Angle of Repose

( 65 )

Overview

Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions - to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in ...
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Overview

Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions - to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward's investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.

Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel--the magnificent story of four generations in the life of an American family. A wheelchair-bound retired historian embarks on a monumental quest: to come to know his grandparents, now long dead. The unfolding drama of the story of the American West sets the tone for Stegner's masterpiece.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
This long, thoughtful novel about a retired historian who researches and writes about his pioneer grandparents garnered Stegner a Pulitzer Prize. (July)
Booknews
A reprint of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel first published by Doubleday, 1971. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Publishers Weekly
It is at first disconcerting that the narrator sounds half the age of the author's narrator: Lyman Ward is an elderly, severely crippled historian at odds with his wife and children over his ability to live alone and write. But Mark Bramhall's comparative youth is soon forgotten as he leads us into the saga of intertwined generations. His pacing, his characterizations, and his convincing emotional repertoire embed us in this 1971 Pulitzer Prize winner that is in no way dated. Stegner's heroine is Ward's grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, a 19th-century writer and artist living in the rough mining towns of the West with her idealistic engineer husband. Bramhall's Susan is sometimes too girlish, but this, too, is a small matter; overall, he offers us a fine reading of a superb book. A Penguin Classics paperback. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

“Masterful...Reading it is an experience to be treasured.”—Boston Globe

“Brilliant...Two stories, past and present, merge to produce what important fiction must: a sense of the enhancement of life.”—Los Angeles Times

“Cause for celebration...A superb novel with an amplitude of scale and richness of detail altogether uncommon in contemporary fiction.”—The Atlantic Monthly

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780141185477
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Series: Penguin Classics Series
  • Pages: 592
  • Sales rank: 111,191
  • Product dimensions: 5.07 (w) x 7.78 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) was the author of, among other novels, Remembering Laughter, 1937; The Big Rock Candy Mountain, 1943; Joe Hill, 1950; All the Little Live Things, 1967 (Commonwealth Club Gold Medal); A Shooting Star, 1961; Angle of Repose, 1971 (Pulitzer Prize); The Spectator Bird, 1976 (National Book Award, 1977); Recapitulation, 1979; and Crossing to Safety, 1987. His nonfiction includes Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, 1954; Wolf Willow, 1963; The Sound of Mountain Water (essays), 1969; The Uneasy Chair: A Biography of Bernard DeVoto, 1974; and Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs: Living and Writing in the West (1992). Three of his short stories have won O. Henry Prizes, and in 1980 he received the Robert Kirsch Award from the Los Angeles Times for his lifetime literary achievements. His Collected Stories was published in 1990.

Biography

Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa. The son of Scandinavian immigrants, he traveled with his parents and brother all over the West-to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming-before settling in Salt Lake City in 1921. Many of the landscapes he encountered in his peripatetic youth figure largely in his work, as do characters based on his stern father and athletic, outgoing brother. Stegner received most of his education in Utah, graduating from the University in 1930. He furthered his education at the University of Iowa, where he received a master's and a doctoral degree. He married Mary Stuart Page in 1934, and for the next decade the couple followed Wallace's teaching career-to the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and eventually to Stanford University, where he founded the creative writing program, and where he was to remain until his retirement in 1971. A number of his creative writing students have become some of today's most well respected writers, including Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurty.

Throughout his career and after, Stegner's literary output was tremendous. His first novel, Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937. By the time of his death in 1993 he had published some two dozen works of fiction, history, biography, and essays. Among his many literary prizes are the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). His collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

Although his fiction deals with many universal themes, Stegner is primarily recognized as a writer of the American West. Much of his literature deals with debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback, and his passion for the terrain and its inhabitants have earned him the title "The Dean of Western Letters." He was one of the few true Men of Letters in this generation. An historian, essayist, short story writer and novelist, as well as a leading environmental writer. Although always connected in people's minds with the West, he had a long association with New England. Many short stories and one of his most successful novels, Crossing to Safety, are set in Vermont, where he had a summer home for many years. Another novel, The Spectator Bird, takes place in Denmark.

An early environmentalist, he actively championed the region's preservation and was instrumental-with his now-famous 'Wilderness Letter'-in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Honest and straightforward, educated yet unpretentious, cantankerous yet compassionate, Wallace Stegner was an enormous presence in the American literary landscape, a man who wrote and lived with ferocity, energy, and integrity.

Author biography courtesy of Penguin Group (USA).

