Wallace Stegner's uniquely American classic centers on Lyman Ward, a noted historian, who relates a fictionalized biography of his pioneer grandparents at a time when he has become estranged from his own family. Through a combination of research, memory, and exaggeration, Ward voices ideas concerning the relationship between history and the present, art and life, parents and children, husbands and wives. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward's investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.
Lyman Ward is writing a family history. More specifically, it's the story of a marriage between his grandmother (Susan Burling Ward) and grandfather (Oliver Ward) who lived in the American West in the late 1800s. Day after day, Lyman pores over family records, news clippings, and letters, and records his thoughts on cassette tapes. Lyman lives alone, is out of touch with his family, and severely disabled due to a bone disease. He gets around in a wheelchair, and uses only a few rooms of his house. Every evening a neighbor woman stops in to check on Lyman and give him his bath, and they have a nightcap together. The story of Susan and Oliver Ward begins around 1870, when Susan was a budding artist in New York. She moves in artsy social circles, and spends nearly every minute with a very dear friend, Augusta. When Augusta decides to marry Susan sees their relationship beginning to change, and she sets her sights on Oliver, a mining engineer. While they agree to marry, the union is put off for several years while Oliver establishes his career and readies a home for himself and Susan.
When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like my grandmother. So much that was cherished and loved, women like her had to give up; and the more they gave it up, the more they carried it helplessly with them. It was a process like ionization: what was subtracted from one pole was added to the other. (p. 277)
In moving west, Susan sacrificed all she knew and held dear. Accustomed to moving in cultured, literate circles, she initially threw herself into mining camp life with gusto. But she brought her art supplies with her, and continued to draw. Augusta's husband Thomas, now a successful magazine editor, commissioned several pieces and relied on Susan for her interesting portraits of life in the far-off west. Susan also enjoyed evenings by the fire with two of Oliver's colleagues, Frank Sargent and Ian Price. In them she found others who loved literature and stimulating conversation; it fed her soul.
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 .... Hope was always out ahead of fact, possibility obscured the outlines of reality. (p. 382)
Oliver was a successful engineer, rewarded for his hard work through promotions and special projects. He was a bit of a dreamer, envisioning possibilities and developing new materials and methods in his own time. He was usually a bit ahead of the curve, with ideas not quite ready for prime time. And while money was often tight, Oliver refused to allow Susan's earnings to be used to support the family. Oliver and Susan had a family, and moved several times for Oliver's work. Their son Ollie (Lyman's father) was often sent to stay with relatives in New York, because the mining camps were deemed unsuitable.
Through his research, Lyman carefully pieces together the story of Oliver and Susan's marriage, reconstructing the series of events which brought their relationship to the "angle of repose" (the angle at which soil settles after being dumped). Susan loved Oliver and had faith in his abilities, but was often disappointed with the actual results. She wanted so badly for her children to grow up refined and "Eastern," and became increasingly frustrated with their living conditions and the people she encountered day-to-day. Susan and Oliver's fortunes, and their hopes for the future, ebb and flow over the years. As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, he tries to come to terms with his own failed marriage and the rapidly changing world around him.
I absolutely loved this book. The prose captured me instantly, and I became completely wrapped up both in Lyman's California of 1970, and the dusty Victorian mining camps. I identified strongly with Susan: her feelings of isolation, her persistence in keeping her artistic talents fresh, her devotion to her family, her longing for intellectual stimulation. And my heart went out to Lyman, with his own isolation and struggles with a failing body. These characters were so real to me; during the week it took me to read this book, I thought about them all the time. Towards the end, I wanted to prolong the relationship -- instead of rushing to finish, I read the last 50 pages very slowly, setting the book aside to make it last. This will undoubtedly make my "Top 10" list for the year.
Susan is a genteel, Victorian East-coaster, an
As the novel moves back and forth between frontier and Lyman Ward’s present experience, it is revealed that his own life, too, is characterized by distance from family, by failed relationships. Stegner uses the engineering term, angle of repose, in a brilliant extended metaphor which permeates the novel. Lyman says of his grandparents:
“What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.” (IV, 1)
The Angle of Repose is a novel (an experience really) of the sort that comes along very rarely. I cannot say enough about it: brilliant, outstanding, magnificent, resplendent, I could go on. It has found a place on my list of all-time favourites. Highly, highly recommended.
