In the New Yorker, Roxana Robinson revisits the old story of Wallace Stegner’s use of Mary Hallock Foote’s unpublished memoir and letters for his novel The Angle of Repose. Stegner quoted thirty-eight passages from Foote’s letters (not her memoir, according to Jackson Benson’s introduction to the novel), which came to roughly sixty-three pages of text in a novel of over 600 pages. Stegner received permission from one of Foote’s granddaughters to use the letters and memoir as he saw fit. That granddaughter apparently hoped that Stegner’s use of the material in the novel might reignite interest in her grandmother’s largely forgotten life and writing, which it did.
But the family wasn’t happy after the novel was published. They were expecting something like a biographical novel. Instead, Stegner took the events of Foote’s life and altered her character. Stegner admitted later that there was a connection between Susan Burling Ward, the character based on Foote, and his own mother. The family was upset that Ward has an affair in the novel, something that Foote did not do, even though Stegner made it clear that the novel was not about real people.
This is all old news, but in her piece in the New Yorker, Robinson wants to take Stegner down a notch. She has “never admired” the novel, she writes, but had never read Robinson’s memoir. She does, and would you believe it, folks, she finds Robinson’s prose so much better than Stegner’s “prosaic prose.” That’s a direct quote. Here’s more:
Angle of Repose has been called one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I have never admired it. Much of the prose seemed dull and airless, the scenes quotidian, and the dialogue wooden. When I read Hall’s essay, I bought Foote’s memoir — A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West — and there it was: the origin of Angle of Repose. Scene after scene based on the main character — Mary Hallock Foote/Susan Burling Ward — comes directly from Foote’s memoir. Susan Burling Ward’s character is vivified and illuminated by Foote’s own writing; long passages taken from her memoir and letters provide a graceful counterpoint to Stegner’s often prosaic prose. Besides the memoir and letters, Mary’s short stories and travel pieces contain many precise details that Stegner borrowed. Mary Hallock Foote’s life and work were Stegner’s sources for his book. He was able to transcribe them, but he seemed to be unable to transform them through his own imagination.
When I saw the plodding precision with which Stegner had rewritten scenes that Foote had already described, I understood the lifelessness of his writing. When you’re writing your own fiction, it’s like taking a kayak down the rapids — you’re caught up in the current. But, if you’re rewriting someone else’s story, it’s like dragging a rowboat across a field. The characters can’t come alive because their lives are over. They’ve already said all they will ever say. The story is immovable. You’re trapped in sludge. Someone else created this, and all you’re doing is setting it down again. You try to put it into your own words, but it already exists in someone’s else’s. You are simply recording. You have become a stenographer.
Instead of a comparison of Stegner’s and Foote’s prose, which, you know, would have been the thing to do, what follows is an anecdote from Robinson’s own writing life. You see, she knows how impossible it is to create a living story out of someone else’s life because she herself has tried it and failed.
I know because this happened to me. When I was writing my novel Sparta, about a Marine lieutenant coming home from Iraq, I read many first-person accounts of the war. Like Stegner, my only access to the world of my novel came from other people’s words; I couldn’t experience it myself. I found vivid accounts in blogs and memoirs, and I absorbed them greedily. Drawing on one, I wrote a scene about a platoon going out on patrol in the early dawn, walking down an Iraqi street and searching for IEDs. As I wrote, I began to feel claustrophobic. The writing seemed leaden; in fact it was dead. I was transcribing someone else’s experience. It felt as though I were in a straitjacket. I had no room to move. I wasn’t imagining my own scene — I was setting down someone else’s. I had become a stenographer.
Robinson thinks it was “theft” for Stegner to use Foote’s unpublished words after he got permission. Fine. But if she thinks Angle of Repose is a stylistic failure, as a former finalist for the NBCC Balakian Award for Criticism, she should probably take a crack at proving it.
In other news
Alan Ryan reviews a new life of Alexis de Tocqueville:
Tocqueville was a strikingly improbable figure. He was an aristocrat of the most elevated kind who could barely bring himself to shake hands with the bourgeois members of the Chamber of Deputies. He nonetheless took it as read that the days of aristocratic rule and privilege were over and devoted himself to trying to teach the French how to create a bourgeois democracy that would avoid the disasters of lurching from revolution to autocracy, from Robespierre to Napoleon. He was equally conscious of being French, yet he married a middle-class Englishwoman, Mary Mottley, several years his senior, who was accepted only with great reluctance by his family. Perhaps the greatest improbability was that he existed at all.
Why are faculty — some of them tenured — leaving academia? Joshua Doležal reports:
You’d think that plunging job satisfaction among faculty members would alarm administrators, but this isn’t always the case. For universities facing tight budgets, some degree of attrition can be a boon: Voluntary resignations may mean that administrators can avoid axing tenured faculty positions. Deans and presidents still reeling from the pandemic’s economic turmoil also find themselves facing the 2025 demographic cliff. In light of what’s coming, the most important task for many administrators is eliminating as many faculty positions as possible. One of my sources reported that even after campus-climate surveys continued to yield alarming results, an administrator confessed to him, “Why would I want to improve morale? I want these people to leave.”
Giuseppe Verdi’s house is for sale: “Verdi… built Villa Verdi on land he owned in Sant’Agata di Villanova, a hamlet near his home town of Busseto in the Emilia-Romagna region, in 1848. It was initially inhabited by his parents before Verdi moved in with his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi, in 1851, remaining there until his death in 1901.”
Archeologists research a 3,400-old city that has emerged from the Tigris River: “A team of archaeologists had to scramble to investigate a 3,400-year-old city before it disappeared again after it emerged from the Tigris River in Iraq due to drought. Their fast reaction allowed them to discover over 100 ancient clay tablets, with one researcher labeling the discovery and the fact that they had survived submerged underwater for so long ‘a miracle.’”
Simon Heffer reviews John Davis’s Waterloo Sunrise. The book, Heffer writes, “has the merit not only of being a serious work of social history but also of being one that lifts up the stone to reveal aspects of London life between the early 1960s and the advent of Mrs. Thatcher. It reaches the parts that other history books do not.”
Psychiatry’s turbulent history:
Andrew Scull’s Desperate Remedies tells the story of psychiatry in the United States from the 19th-century asylum to twenty-first-century psychopharmacology. His lucid prose and urgent narrative style take the reader through psychiatry’s dubious characters, its shifting conceptions of mental illness and fluctuating diagnostic categories, the often gruesome treatments visited upon patients and their families, and the ultimate demise of public mental hospitals for ‘community care,’ which, as he explains, meant no community and no care. Instead, severely ill patients were abandoned to fend for themselves, ending up on the streets or in prison, where many of them remain today.