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    1. Also Known As:
      Wallace Earle Stegner (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      February 18, 1909
    2. Place of Birth:
      Lake Mills, Iowa
    1. Date of Death:
      April 13, 1993
    2. Place of Death:
      Santa Fe, New Mexico

Read an Excerpt


Grass Valley

Now I believe they will leave me alone. Obviously Rodman came up hoping to find evidence of my incompetence--though how an incompetent could have got this place renovated, moved his library up, and got himself transported to it without arousing the suspicion of his watchful children, ought to be a hard one for Rodman to answer. I take some pride in the way I managed all that. And he went away this afternoon without a scrap of what he would call data.

So tonight I can sit here with the tape recorder whirring no more noisily than electrified time, and say into the microphone the place and date of a sort of beginning and a sort of return: Zodiac Cottage, Grass Valley, California, April 12, 1970.

Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn't believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I was. 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, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were--inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial.

Even places, especially this house whose air is thick with the past. My antecedents support me here as the old wistaria at the corner supports the house. Looking at its cables wrapped two or three times around the cottage, you wouldswear, and you could be right, that if they were cut the place would fall down.

Rodman, like most sociologists and most of his generation, was born without the sense of history. To him it is only an aborted social science. The world has changed, Pop, he tells me. The past isn't going to teach us anything about what we've got ahead of us. Maybe it did once, or seemed to. It doesn't any more.

Probably he thinks the blood vessels of my brain are as hardened as my cervical spine. They probably discuss me in bed. Out of his mind, going up there by himself . . . How can we, unless . . . helpless . . . roll his wheelchair off the porch who'd rescue him? Set himself afire lighting a cigar, who'd put him out? . . . Damned old independent mule-headed . . . worse than a baby. Never consider the trouble he makes for the people who have to look after him . . . House I grew up in, he says. Papers, he says, thing I've always wanted to do . . . All of Grandmother's papers, books, reminiscences, pictures, those hundreds of letters that came back from Augusta Hudson's daughter after Augusta died . . . A lot of Grandfather's relics, some of Father's, some of my own . . . Hundred year chronicle of the family. All right, fine. Why not give that stuff to the Historical Society and get a fat tax deduction? He could still work on it. Why box it all up, and himself too, in that old crooked house in the middle of twelve acres of land we could all make a good thing out of if he'd consent to sell? Why go off and play cobwebs like a character in a Southern novel, out where nobody can keep an eye on him?

They keep thinking of my good, in their terms. I don't blame them, I only resist them. Rodman will have to report to Leah that I have rigged the place to fit my needs and am getting along well. I have had Ed shut off the whole upstairs except for my bedroom and bath and this study. Downstairs we use only the kitchen and library and the veranda. Everything tidy and shipshape and orderly. No data.

So I may anticipate regular visits of inspection and solicitude while they wait for me to get a belly full of independence. They will look sharp for signs of senility and increasing pain--will they perhaps even hope for them? Meantime they will walk softly, speak quietly, rattle the oatbag gently, murmuring and moving closer until the arm can slide the rope over the stiff old neck and I can be led away to the old folks' pasture down in Menlo Park where the care is so good and there is so much to keep the inmates busy and happy. If I remain stubborn, the decision may eventually have to be made for me, perhaps by computer. Who could argue with a computer? Rodman will punch all his data onto cards and feed them into his machine and it will tell us all it is time.

I would have them understand that I am not just killing time during my slow petrifaction. I am neither dead nor inert. My head still works. Many things are unclear to me, including myself, and I want to sit and think. Who ever had a better opportunity? What if I can't turn my head? I can look in any direction by turning my wheelchair, and I choose to look back. Rodman to the contrary notwithstanding, that is the only direction we can learn from.

Increasingly, after my amputation and during the long time when I lay around feeling sorry for myself, I came to feel like the contour bird. I wanted to fly around the Sierra foothills backward, just looking. If there was no longer any sense in pretending to be interested in where I was going. I could consult where I've been. And I don't mean the Ellen business. I honestly believe this isn't that personal. The Lyman Ward who married Ellen Hammond and begot Rodman Ward and taught history and wrote certain books and monographs about the Western frontier, and suffered certain personal catastrophes and perhaps deserved them and survives them after a fashion and now sits talking to himself into a microphone--he doesn't matter that much any more. I would like to put him in a frame of reference and comparison. Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don't completely comprehend. I'd like to live in their clothes a while, if only so I don't have to live in my own. Actually, as I look down my nose to where my left leg bends and my right leg stops, I realize that it isn't backward I want to go, but downward. I want to touch once more the ground I have been maimed away from.

