Book Review: Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
There is a moment that I found particularly meaningful in Wallace Stegner’s
1972 Pulitzer Prize winner, Angle of Repose
, in which he defines wisdom as knowing what one has to accept. At that point in the narrative, after around 450 pages of material that many would certainly decry as dull, the definition honestly seemed a bit self-serving, even as it was illuminating. Any reader of this post should take with a grain of salt my acceptance of the moment, my even gleeful highlighting of it in this blog as a bright spot, because my reaction to its “wisdom” may have less to do with its actual perspicacity, and more to do with 450 pages of being beaten down and heaped up into an “angle of repose”. For those of us unfamiliar with the terminologies of engineers, the "angle of repose" is literally the angle at which any material stops avalanching over itself as it is heaped against, say, the wall of a ditch. **SPOILER ALERT**, metaphorically, it's the angle at which I stopped trying to resist or escape.
Now, I’m being a bit hard on Mr. Stegner and his book. There are some exciting undercurrents to Angle of Repose. There’s something here about cultural divides and the generation gap, the nature of forgiveness, the “Doppler Effect of history", and a fascinating look at the story of the American West. I actually did enjoy the book … but still … a book that drives the reader to resignation … I wonder if Stegner ever did any method-acting?
There's also this to consider: Angle of Repose is at the heart of a large controversy. Many of the letters one of his characters writes are lifted directly and indirectly from an actual individual’s letters from the 19th century. Is this plagiarism? Cheating? Is the acclaimed Dean of Western Literature a sneak-thief? Maybe, but Stegner doesn’t seem to have been bothered by the controversy. He just kept on writing and lecturing and getting an award established for himself (the Wallace Stegner Prize in Environmental or American Western History came about in 2010).
I want to read more Stegner. His National Book Award winner, The Spectator Bird, seems like a likely candidate (it helps that it’s only 214 pages). Stegner’s an interesting and thoughtful writer and I’d like to see something else he’s done. It’s just that there’s only so much time and he’s already taken up a lot of mine.
Of all the things in life we have to learn to accept, whether we grow wise or not, I am truly thankful Stegner managed to establish something that would be a pleasure to accept for someone, somewhere who has found some way to write something awesome about the environment or the West or both. Even if he also wrote a book I kind of apologize to readers for recommending. Craig is reading all of the Pulitzer-prize winning novels in chronological order. He's then challenging himself to review each title in 15 minutes or less. Click this link for his previous reviews.