“A trance was on her eyes, she saw up, down, ahead, and to both sides without moving head or eyeballs. Before her, reaching to her feet, was the pocked, silvered dust of the corral, across which the shadow of the opposite fence was drawn like a musical staff. High across the river her window glowed orange; straight ahead, and up, Arrow Rock jutted black beside the moon. All her right hand was a blackness of cliff. Upward the sky opened, a broad strip of silver gilt with the moon burning through it and stars like fading sparks flung down toward the world's rim.” (VII, 7)
Stegner's writing was stuffed with gems of insight on human behavior and emotions, and beautifully detailed descriptions. There are so many impressive passages
I'm convinced by many LTers that Stegner has written much that is great. I can't imagine I would like another story any better. But I will definitely read more of his books in the hope they are as wholly satisfactory as this one.
Lyman Ward is a retired historian. Confined to a wheelchair, he returns to his grandparents' house to read
The story moves fluidly from Susan and Oliver's life in the late nineteenth century to Lyman's life in the present day (the early 1970s). Stegner uses this device to build suspense. Especially near the end of the book, we are learning the secrets of Susan and Oliver along with Lyman. This also allows us to see parallels between the challenges faced by Susan and Oliver and those in Lyman's life. There is a strong sense of place and time in both parts of the story. In the end, this is a story full of big ideas. It is a story of the west - of its invention and reinvention. It is a story of relationships and the difficulty in maintaining them. It is a story of tension - tension between east and west, betwen civilation and exploration, between living fully and surviving.
Because Susan is an artist, Stegner provides many descriptions of her sketches and paintings. I found myself wishing I could see these. Her work is so much a part of her that I felt I couldn't know the character without seeing the art. But about halfway through the book, I realized that Stegner was providing vivid pictures of the west. His medium is words, and he uses them as masterfully as any artist.
Without question, a five-star read.
I enjoyed Stegner’s writing very much. I thought his portrayal of Susan was very convincing. I enjoyed his grandparents’ story a little more than his own just because there was some s*xual dialogue used that I don’t care for. These were few and far between though, and I do plan on reading more from this author.
The novel is set in the early 1970s as a retired academic writes
Concurrently, the author, writing from his wheelchair in the ancestral cottage in California, looks at the process of marriage and life with disappointment both in his grandparents' past and in his own present. Very believable characters and expansive prose serve to transport the reader effectively to a world gone by - some of the descriptive passages of travelling in the old west especially stood out as some of the best I've ever read.
This is the first book of his that I've read and I will definitely read more.
Susan Burling, originally from the Boston area, marries Oliver Ward who takes her west so he can pursue his somewhat speculative career in engineering working for mines and the railroads. The timeframe is the late 19th century and frontier life is difficult. Bad luck and failed business dealings derail Oliver's plans as he plods along, moving his family from place to place. Meanwhile, Susan corresponds with Augusta, her best friend from Boston. Augusta has married well and lives a comfortable life rich in culture. It is the correspondence between Susan and Augusta that Lyman has cataloged in order to write his grandmother's biography. Susan slowly grew unhappy in her marriage. Although she admired and respected Oliver, she fell in love with Frank, her husband's close affiliate. At times she compared her difficult and rugged life in the west with Augusta's privileged lifestyle back east. Tragedy struck sometime in her 40s when Susan's youngest daughter Agnes was found drowned, and when Frank fatally shot himself. Susan was a Victorian and couldn't part with her puritan framework so stuck out the marriage to Oliver to the bitter end.
The definition of "angle of repose" is "the steepest angle at which a sloping surface formed of particular loose material is stable.” Oxford Dictionary. The definition hints at the instability and constant change that was a force in Oliver's engineering occupation in the west. “Angle of repose” also becomes a metaphor for the relationship between Oliver and Susan, as well as a description of the era of the 1970’s, which Lyman believes is responsible for a rift between himself and his son, Rodman.
The book is beautifully written, and I didn't want for it to end.
I exaggerate perhaps, and yet sometimes hyperbole is the best figure of speech to come near the true magnitude of the event, its worth to the singer of an ode, not always an absolute measure, and yet more relevant to the cause.
This was a book about nothing really, an old man with a stump sitting all day in a wheelchair, reading letters and correspondences of and belonging to his grandmother, tracking, plotting, jotting, piecing together her life events, adding a missing piece or two out of his own imagination, creating a biography no one would perhaps read, not even his own son. One cannot probably come up with a duller story, a theme so bankrupt in drama, that it would be a chore to read a 50 pages worth of short story, let alone a full work of 569 pages. Well, apart from the fact that it wasn't...
