Sometimes you get a desire for a type of book without knowing why. As the New Year started, I began to think about the kinds of books I haven't read much of and the idea of novels of the West started to take up my thoughts. Being a native of the American West, it is difficult to appreciate what makes it different from the rest of the country. It takes a little effort to gain a different perspective about where you are from and how that may or may not have shaped you as a person. In addition, since we are saturated with a homogenized media culture, I sometimes forget that people here are different from people over there. In the age of the interwebs and casual air travel, geography collapses and I appreciate less how it makes or unmakes us.
With all these thoughts working around my head, I decided to take up a novel that looms large in the Western literary landscape, Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. Published in 1971, it won the Pulitzer Prize and in a poll by the San Francisco Chronicle was named the number one novel about the West (Grapes of Wrath was second). As a side note, in a second poll by the Chronicle, Wallace Stegner's Beyond the Hundredth Meridian was voted as the second best non-fiction book about the West.
Picking up Angle of Repose at the bookstore and reading the summary on the back, the story initially didn't really capture my imagination or interest me much – there are other Stegner novels I'd find immediately more interesting. So I started reading based solely on the reputation of the author and book not expecting much, except that is should be good if not really good. But what I did find in fact is that it is great, if not really great.
The story concerns a retired history professor by the name of Lyman Ward who has taken up residence in his grandparents home – the Zodiac Cottage “whose air is thick with the past” (3) – located in Grass Valley, CA. Confined to a wheelchair due a bone disease that resulted in a leg amputation, Lyman is a broken man in many ways. His personality is not only partly shaped by his physical condition and choice of career, but the cultural condition of the country. The social upheaval that changed the country during the Sixties underlies a good portion of what Lyman has to say about a lot of things, struggling mostly with the younger generation’s disconnection from history, primarily personified in his own son Rodman, who is trying to get Lyman into a nursing home:
Rodman, like most sociologists and most of his generation, was born without a 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 anymore. (3-4)
This sense of history is what Lyman is all about. Not just living in the past, so to speak, but trying to understand the past on it's own terms, and how it might, just might, help him understand himself. The past he is most interested in is the story of his grandparents, Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward. Through Susan's letters, Lyman hopes to write a book. Not a history book per se, nor even a historical novel, but the “story of a marriage,” as he puts it.
But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne. I don't find you life uninteresting, as Rodman does. I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing. Having no future of my own, why shouldn't I look forward to yours?(13)
With Lyman as the narrator, the majority of Angle of Repose is about the story of his grandparents, their travels and hardships through the West from California to Colorado to Mexico to Idaho, attempting to establish themselves, having and raising children in precarious circumstances, the pull of wildness and the push of 'civilization,' all the while attempting to find their angle of repose. I can't help myself but quote more of this stunning prose. Talking about Susan,
Remember the one who wanted to know where you learned to handle so casually a technical term like "angle of respose?"
I suppose you replied, "By living with a engineer.” But you were too alert to the figurative possibilities of words not to see the phrase as descriptive of human as well as detrital rest. As you said, it was too good for mere dirt; you tried to apply it to your own wandering and uneasy life. It is the angle I am aiming for myself, and I don't mean the rigid angle at which I rest in this chair. I wonder if you ever reached it. There was a time up there in Idaho when everything was wrong; your husband's career, your marriage, your sense of yourself, your confidence, all came unglued together. Did you come down out of that into some restful 30º angle and live happily ever after? When you died at ninety-one, the New York Times obituary spoke of you as a Western woman, a Western writer and artist. Would you have accepted the label? Or did you cling forever to the sentiment you wrote to Augusta Hudson from the bottom of failure in Boise Canyon – that not even Henry Jame's expatriates were so exiled as you? We shared this house all the years of my childhood, and a good many summers afterward. Was the quiet I always felt in you really repose? I wish I thought so. It is one of the questions I want the papers to answer. (12)
This “bottom of failure,” “when everything was wrong,” is the central mystery of his grandmother that Lyman is pursuing in a desire to understand the travail of his own life. The “quiet” that Lyman felt as a child is the silence of a secret that he hopes he can uncover, or at least reconstruct, to better understand the whys of the people in his life, his grandparents, his son, his ex-wife. Of course I won't tell you what that secret is, I'll leave it to your own discovery if you ever read this book.
Speaking of the silence we can sometimes sense in our past, we hardly ever get the chance to slow down enough and pay attention enough to hear what is on the other side of that silence. As Lyman says, “1970 knows nothing about isolation and silence. In our quietest and loneliest hour the automatic ice-maker in the refrigerator will cluck and drop and ice cube, that automatic dishwasher will sigh through its changes, a plane will drone over....” which he goes on to contrast to Susan's silence in the days before such electronic convenience filled our air with buzzing and vibrating. This tension between the past and present is so beautifully played out throughout the text. As Susan Ward once randomly opens Tennyson's Idyls of the King, she reads, “The old order changes, yielding place to the new.” But even as Susan lives out her life in all the varying circumstances, a country on the path of continuous creation, we find some parallel familiarity with all the changes Lyman has seen throughout the Sixties. As much as things change and are different, interesting similarities can be brought into a focus not easily seen among an ahistorical generation.
