Critical Evaluation

In the late 1940’s, Wallace Stegner, professor of creative writing at Stanford University, arranged for the university’s library to acquire the papers of American writer and illustrator Mary Hallock Foote. Foote lived from 1847 until 1938, roughly the period during which Susan Burling Ward lived, and, like Susan, married a self-educated mining engineer. Using the Foote papers as his base, Stegner wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose.

The novel, although detailed and based on much fact, is essentially a fiction. Stegner, as a creative artist, felt free to distort history to his own artistic ends. The book is realistic and, because it is based on history, can be labeled historical realism.

Recognized as a preeminent writer about the West, Stegner is sometimes compared to William Faulkner, because both use locale to express universal truths that extend far beyond their compressed geographies: Stegner, the West; Faulkner, the South and his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Stegner, however, ranges farther geographically than Faulkner usually did; the story in Angle of Repose centrally involves three parts of California, as well as Colorado, Idaho, and Mexico.

Angle of Repose is, to a large extent, a study in contrasts between East and West. One major distinction between the two is that of scale, as Stegner demonstrates in the scene in which Susan, on an outing along the Hudson River with Oliver, falls in love with him. Susan leans over a precipice to see a waterfall; Stegner notes that at about the same time, John Muir is doing the same thing to look at Yosemite Falls in California. He comments that Muir has much farther to look and that the rush of water is much greater than what Susan is looking at.

In building this contrast, Stegner sets up the sort of dichotomy that, throughout the novel, defines Susan, an Easterner who, despite living for seventy years in the West, can never be a Westerner. Perhaps the vastness of scale intimidates her, forces her retreat into herself,...

(The entire section is 843 words.)