The story tracks the life of a cultured lady, a lady of art, of creation, travelling across the barren acres of the wild wild west, a life away from what she was accustomed to, away from whoever she held near and dear, away from the accomplishments and accolades she could have gained, the pleasures and experiences she forsook, in her free will, an action which would cause her lifelong misery and bitterness. In the background is the equally shattered life of her grandson, her biographer, in some ways set in his ideas as much as his grandmother, in others, even more so. A moralist of sorts, instinctive to judge, headstrong, unforgiving, disappointed father, heartbroken husband, proud son, prouder grandson.
There are probably a dozen other characters, some short, others shorter and amazingly, they are all fleshed out. The screen time, the page length, not withstanding. We know those characters more intimately than protagonists of tomes. The power of the written word, good writing, excellent writing!
This one was a strong recommendation from my Classics buddy, Mac, and I am so glad, so very glad, that I took up his suggestion, late by over a year, better than never.
In Susan we clearly see the contrasts and clash between the eastern values and standards and the rawness of the west in its developmental time. Susan holds so strongly to eastern values that she is unable to adjust to the realities of western living. She is also a picture of the gentility and mores of Victorian womanhood and this, while seemingly admirable, causes great strains in her life and on her family. She is loyal to her husband, cherishes her children and strives to make her household and family the center of her everyday life. While not giving details to spoil the unfolding of events, it is enough to say a crisis occurs which brings the irreconcilability of her situation to a conclusion.
Should we admire Susan or not? Her standards express the highest levels of culture and learning in our country at the time and her firm adherence to these is to be respected. At the same time, these standards, as the principal basis of her life, do not fit well in the western milieu. Notably, Susan makes great effort to adjust physically to the western environment, but intellectually and emotionally she cannot leave her eastern life. There is a parallel between her and Oliver in that Oliver's failings are somewhat due to being ahead of his time; he cannot bring to closure the engineering innovations the west is not ready for. Susan, as well, frames her existence on cultural standards that don't fit well in her time in the west.
Another prominent theme in the book is Lyman Ward. He is estranged from his family; his children urge him to go a retirement home and his wife has left him in a cruel way. In looking back on the earlier family he remembers with love and reverence he grapples with the distortions of time and personal involvement. Can he be objective as a historian about Susan and Oliver? As their descendent with his own family's failings should he be?
Stegner writes this book in the early 1970's. There is an interesting, often amusing, portrayal of the "modern" culture in its contrast with late 19th century values, especially the "hippiedom" that is described through his relationship with a young caregiver. From our perspective now 40+ years later his cynicism is satisfying.
Finally, there is some notable reactions to the book that have occured in the years after its publication. Susan Ward is based on a real person. Mary Hallock Foote was an illustrator and author whose life is the basis for the fictional character of Susan. Stegner came across letters written by Mary to her eastern friend and uses these to structure the character and story. Stegner received the permission of one of Foote's descendents to use the letters, but promised to change elements in the story so that Foote would not be identifible. He did this, but in ways that, if ascribed to Foote, would be damaging to her memory. Susan's relationship with her friend Augusta has connotations of a homosexual one and her relationship with one of Frank's friends, which is key to the story, was invented. When others in Foote's family saw this depiction they were very unhappy. Also, instead, as he had suggested he would, of using the letters as a prompt for his story line, Stegner quotes verbatium large passages of Foote's letters. I think this controversy is overblown. Fiction is fiction and while Stegner might have been clearer to the family (he did offer them the chance to read the manuscript which they failed to do) the license of a fiction writer is expansive.
This summary does not do full justice to the richness of this book. (The writing is marvelous!) I think it deserves the rank it has been given in American literature.
Wallace Stegner penned Angle of Repose in 1971 for which he won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. The novel - said to be his masterpiece - connects two points in American history…that of the late nineteenth century West with that of the turbulent, sometimes self-indulgent Vietnam era. Stegner creates complex and intriguing characters. Susan Burling (based on the historical figure of Mary Hallock Foote - a nineteenth century writer and illustrator) becomes an unlikely pioneer when she marries the quiet and ambitious dreamer Oliver Ward. Their adventures in mining camps and the vast wilderness of Mexico, Colorado, Idaho, and California create a backdrop of unbelievable beauty and isolation from which their lives unfold.
Angle of Repose is not simply an historical novel. It explores the idea of identity and how the past often intersects the present. When Lyman Ward explores his grandmother’s story, he is really seeking to find understanding in his own life.
Stegner’s prose is alluring, filled with gorgeous descriptions which engage the reader’s senses. His characters are bigger than life, but carry real flaws which allow the reader to identify with them; to nod in understanding; to empathize with their torments and cheer for their successes. I can understand why Angle of Repose is lauded, why it captured the Pulitzer and why readers are quick to recommend it. I found myself completely immersed in the lives of Susan, Oliver and Lyman Ward and I was sad to turn the last page of this sprawling and satisfying novel.
