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Tangle of Repose

Three Decades After Publication of Wallace Stegner's 'Angle of Repose,' Messy Questions About His Use of Mary Hallock Foote's Writings Are Haunting the Famed Novelist

March 23, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds is a Times staff writer who last wrote for the magazine about children's book author Louis Sachar.

Wallace Stegner is so commonly referred to as "the dean of Western writers" that no one remembers who said it first. "Our great citizen-writer," said author Barry Lopez in a tribute to Stegner. "The only living American writer worthy of a Nobel," wrote Edward Abbey before the 1993 death of Stegner, whose frontline work with the Sierra Club and the government on environmental issues in the 1960s rounded out his literary reputation to include activist and savior of the West.

Stegner's legacy, beyond his 16 books and countless short stories, essays, introductions and articles, includes the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment at the University of Utah; the Wallace Stegner Environmental Center in the San Francisco Public Library; the Stegner fellowships at the Creative Writing Program at Stanford, where Stegner taught Abbey, Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry in the writing program he created and served for 25 years, until 1971; and countless other awards and prizes that bear his name. After his death, the Sierra Club published the "The Geography of Hope," a tribute to Stegner that includes words by many well-known Western writers, from Ivan Doig to William Kittredge to Terry Tempest Williams. Under the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, he served as special assistant to Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and as a member of the National Parks Advisory Board.

Stegner's integrity was revered, his reputation beyond reproach. Having already won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, he turned down a National Medal of the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1992. "Government," he responded to the offer, "has no business trying to direct or censor the arts." His "Wilderness Letter" of 1960 has become something of a manifesto for wilderness preservation in the West. In Lopez's tribute to Stegner, he quoted Bertolt Brecht, from the play "Galileo," "Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes."

In the West, we defend our heroes until the bitter end, sometimes against all logic, intuition and fact, and don't take kindly to feet of clay. But in real life, great men and women make mistakes. And so it may be with Wallace Stegner.

His "big boo-boo," as one critic calls it, has for years been the topic of low-volume academic inquiry and private discussions about whether Stegner got more credit than he deserved for a book he wrote based on the life of fellow Western writer Mary Hallock Foote. Stegner had lifted large amounts of Foote's writing nearly verbatim from her lifetime of correspondence for his most famous novel, "Angle of Repose." Stegner's biographers and others long ago conceded his heavy reliance on the Foote material, but for the most part they dismissed the concerns as misplaced.

Recently, though, the issue has again begun seeping into public debate. Many new voices are not so forgiving. Even though they express their doubts with the reverence of an apology, there's no question that a shadow has fallen over the vast and brilliant legend of one of the American West's finest writers.

The media have made the exposure of literary plagiarism a cottage industry in the last few years. Stephen E. Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin survived recent allegations of plagiarism by focusing the debate on sloppy footnotes and less-than-diligent researchers. But their controversial works were nonfiction.

Incidents of plagiarism in fiction are seldom so easily explained. In a world where everything can be bought, sold and owned, ideas and life stories occupy a gray netherworld where literary memory is the common language. Real lives haunt fiction like unhappy ghosts whose souls sometimes cannot rest until their story has been set straight.

"Angle of Repose," widely regarded as Stegner's masterpiece, was published in 1971. He thought about the novel from 1957 to 1968 and wrote it during the next three years. It's the story of a physically and emotionally gnarled old man, Lyman Ward, who tries to re-create the thrilling, supple life of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, by delving into her letters, journals and other writings. The book brought Stegner a Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and much public acclaim for his creation of such a vivid female character, although the failure of the New York Times Book Review to consider the novel when it was published prompted Stegner, in a letter to his agents, to blame that snub for the book's absence from any bestseller lists. He laments in the letter that "this was probably my last chance to make it with a novel. After sixty the spirit doesn't rally so fast from these knockdowns."

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