In my mind I write letters to the newspapers, saying Dear Editor, As a modern man and a one-legged man, I can tell you that the conditions are similar. We have been cut off, the past has been ended and the family has broken up and the present is adrift in its wheelchair. I had a wife who after twenty-five years of marriage took on the coloration of the 1960s. I have a son who, though we are affectionate with each other, is no more my true son than if he breathed through gills. That is no gap between the generations, that is a gulf. The elements have changed, there are whole new orders of magnitude and kind. This present of 1970 is no more an extension of my grandparents' world, this West is no more a development of the West they helped build, than the sea over Santorin is an extension of that once-island of rock and olives. My wife turns out after a quarter of a century to be someone I never knew, my son starts all fresh from his own premises.



My grandparents had to live their way out of one world and into another, or into several others, making new out of old the way corals live their reef upward. I am on my grandparents' side. I believe in Time, as they did, and in the life chronological rather than in the life existential. We live in time and through it, we build our huts in its ruins, or used to, and we cannot afford all these abandonings.

And so on. The letters fade like conversation. If I spoke to Rodman in those terms, saying that my grandparents' lives seem to me organic and ours what? hydroponic? he would ask in derision what I meant. Define my terms. How do you measure the organic residue of a man or a generation? This is all metaphor. If you can't measure it, it doesn't exist.

Rodman is a great measurer. He is interested in change, all right, but only as a process; and he is interested in values, but only as data. X people believe one way, Y people another, whereas ten years ago Y people believed the first way and X the second. The rate of change is therefore. He never goes back more than ten years.

Like other Berkeley radicals, he is convinced that the post-industrial post-Christian world is worn out, corrupt in its inheritance, helpless to create by evolution the social and political institutions, the forms of personal relations, the conventions, moralities, and systems of ethics (insofar as these are indeed necessary) appropriate to the future. Society being thus paralyzed, it must be pried loose. He, Rodman Ward, culture hero born fully armed from this history-haunted skull, will be happy to provide blueprints, or perhaps ultimatums and manifestoes, that will save us and bring on a life of true freedom. The family too. Marriage and the family as we have known them are becoming extinct. He is by Paul Goodman out of Margaret Mead. He sits in with the sitter-inners, he will reform us malgré our teeth, he will make his omelet and be damned to the broken eggs. Like the Vietnam commander, he will regretfully destroy our village to save it.

The truth about my son is that despite his good nature, his intelligence, his extensive education, and his bulldozer energy, he is as blunt as a kick in the shins. He is peremptory even with a doorbell button. His thumb never inquires whether one is within, and then waits to see. It pushes, and ten seconds later pushes again, and one second after that goes down on the button and stays there. That's the way he summoned me this noon.
I responded slowly, for I guessed who it was: his thumb gave him away. I had been expecting his visit, and fearing it. Also I had been working peacefully and disliked being disturbed.

I love this old studio of Grandmother's. It is full of sun in the mornings, and the casual apparatus and decorations of living, which age so swiftly in America, have here kept a worn, changeless comfortableness not too much violated by the tape recorder and the tubular desk light and other things I have had to add. When I have wheeled my chair into the cut-out bay in the long desk I can sit surrounded on three sides by books and papers. A stack of yellow pads, a mug of pens and pencils, the recorder's microphone, are at my elbow, and on the wall before my face is something my grandmother used to have hanging there all through my childhood: a broad leather belt, a wooden-handled cavalry revolver of the Civil War period, a bowie knife, and a pair of Mexican spurs with 4-inch rowels. The minute I found them in a box I put them right back where they used to be.

The Lord knows why she hung them where she would see them every time she looked up. Certainly they were not her style. Much more in her style are the trembling shadows of wistaria clusters that the morning sun throws on that wall. Did she hang them here to remind herself of her first experience in the West, the little house among the liveoaks at New Almaden where she came as a bride in 1876? From her letters I know that Grandfather had them hanging there in the arch between dining room and parlor when she arrived, and that she left them up because she felt they meant something to him. The revolver his brother had taken from a captured rebel, the bowie he himself had worn all through his early years in California, the spurs had been given to him by a Mexican packer on the Comstock. But why did she restore his primitive and masculine trophies here in Grass Valley, half a lifetime after New Almaden? Did she hang those Western objects in her sight as a reminder, as an acknowledgment of something that had happened to her? I think perhaps she did.

