Angle of Repose

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The Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

Angle of ReposeWhen asked about his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Wallace Stegner said, "It's perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that's my story."  Winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it can be seen as America's story too.  Fictional historian Lyman Ward writes a book that is based on the correspondence of the factual little-known writer, Mary Hallock Foote.

The book's heroes represent opposing but equally strong strains of the American ideal.  Lyman has lost his connection with his son and decides to deal with his grief by writing about his frontier ancestors.  Stegner's heavy use of Foote's letters in a fictional piece has often been criticized.

Within the books disappointments and misfortune Stegner lays bare the myth of America's west as a land of golden opportunity and cowboys. Lyman Ward is a divorced amputee with a debilitating disease that is slowly petrifying him. A retired history professor, in the early 1970s he is dictating the book, the biography of his grandmother Susan Burling Ward, to tape. Fiercely independent, he lives alone in the house where Susan Ward died and in which he spent time as a child. As he dictates, he is fighting off intrusions into his life by his son and other well-meaning people who are concerned, due to his ability level, by his being alone.

Mary FooteIn her youth, Susan Burling (the character based on Mary Hallock Foote) was a promising writer and artist connected with some of the leading lights in New York culture. When she and Oliver Ward met and fell in love, she left the promise of New York to follow him, expecting to return. The contrast between her life in the American west of the second half of the 19th century to that of her best friend in New York is a constant thread through the novel. Lyman depicts her as disappointed with her family's position in life, but a strong character able to adjust to the circumstances.

CowboysLyman's perspective enables us to draw parallels from her life to our own lives, between her century and ours.  Even though the 'angle of repose' is a term that refers to a resting point, Stegner's novel, if nothing else helps us recognize that America is in constant flux. We are engaged in a battle between east and west, young and old, myth and reality.  We see in the life of Susan Burling that sometimes, even in America, instead of reaching your dreams one has to settle for less.