Angle of Repose (Contemporary American Fiction)

by Wallace Stegner

Paperback, 1992

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Publication

Penguin Books (1992), 569 pages

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member lauralkeet
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. (p. 211)

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member lit_chick
Lyman Ward, a recently divorced university professor, wheelchair-bound by a debilitating bone disease, has retired to the California home of his paternal grandparents, where he is researching the life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward.

Susan is a genteel, Victorian East-coaster, an accomplished artist and writer, and part of New York’s literary elite when she meets Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. Much to the dismay of her friends, she marries him and moves west – her Victorian gentility transplanted to late 1800s frontier. Their peripatetic existence is marred by failure and disappointment, one after the next, as Oliver’s innovative engineering projects seem rarely to come to fruition. The two of them, now with their three children, pick up and move – and move again. Susan, continuing to write and sketch, easily secures steady commissions from the East. But she never wholly submits to her chosen life – holding her superior self, so she deems, always at arm’s length from both West and Westerners. When tragedy besets the family, the irreconcilability of her situation can no longer be dismissed: “I have held myself above my chosen life, with results that I must repent and grieve for the rest of my days. I have not been loyal.” (VIII, 7)

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.

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The prose:
“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)
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
This was a book that swept me away! Nothing else around me existed while I was reading this. It will no doubt be in my top 10 this year.

Stegner's writing was stuffed with gems of insight on human behavior and emotions, and beautifully detailed descriptions. There are so many impressive passages that stick with me - unforgettable, disturbing, thoughtful. Stegner imposes a realistic sense of the great distance geographically and culturally between the East and West as the country expanded, and presents a kaleidoscope of conflicting lifestyles, values and morals. Strong (many times downright hard) character and cooperation in building a civilized frontier, sacrifices, tragedy, life-changing decisions, betrayal, struggles of marriage, forgiveness - it's all there.

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.
Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member porch_reader
I know that my review won't do this book justice. So, suffice it to say that if you haven't read this book, you should. It's is definitely among my favorite books of the past few years.

Lyman Ward is a retired historian. Confined to a wheelchair, he returns to his grandparents' house to read through old papers and write their story. And what a story it is. Oliver Ward is a quintessential westerner, an engineer who works in mining and builds canals. His wife Susan never quite feels comfortable in the west. She is an artist and a writer who places a high value on civility and culture. But it is through her eyes, the eyes of an artist, that the west comes alive in this book.

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.
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LibraryThing member Polaris-
Quite a memorable read, although it did feel like a bit of a slog where it lagged in some of the middle chapters. Stegner's writing is sumptuous and full of beautiful lyrical description of setting and a real sense of a place in time.

The novel is set in the early 1970s as a retired academic writes the story of his grandparents' marriage through a series of discovered letters, artefacts and clippings. The family story begins in the 1870s and spans a period of roughly 15 years as the saga is told. A talented and artistic young women begins her life with an ambitious and somewhat stoic engineer who plans to help pioneer in the American west. Via California, Colorado, Mexico, Idaho and later back to California the story weaves between episodes of hope and despair as one fate befalls another.

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.
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LibraryThing member 1morechapter
Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. It is a story about family, marriage, and even American history. Susan Burling Ward, an artist from the East, goes West with her Western mining engineer husband to “begin a new civilization”. Their struggles with each other, with outsiders, and the land itself are chronicled by Lyman Ward, their grandson who is a retired history professor. As Lyman ends their story, he realizes certain parallel struggles in his own story and wonders how he will overcome them.

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.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was... I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were—inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones...plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member PiyushC
Dare I say it, dare I rate it, with a month still left in the year, as my read of the year? There have been few contenders this year, and I have generally refrained from making absolute statements like these, I have tried to take the easier way out these last two years, by rating my Top 5 reads of the year rather than an absolute 1 or 3. I will take my chances, I will bear the consequences, the shame of editions in my thread, my blog, my review, and declare this one to be the winner, an absolute read, a work of perfection.