In any case, I was sitting here just before noon, contented in mind and as comfortable in body as I am ever likely to be. The slight activity of rising and breakfasting, which I do without Ada, and the influence of coffee and the day's first aspirin, and the warmth of the sun against my neck and left side, these are morning beneficences.

Then that thumb on the bell.
I pushed back from among the sun-dazzled papers and rotated my chair. Two years' practice has not fully accustomed me to the double sensation that accompanies wheelchair locomotion. Above, I am as rigid as a monument; below, smooth fluidity. I move like a piano on a dolly. Since I am battery-powered, there is no physical effort, and since I cannot move my head up, down, or to either side, objects appear to rotate around me, to slide across my vision from peripheral to full to opposite peripheral, rather than I to move among them. The walls revolve, bringing into view the casement windows, the window seat, the clusters of wistaria outside; then the next wall with photographs of Grandmother and Grandfather, their three children, a wash drawing of the youngest, Agnes, at the age of three, a child who looks all eyes; and still rotating, the framed letters from Whittier, Longfellow, Mark Twain, Kipling, Howells, President Grover Cleveland (I framed them, not she); and then the spin slows and I am pointed toward the door with the sunlight stretching along the worn brown boards. By the time I have rolled into the upper hall, my visitor is holding down the bell with one hand and knocking with the other.

Though I have got handier in the ten days I have been here, it took me a minute to get into position over the brace that locks my chair onto the lift, and I felt like yelling down at him to for God's sake let up, I was coming. He made me nervous. I was afraid of doing something wrong and ending up at the bottom in a mess of twisted metal and broken bones.

When I was locked in, I flipped the wall switch, and the lift's queer, weightless motion took hold of me, moved me smoothly, tipped me with the inevitable solar plexus panic over the edge. I went down like a diver submerging, the floor flowed over my head. Without haste the downstairs wall toward which my rigid head was set unrolled from top to bottom, revealing midway the print of that Pre-Raphaelite seadog and his enchanted boy listeners--a picture my grandmother might have painted herself, it is so much in her key of aspiration arising out of homely realism. Then I was level with the picture, which meant that my chair had come into view from the front door, and the ringing and pounding stopped.



The chair grounded in light as murky and green as the light of ten fathoms: the ambition of that old wistaria has been to choke off all the lower windows. I tipped up the brace with one crutch, and groped the crutch back to its cradle on the side of the chair--and carefully, too, because I knew he was watching me and I wanted to impress him with how accidentproof my habits were. A touch on the motor switch, a hand on the wheel, and I was swinging again. The wall spun until Rodman's face came into focus, framed in the door's small pane like the face of a fish staring in the visor of a diver's helmet--a bearded fish that smiled, distorted by the beveled glass, and flapped a vigorous fin.

These are the results, mainly negative from his point of view, of Rodman's visit:

(1) He did not persuade me--nor to do him justice did he try very hard--to come back and live with them or start arrangements for the retirement home in Menlo Park.

(2) He did not persuade me to stop running around alone in my wheelchair. Sure I bumped my stump, showing off how mobile I am and how cunningly I have converted all stairs to ramps. Could he tell by my face how much I hurt, sitting there smiling and smiling, and wanting to take that poor sawed-off twitching lump of bones and flesh in my two hands and rock back and forth and grit my teeth and howl? What if he could? When I am not showing off to prove my competence to people who doubt it, I can go in this chair almost anywhere he can go on his legs, and just as safely.

(3) I am not going to install a walkie-talkie on the chair so if I get in trouble I can call the Highway Patrol. He had that all worked out, and pushed it. But the only emergency I ever have is that sometimes when I am far from the bathroom and too achy to get out of my chair to perform, my urine bottle overflows. It is called the Policeman's Friend, and the cops and I might have a pleasant time exchanging yarns about awkward times when we have been caught with it full, but I doubt that any cop would take it seriously as an emergency.

(4) I am not made anxious about "getting like my father." Clearly they are afraid these things run in the family, which is the sort of acknowledgment that under other circumstances I would like Rodman to make to history. Sure my father had a queer unhappy life, and sure he stayed on and on here after the mine closed down, and finally got so addled that Ada and Ed Hawkes had to look after him as they would have looked after a willful and irresponsible child. Rodman all but asks, What if he came up here some day and found me talking to myself like Grandpa? But I could tell him I talk to myself all the time, into this microphone, and sort of like the company. He knows as well as I do that when I quit making even approximate sense he can get the support of the law to take me away, as I had to take Father.