Highly recommended; a must read.
When the book opens, history professor Lyman Ward has returned to his childhood home - his grandparents' house in Grass Valley, California. A bone disease has severely restricted his movement and confined him to a wheelchair, but his mind is still active. He plans to devote his time to reading his grandmother's papers and writing the story of their marriage. Ward's grandmother was Susan Burling Ward, an artist and writer who had followed her mining engineer husband west after their marriage. Susan was a cultured woman, and she didn't intend to spend her whole life in the “wild west”. Once her husband established himself in a career, she believed they would return to the East where she would resume her position among her cultured friends. That didn't happen. Lyman's research among his grandmother's letters, diaries, and papers reveals the hopes and disappointments of his grandparents' marriage and their shared life in the West.
As Lyman tells Susan and Oliver's story, it's easy to forget that, while they're the subject of the book that Lyman is writing, Lyman himself is the central character of this novel. The opening sentence establishes a conflict: “Now I believe they will leave me alone.” Who is they? Lyman's son, Rodman, for one. But who else? What do they want Lyman to do that he doesn't want to do? Lyman sets aside his own conflict to research and write about his grandparents' lives. Lyman is good at avoiding his problems, except when he's forced to by a surprise visit from his son, or by the provocative comments of his assistant, Shelly, a product of the 1960s counterculture. Every now and then Lyman has a thought or makes a connection that inserts itself into his grandparents' story, reminding readers of his presence.
This novel will likely be among my top five reads for the year. It's a book deserving of careful study and multiple readings. I'm already thinking about my next reading of this book, when I'll pay more attention to its structure than the story.
The story is based on the true lives of Mary Hallock Foote and Arthur Dewint Foote, both very successful figures in their own fields of work.
It is really interesting to see how this 19 th century couple is able to maintain their love for each other through so many struggles while those around Lyman Ward cannot stay together.
Although I don't usually like books with a western setting, this is a fascinating exploration of mining and other engineering endeavors, and the difficulty of getting, and keeping, adequate funding to complete projects.
As you read, the characters become very real people. Motivations and actions are completely believable. Stegner uses the now familiar, but then fairly new, conceit of a person writing a history and how that writing effects the historian's own life and character.
I loved this book.
That may not seem like the outline for a feel-good reading experience. Indeed, light and breezy this novel certainly is not. What it is, though, is a tender and compassionate look inside a marriage in which neither party is either fully right or fully wrong, but both are responsible for their consistent unhappiness with one another. Beyond that, celebrated author Wallace Stegner has captured scenes of the American West (and Mexico too) with a lyrical quality that rivals the best of those composed by contemporaries such as Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig, or Norman Maclean. Angle of Repose is also a considerable piece of historical fiction in that the character of Susan Burling Ward is based largely on the life of Mary Hallock Foote, whose prose and drawings captured day-to-day life in the mining camps of 19th-century America. In fact, the similarities between Burling Ward and Foote were so close that Stegner continues to be criticized to this day for copying verbatim the text ofthe latter’s letters to her best friend in New York throughout the novel.
I liked this book, but I am a little surprised that I did not love reading it. Given its reputation as a classic of modern literature, perhaps I was expecting something closer to a timeless, transcendent experience than what I found. While I did admire the scope and depth of the author’s writing, I found two particular storylines to be off-putting. The first involved Susan, who I suspect was supposed to be a sympathetic character but came across as passive-aggressive (even for the time), unsupportive, and, ultimately, unfaithful. Second, almost everything about Lyman’s present-day tale felt terribly dated; set in the late 1960s, the thoughts and attitudes portrayed in that part of the narrative are by now from an era as seemingly distant for most readers as the 1880s. So, while I will happily concede this novel’s lofty status in the literary pantheon, it is not one that I can actually recommend without at least some qualifications.
It was during difficulty adjusting to a move to California that I discovered the book, actually recommended to me by a wonderful librarian.
Heavy subjects yet told with humor (Lyman's unsaid remarks about his son and his caretaker are truly zingers). The last several chapters pull the entire story together as well as any novel I have read. The metaphorical use of the engineering/geological term "angle of repose" throughout the story is brilliant. This was truly deserving of a Pulitzer Prize and one that I would highly recommend to anyone looking for a well written, thoughtful, poignant novel sprinkled with humor.
The introduction to my edition informed me that Stegner used an actual Victorian woman's letters and papers — verbatim in some place — to create his character, which did not endear him to some of the woman's descendants. That was mildly interesting but the story that Stegner tells and the characters he creates are much more fascinating.