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.
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LibraryThing member writestuff
Lyman Ward, a retired history professor and writer, returns to his grandparent’s home in Grass Valley, California - wheelchair bound and facing a progressive, crippling bone disease. His intent is to research his grandmother’s life through the news clippings and letters of her past. To write her story, Ward must fill in gaps, imagine conversations, and uncover the truths which lie hidden in Susan Burling Ward’s history. During this one hot, dry summer in a quest to know his grandmother, he will discover the meaning beneath the shadows of his own life.

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.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
This novel touches on several historical and contemporary issues. Sexism, the role of women, marriage, dependency, family relationships are all examined through the family research of Lyman Ward, a disabled divorced professor. Marriage whether in the 1880's or the 1980's can be very complicated. Add adversity to the mix and it can become almost impossible whether one stays in the marriage or leaves it. As Susan writes to her friend back east: "We pretend that by not speaking of them [problems] we have made them not exist. Yet, it is not the marriage I dreamed of, or the marriage it was. It is a bruised and careful truce; we walk in bandages and try not to bump our wounds."

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.
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LibraryThing member keely_chace
This was somewhat slow reading for me but still quite good. I enjoyed the way Stegner wove his two stories together--that of the aging, disabled historian researching his grandmother's life and that of the grandmother herself, an artist reluctantly pioneering in the Western U.S. in the late 19th century. I also liked Stegner's plot structuring, in which we find out early on that something in the grandmother's life goes very sour, but it takes the entire novel to work up to exactly what that something was. Didn't care much for the ending of the book, though. Kinda' bizarre. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.… (more)
LibraryThing member browner56
Lyman Ward, the 58 year-old former history professor who narrates Angle of Repose, is writing a biography of his paternal grandparents, Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward. Crippled and abandoned by his own wife, Lyman has returned to the ranch where he grew up in northern California to sift through the letters and documents left by his grandparents in an effort to reconcile some things he does not understand about their marriage. Along the way, he discovers that Susan and Oliver had something less than a perfect union: She reluctantly followed him all over the western United States in the late 1800s for his career and never really forgave him for his professional failures or for becoming estranged from her best friends in East Coast society. Although her work as a writer and illustrator provided the only steady income they have, when tragedy strikes the family about 15 years into their marriage, Susan is to blame and she spends the next several decades serving out her emotional penance.

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.
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LibraryThing member MichaelMenche
“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed,” Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter,” the reading of which is even more worthwhile than a hike in the woods. Intended as support for governmental land preservation, this 1960 epistle was earnest, passionate and eloquent enough to be recycled as a profession of faith by The Wilderness Society and The Sierra Club—as well as by parks in Africa, Canada and Australia—to this day.

A novelist and historian, Stegner (of whom the centathlete, as an Easterner who lives where citylight washes out the stars, was completely ignorant) addressed the profoundly revitalizing benefits of the Great Outdoors to an American’s spirit and character, and his closeness to nature growing up “on the empty plains of Saskatchewan and Montana and in the mountains of Utah.” He also suggested that modern man needs escape, even if temporary, from the “technological termite-life” that breeds insanity and malignance, conditions that have festered, in his opinion, for decades:

“It seems to me significant that the distinct downturn in our literature from hope to bitterness took place almost at the precise time when the frontier officially came to an end, in 1890, and when the American way of life had begun to turn strongly urban and industrial. The more urban it has become, and the more frantic with technological change, the sicker and more embittered our literature, and I believe our people, have become.”

The “official” closing Stegner noted was popularized by Frederick Jackson Turner in his 1893 paper, The Frontier in American History. Turner cited a brief statement about the frontier in the U.S. Census of 1890; he expounded on the “perennial rebirth” and the “fluidity of American life” as a result of ongoing expansion into the West, and he argued that “with [the frontier’s] going has closed the first period of American history.” This thesis has been canonized and, more recently, disparaged by contemporary scholars—in any case the centathlete recalls that rudimentary recognition of Turner and his argument was required in multiple-choice questions on high school history exams.