(5) I am not going to ask Ed and Ada to move in downstairs. They have lived all their life in the cottage down the hill, and they are as close as I need them.

(6) I am not going to give up this business of Grandmother's papers and write a book on "somebody interesting." Rodman pretends to be afraid that out of sentiment I will waste what he flatteringly calls major talents (he disparages history but was touchingly proud when I won the Bancroft Prize) on a nobody. His notion of somebody interesting is numbingly vulgar. Having no historical sense, he can only think that history's interest must be "color." How about some Technicolor personality of the Northern Mines, about which I already know so much? Lola Montez, say, that wild girl from an Irish peat bog who became the mistress of half the celebrities of Europe, including Franz Liszt and Dumas, père or fils or both, before taking up with King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who made her Countess of Landsfeld. And from there, in 1856, to San Francisco, where she danced the spider dance for miners and fortune hunters (No, Lola, no!) and from there to Grass Valley to live for two years with a tame bear who couldn't have been much of an improvement on Ludwig.

That's Rodman's idea of history. Every fourth-rate antiquarian in the West has panned Lola's poor little gravel. My grandparents are a deep vein that has never been dug. They were people.

I am sure Rodman knows nothing whatever about Grandfather, nothing about his inventiveness or his genius for having big ideas twenty years ahead of their time or his struggle to do something grand and humanly productive and be one of the builders of the West. I know that his taking the job as superintendent of the Zodiac was a kind of surrender, though I don't yet know the details. Rodman probably feels that that was the sort of job Grandfather bucked for all his life and finally made. He probably thinks of him as a lesser George Hearst, neither quite crooked enough nor quite successful enough to be interesting.

But it is interesting that, apparently in an attempt to comprehend my present aberration, Rodman should have taken the trouble to read some of Grandmother's stories and look at some magazines containing her drawings. Characteristically he saw nothing in them. All full of pious renunciations, he says, everything covered up with Victorian antimacassars. He cited me her own remark that she wrote from the protected point of view, t

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Table of Contents

Introduction by Jackson J. Benson

Introduction
Suggestions for Further Reading
Part I: Grass Valley
Part II: New Almaden
Part III: Santa Cruz
Part IV: Leadville
Part V: Michoacán
Part VI: On the Bough
Part VII: The Canyon
Part VIII: The Mesa
Part IX: The Zodiac Cottage

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Reading Group Guide

Angle of Repose
by Wallace Stegner

INTRODUCTION

ABOUT THE TITLE

Wallace Stegner has said of his epic novel, "It's perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that's my story." It is a testament to the power of Stegner's prose and vision that Angle of Repose, winner of the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, can be appreciated as America's story as well. Based on the correspondence of the little-known 19th century writer, Mary Hallock Foote, the novel's heroes represent opposing but equally strong strains of the American ideal. Susan Burling Ward is refined, educated, and strong-willed. Her husband, Oliver, is a handsome adventurer of cruder habits, who brings a pistol when he comes courting, yet who is humbled in the presence of Susan's sophistication. As we follow Susan on her first journey across the young country—"not to join a new society but to endure it"—we experience the West through the eyes of a true easterner, horrified at the lack of culture, the quickly fabricated cities, the dust, dirt and heat. Susan eventually finds herself able to appreciate the raw beauty of her new surroundings, and is even successful in building comfortable homes for her family. Yet throughout her married life she defines herself through her east coast roots, debating Oliver's worthiness as a husband and provider, and assessing what she has given up in exchange for a life of adventure and uncertainty.

In Susan and Oliver's numerous disappointments and incidents of misfortune we find Stegner exposing the myth of America's west as a land of golden opportunity and fear less cowboys. It is a theme we find in many of his novels, along with a passionate appreciation of the western landscape. Indeed, Stegner's most magnificent writing can be found in his descriptions of the mountain peaks, deep canyons, winding ravines, and vast stretches of plain and prairie. The terrain becomes a character in its own right, deserving of fear and respect, forcing its will on the people who carve their homes out of its resistant rock and soil. But we must not label Stegner merely a regional writer. To do so would overlook his technical brilliance, which shines through in this novel in his choice of narrator: retired historian Lyman Ward, whose degenerative bone disease has confined him to a wheelchair and left him unable to move his head from side to side. Lyman's literal tunnel vision elucidates the figurative—as an historian he looks to the past, and as a disillusioned husband and father, he finds solace in it. But, as he discovers in the course of researching his grandmother's biography, even he cannot escape the present and some measure of self-examination.

