make fiction of a historical personage, I discovered, or half created, a living woman in Victorian dress. I forced her into situations untrue to her life history but not, I think, untrue to the human probabilities that do not depend on time or custom. In the end I had to elect to be true to the woman rather than to the historical personage.”
How can we, as writers, best utilize our resources? What choices can we make to pay adequate tribute? What techniques have other writers used? What are our responsibilities? How can we best tell our stories while valuing integrity? What would a writer be without his or her borrowings? These are complex questions, and I don’t know all the answers, but in my opinion, Stegner created a work of art. It’s crazy and impossible to control the meanings taken from historical figures and real life events. Stegner’s characterizations, his vivid descriptions, and the quoted letters are integral to the deep realism and beauty of Angle of Repose.