Stegner’s concurrence with the thrust of Turner’s argument is evident in his 1971 novel, Angle of Repose, which presents a contemporary retired historian relating the life of his grandparents in various far-flung locations out west in the 1870’s and 1880’s. Significantly, the base story concludes in 1890, suggesting that the grandparents’ “frontier days” are over and going forward they must come to terms with a circumscribed, negotiated life together. Look out for “1890” in future retrospectives.

The novel’s heroine, Susan Burling Ward, is an artist and writer who leaves genteel society and cherished personal ties in New York’s Hudson Valley to live with her itinerant engineer husband. She is a Quaker, as reinforced by her usage of “thee” (a Quaker form of address meant to express belief in the equality of all people), which evokes another community that scratched out a life on a harsh frontier of sorts.

Several years go the centathlete traveled to Costa Rica and visited Monteverde, home to a cloud forest, essentially a rainforest (a jungle that receives more than 80” of annual rainfall) at altitude. This reserve was created largely out of land owned by 12 Quaker families from Alabama who had moved there in 1951 in protest of the U.S. military draft.

The resettled Quakers, many of whom still reside in Monteverde, were acting as custodians of the natural environment long before ecotourism was cool (there were at most 60 visitors per year during the 1950’s; there are now more than 50,000 per year).

During one hike through an incredibly lush jungle, the guide explained that ranchers had cleared the entire area, which was then purchased by conservationists who let it alone to grow back quickly in all its diversity. The key to such rebirth is that it must take place within 10 years; even the fertile Costa Rican soil demands a statute of limitations. During an unguided walk a late-morning downpour prompted the howling of unseen monkeys in the treetops. The moment testified to a human’s status as just one minor player in an ancient, uncontrolled drama.

Wallace Stegner was not a Quaker like the Costa Rican conservationists, his heroine Susan Ward, and his fellow historical novelist James Michener (two years older than Stegner), who comes to mind while reading Angle of Repose in light of the family-typifying-an-era formula, geographical and occupational detail, and mixing of fictional characters with actual people. One panner called the novel “a dandified Michener,” a brusque put-down the centathlete considers a hearty recommendation.

Susan Ward and her Eastern friends mingle with impressively accomplished and named personages such as John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and William Dean Howells. One specimen of the narrative’s name-dropping (we might think of it as a “buffalo chip,” in honor of the prairies traversed by the Wards) is Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish-American sculptor whose work included the monument to General Sherman by the southeastern entrance of New York’s Central Park.

The centathlete lives on the same city block as the Augustus Saint-Gaudens Playground, advertised as displaying “bronze and porcelain decorations that harmonize with the new gates, garden area, and play equipment.” This landmark is an ostensible tribute to the Gilded Age artist, but the decorations are few and unremarkable, and any hint of harmonious commemoration is overwhelmed daily by screaming, scrambling toddlers and urchins—Bah, humbug!

Like the Costa Rican Quakers, Wallace Stegner voiced pacifist and egalitarian policies. He opposed the Vietnam War from the beginning and he wrote about unfair discrimination against African-Americans and other minorities. His public status was due not just to his books—he was the head of Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program, which he founded in 1946.

One student, Ken Kesey, who wrote One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest while at Stanford, said, “I always compared Stegner to Vince Lombardi—he put together not only a good team but a good team of supporting coaches.”

Another, Nancy Packer, observed that Stegner was “courteous, attentive and forbearing” with students, and extremely disciplined in his own work, balancing writing and teaching equally for 25 years at Stanford.

Stegner was uncomfortable with aspects of the counterculture that arose in the Bay Area during the late 1960’s; he dramatized his disdain for history-renouncing radicalism in Angle of Repose through the repartee between the curmudgeonly narrator, Lyman Ward, and the bra-less hippie, Shelly Rasmussen. In 1971 he retired to devote himself to writing, as his wife, Mary Page Stegner, reported:

“Wally didn’t like the way students were trashing the campus, and he didn’t like the fact that they didn’t come to class. He decided he didn’t have to teach, and he said there was no point in teaching when people weren’t coming to class.”