Without Lyman's narrative input, Susan Burling Ward's story would have flattened into epic melodrama; his perspective broadens the novel's scope, and enables us to draw parallels between Susan's life and his own, between her century and ours. Although the term 'angle of repose' refers to a resting point, Stegner's novel, if nothing else, helps us recognize America as a nation in constant flux, engaged in incessant struggle between east and west, between young and old, between myth and reality, between reaching for one's dreams, and settling for less. Angle of Repose was written during a time of tremendous political and social upheaval in America, and Lyman's frequent reflections on the era create much of the tension in the novel. Yet some twenty years after its publication the character's personal histories continue to be relevant and edifying. They are America's stories, part of her past and present—undoubtedly part of her future.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Wallace Stegner was born in 1909 in Lake Mills, Iowa. The son of Scandinavian immigrants, he traveled with his parents and brother all over the West—to North Dakota, Washington, Saskatchewan, Montana, and Wyoming—before settling in Salt Lake City in 1921. Many of the landscapes he encountered in his peripatetic youth figure largely in his work, as do characters based on his stern father and athletic, outgoing brother. Stegner received most of his education in Utah, graduating from the University in 1930. He furthered his education at the University of Iowa, where he received a master's and a doctoral degree. He married Mary Stuart Page in 1934, and for the next decade the couple followed Wallace's teaching career—to the University of Wisconsin, Harvard, and eventually to Stanford University, where he founded the creative writing program , and where he was to remain until his retirement in 1971. A number of his creative writing students have become some of today's most well respected writers, including Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Raymond Carver, Edward Abbey, Robert Stone, and Larry McMurty.

Throughout his career and after, Stegner's literary output was tremendous. His first novel, Remembering Laughter, was published in 1937. By the time of his death in 1993 he had published some two dozen works of fiction, history, biography, and essays. Among his many literary prizes are the Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose (1971) and the National Book Award for The Spectator Bird (1976). His collection of essays, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonade Springs (1992), was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award.

Although his fiction deals with many universal themes, Stegner is primarily recognized as a writer of the American West. Much of his literature deals with debunking myths of the West as a romantic country of heroes on horseback, and his passion for the terrain and its inhabitants have earned him the title 'The Dean of Western Letters'. He was one of the few true Men of Letters in this generation. An historian, essayist, short story writer and novelist, as well as a leading environmental writer. Although always connected in people's minds with the West, he had a long association with New England. Many short stories and one of his most successful novels, Crossing to Safety, are set in Vermont, where he had a summer home for many years. Another novel, The Spectator Bird, takes place in Denmark.

An early environmentalist, he actively championed the region's preservation and was instrumental—with his now-famous 'Wilderness Letter'—in the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Honest and straightforward, educated yet unpretentious, cantankerous yet compassionate, Wallace Stegner was an enormous presence in the American literary landscape, a man who wrote and lived with ferocity, energy, and integrity.





DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What do you think of Stegner's narrative technique, i.e., his use of a contemporary historian to tell Susan Ward's story? Is Lyman Ward a reliable narrator? How would this novel be different if Lyman's own story were excluded?
  2. Stegner's narrator is confined to a wheelchair and partially paralyzed. He cannot move his head to either side, and thus can only look straight ahead. How does Stegner use these limitations to shape Lyman's role as a narrator and biographer? What is Stegner saying about the past and future?
  3. How much of Susan Ward's destiny was determined by the era in which she lived and the limitations that era placed on a woman's freedom? Do you think of her as a woman ahead of her time?
  4. Throughout the novel, Susan is torn between her old life on the east coast and her new one on the west. To each of her western homes she strives to bring a sense of gentility and comfort, even in the most rudimentary of circumstances. Her cabin in Leadville, for instance, becomes a magnet for the town's cultural elite despite the cramped quarters. Are the efforts futile or worthwhile? Do you applaud her attempts at civilizing the West or is she merely unable to accept another way of life for what it is? Is there a fundamental difference between America's two coasts today?
  5. Stegner eliminates any concrete evidence of Susan's infidelity with Frank Sargent, leaving Lyman the task of piecing together the events that led up to Agnes's death. Why are these details left deliberately obscure? Does this heighten or mitigate the effects of Agnes's death on the story? Is Lyman being fair to Susan in his depiction of these events?
  6. Susan often wonders if she made the right decision in marrying Oliver. Would someone like Thomas Hudson have brought her more happiness? What do you imagine Susan's life would have been like if she had stayed in the East? How did her years in the West shape her character?
  7. Why does the novel end with Susan's return to Idaho? Why is it significant that the details of her life in the house in Grass Valley are given to us through the present only?
  8. Do you think Lyman identifies more with his grandmother or his grandfather? How do the various aspects of his present situation—i.e., age, physical disability, marriage, career—compare and contrast to those of his grandparents?
  9. The geologic term 'angle of repose', defines the angle of the slope at which debris will cease rolling downhill and settle in one place, as in a landslide. Why do you think Stegner chose this term for the title of his novel? By the end of the novel, has Lyman reached his own angle of repose? How does he change over the course of the summer in which this novel takes place?
  10. Stegner's novels are known for their strong sense of place. What role does the terrain in the West play in Angle of Repose? Would you consider the land to be a 'character' in the novel? Can you describe this character in human terms?
  11. The story of America's western expansion has been told in myriad ways, but often with the same details: danger and hardships, brave but crude pioneers, and get-rich-quick schemes peddled by untrustworthy scam artists. How do Susan and Oliver's experiences compare and contrast with these myths of the American West? How is each a hero in his or her own right? How are they different from the stereotypical western hero?
  12. Angle of Repose was written in 1971, during a period of great upheaval in America's social and political culture. How does Stegner's novel reflect the issues that were prevalent at the time of his writing? What are the parallels, if any, between Susan Ward's story and that of Shelly Hawkes? How does each woman represent her own era? Is either story as relevant today?



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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 65 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(31)

4 Star

(13)

3 Star

(13)

2 Star

(3)

1 Star

(5)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    My favorite Wallace Stegner Book

    My mom got me started on Wallace Stegner with The Big Rock Candy Mountain. I went on to read almost all of his novels. This is my favorite by far. He does tend to go on and on about the landscape, I skimmed over alot of those parts. The story itself though is worth it. I thought about this book for probably a good month after I finished it. I will read it again someday.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2000

    Intriguing double story line

    I enjoyed this book mainly because of the development of the characters.The narrator's life has become limited by his physical condition and he explores his world through the lives of others. He struggles for independence in a dependent body. He begins to live the story he is researching and writing from his grandparents letters. He draws us into their lives as they leave a cultured life in the East to find a life in the West. The reader becomes involved with their struggles to survive and to love each other. At the same time we become involved with the narrator and his personal demons of pain, limitation and isolation. The story flows back and forward through time and relationships and all the while feels real and solid-like the title of the book.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2004

    Brilliant ... Beautiful ... Blessed

    This novel can't be over-praised. It's courageous, lacks cant, is packed with human sensitivity without compromising its literary integrity to political correctness. AND it's simply tremendous art -- something of which there's too little in contemporary literature. Treat yourself to this one folks, you'll be reading a work they'll be teaching as a literary classic in 100 years.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2003

    Stegner's Pulitzer Prize Winner

    I read this novel after having enjoyed one of his other works, 'Crossing to Safety'. I enjoyed this novel and am awed by Stegner's abilities to paint a picture of 2 very different eras in time and the people who lived in them. Both eras are historical to a modern reader as the narrator is a retired professor dealing with the radical changes in the 1970s. I do however believe that I enjoyed 'Crossing to Safety' more as this book was very long and it seems that the same themes were hammered away at too frequently.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 3, 2000

    Heartbreaking, yet hopeful...

    This book pulled me up and down, and ultimately entranced me with its interwoven tales of love, history and family relationships. I had expected a happy ending (hence, the 'Angle of Repose' which I thougth this was leading to), but ended up developing a new understanding of love, expectations, and forgiveness. I couldn't help thinking about these characters and their situations long after I finished, and had to go back and re-read many parts to appreciate how fiinely crafted this book is.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 15, 2007

    Not as good as I expected

    I do agree that Stegner has the ability to describe an era wholly and beautifully such that the reader can actually 'be' there. But, there were times when I thought the narrative would never end. It became tedious to read at times and I had to force myself to finish it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2006

    A pleasure to read.

