Frontier History and Domestic Fiction: Angle of Repose and 1970s Marriage Politics
Bascom, Ben, Papers on Language & Literature
Scholarly interest in Wallace Stegner's literary career has received heightened attention in the last few years, with critical works engaging Stegner's oeuvre through analyses of the U.S. frontier and the American West as well as examinations of the intersection between the historical and the literary Stegner. (1) A long-time friend of Stegner, Nancy Huddleston Packer admits in "Wallace Stegner: A Passionate and Committed Heart" (2009) that late in his life Stegner "could be slow, even recalcitrant, when new ideas came along" (222). In many ways, this belated image of Stegner continues to inflect contemporary assessments of his novels and nonfiction, thus causing readers to perceive reactionary and regressive politics in texts that could otherwise be read as thoughtful explorations in political liberalism. This essay attempts to excavate the historicized notions of gender identity within which Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (1971) initially circulated in its 1970s context, thus reading the novel as offering a progressive--though albeit conflicted--voice toward gender relations. Such a reading attempts to position itself outside of accusations that assert Stegner's culpability for plagiarizing the writings of Mary Hallock Foote forecloses the novel's potential to be considered progressively feminist for its time. (2) Such stances disable themselves from seeing, as William Handley contends, that the novel "suggests something more complicated than Stegner's admittedly ambivalent feelings about sixties progressive causes" (218). Indeed, Melody Graulich finds Stegner to be "an insightful and pioneering feminist" in not only rediscovering Mary Hallock Foote's literary career, but also in the ironic distance between the narrator's "scholarly objectivity" and his suppression of the "personal relationship [he has] to [the] subject matter" (246, 249). By more closely exploring the novel's relationship to history and gender, we might position Stegner's novel within a milieu of early-1970s feminist rhetoric and thus imagine him as a literary historian interposing a progressive course of action regarding his era's marriage politics.
Marriage is a significant trope in the novel in that the plot is organized around Lyman Ward studying the dissolution of three of them. He imagines his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward--whose life Stegner modeled after the historical Mary Hallock Foote--wandering picturesquely throughout the West until she realizes Oliver's wanderlust supersedes her desire for stability and Eastern culture; Lyman Ward neglects Ellen for his own historical projects and then wonders why she abandons him (432); Shelly, Lyman's secretary and scribe, believes Larry can remove her "middle-class indoctrination" but fails to see how his ideas might turn her into a sexually objectified "communal woman" (154, 505). The respective failing of each domestic partnership ensues because of an inability to reconcile the demands and expectations of history and aesthetics with the realities of the present; in other words, the characters are entangled in ideologies that hamper their partnerships. This imbrication parallels Stegner's entanglement in accusations of a sexist plagiarist. Mary Ellen Williams Walsh asks in the 1980s if "Stegner escape[s] responsibility under the aegis of artistic license for sensationalizing Mary Hallock Foote's life" (206), while more recent critics, such as Linda Karell, query if Stegner would "have felt as entitled to borrow the work of a male writer ..." (79). No one should divorce Angle of Repose from Mary Hallock Foote's life and writing, or ignore Stegner's responsibility in representing her life, but the significance of the novel, I argue, could be more richly engaged if viewed as a cultural artifact that begs the question for an untangling of fact from fiction, East from West, past from present, male from female. By this logic, the criticisms levied against Stegner's novel--labeling it a plagiarist masterpiece--potentially obfuscate the historical significance of a book published in 1971 that packages the historical Western frontier as a trope for rebalancing marital inequality. …