There was a point about halfway to two-thirds of the way through this 500-plus-page book that I felt the story dragged a bit, but by the end I was once again fully invested in Stegner's characters. Overall, I probably enjoyed reading Stegner's [Crossing to Safety] just a little bit more, but this one still earns a recommendation from me.
The story weaves between the historian narrator (who is old & infirm) & the grandparents - who we see as young, adventurous newly-weds. This could be a love story, but life in the newly-settled territories was harsh & demanding. Mis-understandings arise & the ultimate tragedy drives them apart. Still, they are unable to let each other go. The historian ponders their silent history as his own world of once solid, reliable academia is rocked by the hippie rebelion at his Berkely CA campus. Yet he struggles to understand the world around him & tries not to repeat his grandfather's choice of closing his mind to any possibility that his choice might not be the only one.
The one problem I had reading this book was the back & forth between 1890 & the (then) turbulent 1960's. Seen from a distance of 40 years later, I don't think the "Hippie revolt" had the significance that Stegner gives to it. The story of the pioneer couple was certainly strong enough to stand on its own. Incidently, Stegner modeled the story of his female character on the life of a real artist who had published an account of her life in the "wild west." Stegner was accused of plagiarism, but he did not plariaize. The words he used were all his own.
ANGLE OF REPOSE was awarded a pulitzer prize for fiction.
With her talent for drawing, and his practical, idealistic plans for engineering projects, Susan and her husband Oliver seemed destined to leave their mark on civilization, setting out into the American West in the second half of the 19th century. These sections of the novel are often brilliant, containing icy-fresh prose and damnably fine evocations of terrain, weather, landscape and sky. But when the author reverts to Lyman's story, which is as grotesque as his mutilated calcified body, I simply could not care about, nor could I see the point of his torment, in the context of the novel. Ostensibly, there were to be connections made between his situation and his grandparents' life. He had known and loved both Susan and Oliver Ward, and he set out to understand something about their blighted marriage that he apparently hoped might help him deal with his own. As far as I could see, that didn't happen, while his story added nothing to theirs, which began to feel repetitious as one scheme after another came to nothing, and the elder Wards drifted apart. Although her writing and drawing were often the family's primary source of support, neither Susan nor her husband seemed to hold them in any particular regard. The respect and admiration Susan once felt for Oliver's single-minded pursuit of a dream dwindled with his prospects. As Oliver's latest venture failed yet again, necessitating yet another long separation from Susan and their children, not even Stegner's mastery of the language and talent for description of the grandeur of the American western landscape could make me want any more of it. And I grew impatient with Susan's interminable letters to her beloved friend back home, parts of which are apparently not Stegner's invention, but actual excerpts from correspondence written by the woman who was his model for Susan, Mary Hallock Foote. Frequently, Lyman Ward inserts himself into the narrative, telling us what he knows, and what he only imagines; where he got certain details, and which ones he has had to "fill in" when the source material is silent. I was overcome with irritation at what I call "TMA" (too much author). The distinction between fact and fiction, narrator and author became blurry. I'm not a fan of the modern frame for the historical story, as I have seldom seen it done without finding it contrived. Finally, I found the modern ending awkward, painful and bewildering, while the conclusion of Susan's story was abrupt and unsatisfying. It pains me to be so negative about [Angle of Repose], which I have anticipated reading for several years. Unlike many other lauded works of fiction that just didn't work for me, I don't even feel inclined to give this one another chance some day.
The novel starts out strongly, as Lyman's grandmother, Susan, meets Oliver Ward, is wooed and won, and follows him from one desolate mining camp to another. Their early lives together are marked by dashed hopes and failed ambitions, and Susan Ward is not always easy to like. But we are slowly drawn to care about her and what happens to her.
Where the book failed fro me is at the climax (I won't reveal too many details, so as not to spoil it). We have been privy to Susan's innermost thoughts and feelings for so long, yet when we come to the turning point of her life, Stegner suddenly pulls back. We aren't allowed to witness the pivotal scene, only to view its aftermath, and that from a distance. I'm sure this was a deliberate choice on Stegner's part, reflecting Lyman's refusal to face head-on his grandparents' largest flaws, but I don't think it works for the reader -- at least, not for this reader. It is frustratingly dissatisfying to invest all this time in a story (and it is a long book) and not be allowed to take part in the climax. The sequence where Lyman wrestles his own inner demons I found just bizarre, jarring me out of the story altogether. I can appreciate what Stegner was trying to do, but I still put the book down feeling somewhat let down by the ending.