    Read this book if you savor fine description of an environent and characters that live and breath.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 1, 2000

    Extremely Beautifully written

    I loved it but I did not love it as much as Crossing to Safety. Too much description of the desolate desert and extremely long-winded on the difference between Oliver and his wife - I get the point.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2000

    a great novel about the American West

    'Angle of Repose' has the ingredients of great fiction -- precise depiction of scenery and states of mind without being overbearing about it (Stegner writes primarily as a historian, not as a psychological novelist) and a concentration on dramatic incident and decision. The book is flawed by being a bit too long, but the length is necessary in order to establish the background for Susan's fateful decision. The parallel stories also add to the novel's sense of illumination, although it is unbalanced too much in favor of the past. Still, Stegner does a good job of tying them together so as to give the novel closure, something which many contemporary writers are too craven to do.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 25, 2013

    A magnificent book! A FIVE STAR rating

    I feel so inadequate to critique anything written by Wallace Stegner. It is my opinion that his literary skills are unequaled amoung American writers, and should be required reading at least at the college level, if not by late high school scholars. Without revealing any of the final details of his story, Stegner forwarns, only through his writing style, of a tragedy surely to be revealed before the story ends. The reader sensing this, wants to reach out to each character who will be affected to forwarn them of impending danger. A rescue could only be obtained through the author. A magnifient read. As soon as I finished reading this book I immediately began to read it again.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 21, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Masterwork?

    Stegner pens a masterwork of fiction, an epic story that earned him a Pulitzer. The writing and storytelling are superb.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2009

    boring book

    It is one of the most boring book I have ever read - very hard to get into.

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2009

    Captivating Reading

    Through book club & personal choices, I read alot and have not been captivated by a book in a while. This maybe starts slower but picks up & keeps getting stronger until the end of the story. I turned down many pages (didn't have a highlighter) and read aloud several sentences/paragraphs to a friend I was traveling with. Many statements are extremely thought provoking. Don't know why I hadn't heard about this book until recently. I'm recommending to my book club and will offer to lead discussion!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2006

    Amazing

    This is a remarkable piece of art. I started it on a friend's request and had trouble getting into it. After pushing through the first 80 pages I was hooked. All throughout the novel I marveled at the brilliant writer Stegner is. He captures his characters so completely and paints the early west in such vibrant colors the book jumps to life. What's more is the way he wraps you in, I ached, groaned, and felt joyus for each character in turn. The message, the 'angle of repose', rings all too clear. A fabulous read, I'd recommend it to any mature reader.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2004

    Magnificent

    One of the best books I've read in a very long time, harking back to a pre-minimalist style, with rich prose, strongly developed characters, and a most compelling story. Some of the writing is so clear and true that you really do feel it in your bones. Much better than his also- good but somewhat self-indulgent 'Crossing to Safety,' whose characters were not nearly as sympathetic or well- developed, and whose story faded in the second half of the book. Read them both, but 'Angle of Repose' is the superior achievement of this wonderful writer.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2000

    The Best Fiction I've ever read

    Wallace Stegner's ability to graphically describe both settings within this book brings each character to life. The reader, male or female, is completely drawn into the story. I didn't want this one to end.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 10, 2013

    Beautifully written and gripping too.

    The book is fascinating because it covers an important period in US history and one that few of us know much about. Stegner does this through sensitively drawn characters and fantastic descriptions of the West before there were settlers there. He employs a novel structure in building his novel...he creates an author who is looking at the scenes through his grandmother's letters and brings her story to life. We read it in our book club and it led to a very lively discussion of the characters, their motives, their flaws and their strengths.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 22, 2001

    The Disharmony of Three Worlds

    The three worlds are: The world of cultivated, eastern literati in the late Nineteenth Century; the recklessly exploitive and graphically scenic world of the West in that same period; and the the shallow, unstable society of California in the 60's of the Twentieth Century. The wife, Susan, belongs to the first world but marries into the second; her husband Oliver is at home though hardly successful in the second; and the wheel-chair-bound, self-loathing narrator finds himself unhappily overwhelmed by the third. All these worlds whirl together in an almost unprecedent turbulence as the novel draws to its disturbing (but perhaps hopeful) closure. I at least found myself thoroughly in the grip of it. Stegner, by the way, carefully explains and uses several times the physical principal of 'angle of repose' as a metaphor for the relation his characters, as well as of the 'Doppler Effect.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2001

    One of the best

    Put simply, this was one of the best books I have ever read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 24, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 66 Customer Reviews

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