Discipline and endurance, characteristics that Stegner valued and practiced, are evident throughout Angle of Repose. The novel is experienced as a series of arduous slogs enriched by meticulous appreciation of the rugged environments and respect for the enormity of the mining and irrigation projects. Dynamic plot developments, epiphanies and coincidental encounters are scarce and downplayed, in keeping with the upholding of the continuous dedication and resourcefulness that actual pioneers demonstrated.

Then there is the dream sequence in the final chapter, a coda that diverges from the sustained, measured tempo and guarded perspectives of the prior narrative by presenting concentrated, charged intimacies. This coda wraps up the interaction between the past and the present, offering hope for a livable future to be earned.

Stegner was described as “honest and straightforward” and engaged in “debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback.” The man himself said, “The West does not need to explore its myths much further; it has already relied on them too long.”

Had he been present at certain TV-studio meetings in the mid-1960’s, Stegner would likely have scoffed at one producer’s sales pitch for a new show, promoted as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A popular network melodrama from 1957-1965, Wagon Train was precisely the type of hokey, inaccurate fiction that Stegner sought to dispel.

After Star Trek was greenlighted, its producer-writer Gene Roddenberry drew on a government document (recalling Turner’s reliance on the U.S. Census Report) to craft his famous introduction for each installment. We can imagine the degrees of skepticism, caution and acceptance with which Wallace Stegner would have greeted the first line of Captain James T. Kirk’s monologue, “Space, the final frontier.”
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LibraryThing member jennjack
At a large gathering at an independent bookstore, we were asked to wear a tag with the name of our favorite book, instead of a name tag. I saw many, many people with "Angle of Repose" on their lapels. It is a family history, a saga of the westward migration and its hardships, and a moving personal story. I highly recommend it.… (more)
LibraryThing member hellemic
A richly told fictional history of one man's own life and that of his grandparents, with stories of hardships, dreams, and familial concerns crossing and paralleling. Includes fascinating details of California history. Beautifully written.
LibraryThing member MarianV
Angle of repose is a term used by geologists to determine the place where an object, perhaps after much traveling, has finally come to rest. Wallace Stegner uses this term as the title of his novel about the settling of the American North-West in the 1890's. The story begins with a retired historian researching the lives of his grandparents who moved from the comforts of the East coast to the wild plains of Montana. His grandfather was a surveyor & engineer. His grandmother was an artist who had already attracted notice from critics when she left her place in society to join her husband in what she believed to be a great adventure.
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.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
While reading this story it becomes clear why this book won the Pulitzer prize for Wallace Stegner. The prose is so well done, the emotions of the characters are very true, the scenery is vivid and the economic times and hardships are well described. The narrator, Lyman Ward in the present day (1970s), is writing a biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a genteel, sophisticated well educated woman from New York State who married Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. We follow Professor Ward's struggle with his physical disabilities and his hired help as he uncovers the story and struggles of Susan and Oliver. They love each other very much and she follows him west to mining towns in all kinds of climates. Many of the mines and irrigation projects are failures because they are barren or the financial backers run out of cash. Through all this, she supports the family with her drawings and her stories which are published back east. They raise three children in difficult circumstances and Susan tries to overcome her disappointment in another failure. Oliver is a very clever but stubborn man and continues to search for viable work. Tragedy strikes the family and they grow further apart but eventually are able to reconcile a life together. They both live to very old age.
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.
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LibraryThing member Oregonreader
Stegner has to number among America's best writers. He has an understanding of the west and an ability to describe the land and life there that is unsurpassed. In this book, he weaves two stories, one taking place in the 19th century and one in modern times. In 1868, Susan Burling leaves New York and follows her mining engineer husband out to South Dakota and Wyoming. The story details her slow acceptance and appreciation of life there. Her story is related by her grandson, Lyman Ward, as he struggles to accept his old age and physical infirmity. The earlier story is the stronger one, maybe because the characters are more interesting and distinct. A wonderful read.… (more)
LibraryThing member pstock
Angle of Repose became the best friend I didn't know I needed and was my introduction to Stegner's work.