One of the other great tensions that is playing out throughout the novel is that of sex: “Victorian” sexual mores are compared to the sexual revolution of the Sixties. Lyman hires a young woman, Shelly Rasmussen, on the lam from a hippie marriage, to help Lyman with organizing Susan's letters, typing, etc... The conversations between Lyman and Shelly are just wonderfully rich, adding depth of character not only to themselves, but to Lyman's grandparents they are discovering. Smack near the center of the novel Lyman and Shelly have a conversation about sex that somewhat underpins the whole novel. What sex means, doesn’t mean, changes over time, and changes us. I would love to quote some of this conversation, but I'll leave that to you. The conversation between Lyman and Shelly on pages 254 to 261 are some things I didn't expect to come across in this story, but add so much to what happens later.
In bringing this up, the novel addresses how easy it is to pigeon hole these social mores, Victorians are prudes, while we moderns are enlightened. But things are not so simple when talking about real people. And as Lyman points out Victorian pioneers may have been prudish about talking about sex, but he points out that we only have “switched prohibitions and hypocrisies with them,” sex for death.
What a hangup about bare skin! What a hypocritical refusal to acknowledge the animal facts of life! The Victorians were a race without biology!
Horsefeathers. Grandmother grew up on a farm and lived much of her life on crude frontiers. She knew the animal facts of life as few of us are likely to again. Without embarrassment she accepted the animal functions of, say, buggy horses that would bring giggles and hooraws from emancipated moderns....She could kill a chicken, and dress it, and eat it afterward, with as little repugnance as her neighbor Mrs Olpen, and that is something most of us couldn't. We have been conditioned to think of chickens as neatly sorted cellophance packages of breasts, wings, legs, thighs, and necks, without guts or mess, without death. (437)
To me, “....without death,” speaks volumes. As Lyman deals with the pain of his bone disease day by day, he is forced to accept his fate head on without fear or hypocrisy, or instead can follow his family's desire to be put in a nice clean comfortable nursing home where death can be easily silenced behind doors. In thinking about these ideas, the thought of “sex without death” comes to my mind. The idea of sex without the impermanence of mortality seems as lifeless as the prepackaged chicken, where body parts – breasts, thighs, necks – are neatly stacked and organized for consumer consumption. More to explore and think about there.
As Lyman struggles with his own mortality he struggles even more with the mystery of his grandmother, who encompasses the struggle with both sex and death. One of my favorite passages in the penultimate chapter begins:
As one who loved her, I am just as glad not have to watch her writhe. As her biographer, and a biographer moreover with a personal motive, probing toward the center of a woe that I always knew about but never understood, I am frustrated. Just where there should be illumination, there is ambiguous dark. Right at Susan Ward's core behind the reticence and the stoicism, where I hoped to see her plain and learn from her, there is nothing but a manila envelope of Xeroxed newspaper clippings that raise more questions than they answer. I fight my way through all the giants and wizards, I cross to her castle on the sword-edge bridge, I let myself down hand over hand into here dungeon well, and instead of my reward, a living woman, there is a skeleton with a riddle between her ribs. (512)
I simply could go on and on about this book. It simply is a great work of art. And in talking about it here I've really only barely scratched the surface – there is so much story and saga packed into the masterpiece it would take a book twice it's length to introduce all the wonderful angles that Stegner probes, reconstructs, and demythologizes about the American West, marriage, and mortality. This book simply leaves me in awe.
One thing to bring up with Angle of Repose is that it is indeed based on a real person. Susan Burling Ward is the fictional equivalent of Mary Hallock Foote. In fact Foote's writing was a longtime fascination for Stegner and he was probably the only professor at one time to teach her in an academic setting. There is a bit of controversy surrounding how the letters were used in the novel, but I won't go too much into that here. The introduction to the Penguin edition provides good details on the controvesy. At this point it can appear more of a hyped-up issue due to unfortunate misunderstanding and communication mishaps more than anything. Sometimes, even with the family's permission to use the letters without restrictions, Stegner would not have been able to please all of the descendents of Mary Hallock Foote.
To begin where I started with this review. As a novel about the “American West,” what did I take away from it? Probably more than I realize at this point. One conclusion I have come to is that I am sorely undereducated about the history and literature of the West. I guess for an average guy who does read a lot, I might know more than I give myself credit for. But there was so much in Angle of Repose that brought my ignorance into focus. To rectify this I am going to pursue more of these classic “Western” works that I'm all too aware of, but have never bothered to pick up. Some of these that I think will be on my reading list sooner than later include The Oregon Trail by Francis Parkman, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Stegner, The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, along with maybe some Larry McMurtry, Willa Cather, Jack London,, Ivan Doig, and definitely some Bernard DeVoto.
Having just finished the novel, it is still sinking in and permeating my thoughts. The mountains, canyons, and lakes that I can easily drive to in a few minutes will bring a little more weight to my mind as I think about the people who came before me and what they left behind in the shadows of the forest and rock. Susan Burling Ward and her husband Oliver will live in my imagination for a long time to come.