Friday, December 2, 2011

Angle of ReposeAngle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A story that starts with a love between two intellectual young American women in the 1850s has me halfway won already. Susan and Augusts are artistic young women in the East and then Thomas comes along to make it an artistic and literary threesome until Thomas proposes to Augusta. Somewhat suddenly Susan resolves to marry Oliver Ward, someone she doesn't know very well, an engineer "in the west." How a genteel Quaker and professional illustrator (of Longfellow & other poets at first) adapts to the crudeness and heartache following her husband from mining sites in such frontier areas as Leadville (CO), Michoacan and Idaho to finally reach an "angle of repose" in Grass Valley (CA) for the last 50 years of her life is the question that is asked by her invalid grandson, who himself is forced into an angle—whether of repose or not is part of the question—an angle of reclined existence at least, strapped in a wheelchair because of a serious bone disease and fighting with his adult son to avoid being placed "in a home."

Stegner writes of the conquest of the west in all its brutality (except for the genocide of the native American nations), its protocapitalist exploitation of the land and the people alike. Susan's husband Oliver fails, or is fired for principle, or is pushed aside in place after place. Three children are born as they trek from place to place, and as her career grows through publication of stories from the west published in major magazines in the east. (She is based on the letters of Mary Hallock Foote.)

The story is fragmented, fractured and refracted through various materials and from different perspectives as contemporary research finds letters, newspaper clippings and obituaries, reads her stories and studies drawings and portraits. It is said that Stegner first became successful as a novelist when he developed the device of telling a story about the American west through a contemporary man with his own eccentricities and personality. The narrator in this story, however, Lyman Ward, retired professor, serves that role, but I found him simply self-important and selfishly judgmental---my reaction representing perhaps a postmodern and feminist insight into the very fifties-like stand-in for the author, similar to the way the "narrators" of Philip Roth, Norman Mailer and John Updike became to many women of the late twentieth-century included in what David Foster Wallace called the "Great Male Narcissists." A little overmuch of that flavor here.

Stegner is known as one of the greatest American writers about "the west," and was notably an environmentalist before that word came into vogue, and an expert biographer of John Wesley Powell, the first explorer and government scientist to begin agitation for the conservation of water in the west. Stegner wrote all of his books in a remarkable "personal literary partnership" with Mary Stuart Page, his wife of 59 years (per Arthur Schlesinger Jr. tribute). He worked on passage of the Wilderness Act, served on the board of the Sierra Club, and helped prevent dams at Dinosaur National Monument in CO. Angle of Repose was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1972.

Although I think it's merely pretty good as literature, as a window into the true story of "how the west was won," and an intellectual woman's struggle to find a place in that conquest, I recommend it. It's an easy read except for the personality of the narrator perhaps.

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