It was during difficulty adjusting to a move to California that I discovered the book, actually recommended to me by a wonderful librarian.
LibraryThing member sturlington
Stegner won the Pulitzer Prize for this novel, which depicts the taming of the American West through the life of one family. The structure he chose is an unusual one. Instead of presenting a straightforward historical narrative, he tells the story from the point of view of Lyman Ward, a historian living in the early 1970s, who is researching and writing about the lives of his grandparents in the frontier West. Lyman suffers from a debilitating bone cancer and is confined to a wheelchair. The only life left to him is the one he lives vicariously through his grandmother's eyes, as he follows her early life as the wife of a mining engineer and a well-known artist and writer in her own right. As her story unfolds, Lyman's own past and the issues he grapples with are slowly revealed.

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.
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LibraryThing member MrsLee
I feel in no way capable of reviewing a work like this; happily many have gone before and written excellent reviews, so I don't have to. Here are my thoughts on reading it. I loved it. Not because it made me feel warm and fuzzy and comfortable; not because it made me laugh or appealed to my sense of justice. It did none of those things. It was a difficult story full of difficult people. But they were real. The struggles were real. The places and times were real. It was a book about learning to cope and be content with what is, even when life has handed you a plateful of disappointment.

Now I've said all that and not a word about the prose. Stegner is a joy to read, plain and simple. There are not many authors who could engage me in such a difficult struggle for so long, but he is one of them. I loved this book.
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LibraryThing member kellifrobinson
This quiet book hit home for me on multiple levels and I enjoyed this read very much. The format is a story within a story - one set in the present of the 1970s and the other set in the late 1880s - and the narrator, a retired and disabled Berkley professor, is struggling to write a history of his grandparent's lives while simultaneously reflecting on his own lot in life. As a budding genealogist with a secret wish to capture my own family's history on paper, I was drawn to the historical nature of the story as well as the narrator's mission. The book also spoke to me on an emotional level and I enjoyed the study of relationships, and especially the power play between the narrator's grandparents. The balance between his grandmother's career and preconceived notions of what her marriage and husband "should be" and their impact on her husband and children felt very contemporary. Although I have questioned the award of the Pulitzer Prize in the past, this time the accolades are justified.… (more)
LibraryThing member littlegeek
Fascinating account of settling the West in the 19th century, as well as a contemporary frame story. Well, if the early 70's are still contemporary. Some wonderfully complex characters. Ruminations on marriage, loyalty, potential, disappointment. Well worth the Pulitzer.
LibraryThing member tjsjohanna
Mr. Stegner puts a close up view on marriage - the marriage of two people who bring different ideals of life, of what is worthwhile, of what they think of each other. While other themes swirl around (the settling of the West, the rejection of American ideals by the 60's generation, among others) the pressure on Susan and Oliver from their own unrealized dreams and their disappointment in each other plays out to the inevitable tragedy. The novel asks - what price forgiveness? where do pride and self-worth fit in with mercy? what can we truly expect from each other and what do we do when we find ourselves let down? So many things to think about - I loved Mr. Stegner's observations on what happens when we try to push each other to change (and reminds me of his novel, "Crossing to Safety") as well as his thoughts on the importance of faith in a marriage. A great book.… (more)
LibraryThing member rosalita
Historian Lyman Ward, 58 years old and suffering from a crippling bone disease that is slowly immobilizing his entire body, retreats to a remote mountain cottage in California to write a biography of his grandmother, a woman who made a name for herself in the late 19th century as an artist and a writer, and as the genteel wife of a rough-and-tumble mining engineer. Really, Ward's book is a portrait of a marriage, and the ways that these two wildly mismatched people come together and ultimately fall apart. Much of the book is told through lengthy quotations from his grandmother's letters and private papers, and even as Lyman tries to bury his hopeless present and future in an attempt to understand his family's past, he is forced to draw parallels between the lives of his grandparents and his own circumstances.

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.
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Pages

569

ISBN

0140169300
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