January’s Book Discussion: Angle of Repose

Have you read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner? Today, as part of a lifetime pursuit of literature, I invite you to share your thoughts on the novel, which won the Pulitzer Prixe in 1972. Read my thoughts and share your own in the comments below or leave a link to your own post about the book.  Next Month’s Discussion is The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand on the last Tuesday of the month, February 24.

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 parties clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until the angle of repose where I knew them. . . That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.

That’s the search that Lyman Ward, a retired historian, embarks on when he spends a summer living, researching and writing from his grandparent’s final home. I say final because they moved from place to place in the West in a day when packing up and moving wasn’t as easy as it is now. Hence, the term, angle of repose, is not only a fitting reminder of the engineering and mining adventures that Oliver pursued but also the metaphorical resting place where Susan longed to establish her home and family. Ironically, while it was Oliver’s job’s who took them over rugged country, Susan’s dissatisfaction with any circumstances that didn’t meet her expectations kept her forever looking for an unattainable ideal. It’s no wonder that their grandson asks, “What made that union of opposites hold them?”

Susan is an artist who writes and draws her life instead of living it. While I admire her sense of perspective, I can see how it keeps her from appreciating the ideal unfolding within the reality.  I, like her grandson, began to resent her blindness to her own husband’s strengths. In one scene, he leads them to safety in a harrowing climb in the mountains of Colorado, but instead of acknowledging his lead, she begrudges it. Throughout the book, she compares him to other men, embarrassed at the grace or tact or communication he lacks. Thus, the first example foreshadows an unfortunate truth—how Susan sees Oliver is how she treats him and who he will become in her artist’s eye.

Sometimes I have a difficult time training my eye to see my children and appreciate who they are now. When have you missed the strong qualities that already exist in a spouse, friend or child in an effort to “help them”  achieve a greater potential?

I don’t begrudge her the desire for a home, just her dissatisfaction in her husband in providing her ideal.  Her desires are expected; she longed for permanent roots and a large family of loved ones surrounding her. I love my own home and the refuge it provides, and we’ve expended a lot of energy to build such a place. Yet, I also see that Susan’s desire was even stronger than my own, given that she lived in a time when it was really uncommon for people to move around. I like the way Stegner compares her longing to ours:

I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place, so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to? . . . We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.

Even with a great sense of my own home, I sometimes wish to move on. Do you believe we have a shallow sense of place?

Despite also living in this generation, Stegner writes as if he knows many places and many perspectives. As a would-be writer I envy his language, especially his ability to write the woman’s perspective with femininity:

She got up and went to the window. . . A girl with a wide flat basket of flowers on her head crossed the street, herself a flower, a nodding sunflower on a graceful stem, and stopped, swaying and top heavy, while a customer selected a blossom from her tray.

I may be like Susan in seeing how men are opposite of women, not the same. Stegner, in the voice of the main character identifies that this may be a mistake that  many women make of men. He says:

Like my grandfather, he was not a man of words, and it is an easy mistake to think that non-talkers are non-feelers. Grandmother herself may have made that mistake. . . It was his capacity for feeling that she should have attended to: by failing to comprehend it, she probably contributed to his silence.

I’ve made that mistake, have you?

The lessons of this story reverberate through generations, for good and bad. Most tragically, I see how Susan never realized how the West painted a life for her that she could never have imagined herself. Her old friend and publisher, Thomas, saw it:

“How art thou remarkable? Let me count the ways. Hmm? She’s been out in the unhistoried vacuum of the West for nearly five years, as far from any cultivated center as possible. What does she do? She histories it, she arts it, she illuminates its rough society. With a house to keep and a child to rear, she does more and better work than most of us could do with all our time free. She has been over Mosquito Pass in a buckboard and across Mexico by stage coach and saddle horse, she has been down mines and among bandits, places where no lady ever was before, and been absolutely unspoiled by it. There isn’t a roughened hair on her head. . . Nobody made you but yourself. I also suspect the hand of God—no other hand could be quite that sure of itself.

Why is is so hard to see who we’ve become and not the missed opportunities?

I’ve relearned in this story, a lesson I’m learning every day: The shape of our life portrait is hardly ever drawn from the paints we think we’re choosing, but as we embrace those materials,  our picture of ourselves and others becomes more beautiful than the one we intended to create.

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4 Comments

  1. Michelle at Scribbit
    Jan 27, 2009

    I think also that “angle of repose” means that point at which two opposing forces–whether geological forces or forces of personality such as Susan and Oliver–come to equilibrium. I read this when I was first married and it fit into the context of my husband’s family. His parents had been married for nearly 20 years when his mother filed for divorce. In many ways my in laws were similar to the main characters in this book but because they lived at a time when divorce was an easy option they took that path instead of toughing it out through the difficult times to reach that point of equilibrium which Susan and Oliver eventually attain. Too many couples spend their time struggling against each other and too many give up rather than pushing through to eventual contentment (not necessarily wedded bliss but a general contentment). I watch my in laws now and not only have they lost their children but they’ve lost the chance to settle into those golden years with someone. Of course that’s only a tragedy if you value the family unit which unfortunately isn’t always the case nowadays.

  2. TJ
    Jan 27, 2009

    Michelle,
    Thank you for you thoughtful reply and the recommendation to read it. It took longer than expected, but I’m glad I did. There is a lot to ponder and a lot of applications. I like how you define it as finding that place where they come to an equilibrium. The parallel to your husband’s parents, like the comparisons that Lyman Ward makes to his own marriage show examples of what this really means in practice when we don’t work through a relationship to that point.

  3. Stephen Trimble
    Jan 27, 2009

    How appropriate that you have chosen to discuss Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” this month. The centennial of his birth is February 18th, and here in Salt Lake City–where Stegner grew up and attended college–we are celebrating with events and classes–and a wonderful symposium on his work on March 6/7 at the Stegner Center at the University of Utah law school.

    I’ve been co-teaching a class on “Wallace Stegner and Western Lands” at the University of Utah this year. Our students read “Angle of Repose,” and did not fall in love with the book. I think the Victorian sensibilities of Susan Ward are a stretch for 21st Century young people. They found Lyman an off-putting grump. And these are academic stars–the best of the Honors College!

    My students also were taken aback by the accusations of plagiarism that dogged Stegner about the book. He based Susan on the real life of Mary Hallock Foote. Stegner simply saw Foote’s letters, novels, and memoirs as “raw material.” From those foundations, he constructed this great novel with skill and compassion–but he nevertheless included much of Foote’s writing verbatim. One scholar estimates that 15 percent of “Angle of Repose” is Foote, not Stegner.

    As a Stegner Fellow at the University of Utah’s Tanner Humanities Center this year, I’m doing my best to stir up a statewide conversation about Stegner’s work. Check out my blog at http://www.stegner100.com to share my journey.

    And let us all raise a glass to our model citizen/writer on February 18th. There is no one to replace him.

  4. Michelle L.
    Jan 29, 2009

    one of my absolute favorite books(though I could do without the nurse scene at the end). Thank you for reviewing it from a “grown-up” perspective. I first read it in my 20s and I need to reread it.

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