Study Guide

Angle of Repose

by Wallace Stegner

Angle of Repose Summary

Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Angle of Repose, which won, in 1972, the Pulitzer Prize for Wallace Stegner, unites past and present in telling two stories: Lyman Ward’s history of his grandparents and his need to keep his identity and independence as he copes with his disability. Lyman, a historian forced to retire because of a debilitating disease, wants to write about the marriage of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward, an author, artist, and illustrator. Oliver was an engineer and manager of mines, and Lyman’s history chronicles the couple’s settlement of the West in the late 1800’s. The title is taken from the geological term meaning the angle at which dirt, pebbles, and sand no longer roll.

Through Susan’s letters to her friend Augusta, Lyman sketches out his grandparents’ life, filling in the areas with what he assumes must have happened. Susan, a young woman who is on the brink of entering New York society, shocks everyone when she marries Oliver Ward. Oliver moves to New Almaden, California, and Susan goes out to him later. Susan’s belief that her move to the West is temporary and her wish to be back in New York society make adjusting to her new life difficult. She finds the West vulgar and disappointing. In her isolation, Susan turns to drawing the unusual sights around her and writing short sketches, which she sells to help support the family.

During Oliver’s attempts to mine and irrigate the West, he and Susan live in New...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Angle of Repose Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Fifty-eight-year-old Lyman Ward is a history professor at the University of California, Berkeley, where his research won for him a Bancroft Prize. Following his retirement, Lyman, partially disabled since he lost a leg to a bone disease, moves to Grass Valley, California. He lives in Zodiac Cottage, which was built and inhabited for many years by his paternal grandparents, Oliver and Susan Burling Ward. There he finds the letters from which he reconstructs the story of his grandparents’ lives.

Oliver, a self-taught engineer and a cousin of Henry Ward Beecher, drops out of Yale after two years because of failing eyesight. He meets Susan at a reception in Brooklyn; shortly thereafter, he leaves for California, seeking his fortune. Susan, a twenty-one-year-old art student who mixes freely in New York’s artistic and literary society, corresponds with Oliver but is not romantically attached to him.

Her lifelong friend is Augusta Drake, with whom Lyman suggests his grandmother may have had a lesbian relationship during the first five years of their friendship. Susan, not actively seeking a husband, develops a strong platonic attachment to Thomas Hudson, the brilliant editor of Scribner’s and later The Century. Thomas, Susan, and Augusta become an inseparable trio. Then Thomas and Augusta marry. Their marriage leaves Susan feeling excluded.

Coincidentally, Oliver returns after half a decade in the West and spends a week with Susan and her family in Milton, New York. During that week, Susan falls in love with and decides to marry Oliver, agreeing to join him in the West for a short sojourn before they return to the East to live permanently.

Two weeks after they marry in Milton, Oliver returns to California, where he works as a mining engineer in New Almaden. He prepares a house for Susan, spending so much money on renovation that he has nothing left to send her for...

(The entire section is 787 words.)

Angle of Repose Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Angle of Repose is generally considered to be Stegner’s best novel. The narrator, Lyman Ward, a retired history professor, is writing a biography of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, and recounting her adventures in the West during the 1870’s and 1880’s. At the same time, the narrator is recording his own problems as a biographer and as a lonely, divorced retiree. This stylistic device allows Stegner to write about the past in the third-person voice and about the present in the first-person voice.

Stegner based his novel on a collection of letters written by Mary Hallock Foote to a woman friend in the East. His sophisticated novel is thus a combination of fact and fiction, of history and biography dramatized by his creative imagination.

Susan is a sensitive woman with artistic talents that find expression in writing, drawing, and painting. She loves culture and refinement and is subjected to a life of hardship and disillusionment when she falls in love with Oliver Ward, a mining engineer who takes her to the West.

Susan’s sketches and written descriptions of the West prove to be in demand by Eastern publications. For years, she is the mainstay of the family; her husband, though intelligent and industrious, meets with one failure after another. Stegner describes their life in various mining communities. They have three children, and Susan struggles to make a home.

Susan and Oliver are essentially...

(The entire section is 543 words.)