Tangle of Repose

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.”

Stegner, it turns out, didn’t create Susan. He took her character--her life, down to its intimate details, her friends, her work and words--from the experiences of Foote, an illustrator, writer and intrepid Victorian wife of Arthur De Wint Foote, a Yale-educated engineer from Connecticut. No one disputes this, including a Stegner biographer who estimates that 10% of the novel is taken directly from Foote’s work. The issue isn’t whether Stegner did or didn’t, but rather whether he should have used so much of Foote’s writing in a book carrying his byline, whether he used it fairly, and whether Stegner showed a sexist streak by dismissing accusations, often from women, that he used the work of a writer of little renown, but extraordinary skill, to bolster his literary reputation.

In Foote’s life Stegner had the perfect material for an epic novel of the West. She was the West’s consummate 19th century storyteller and traveler, equal parts Amelia Earhart, Susan Sontag, Edith Wharton and Isabella Bird. Foote was born in 1847 in Milton, N.Y., to a Quaker family, went to art school and mixed in New York’s high society.

She traveled west in 1876 to join her husband, whose brother-in-law was mining magnate James D. Hague. Arthur Foote worked for him on and off throughout his career, and he and his wife lived in mining camps in Leadville, Colo.; New Almaden, Calif.; Boise River, Ida.; and Grass Valley, Calif. She wrote stories about life in those camps that were published in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine and Atlantic Monthly magazine. She wrote 12 novels (most published by Houghton Mifflin), four collections of short stories, about 20 uncollected stories and essays and drew countless illustrations for other authors, including the works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Greenleaf Whittier. Some of these illustrations can be found today in the Library of Congress.

Foote was attractive, not beautiful. But by all accounts she maintained the standard of dress and carriage to which she had been raised, no matter what shantytown in which she awoke. Like Isak Dinesen, she was a formal person, but sociable. Like much of Stegner’s work, Foote’s was a combination of history, keen observation and sheer love for the landscape of the West. She wrote her own memoir, “A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminscences of Mary Hallock Foote,” in 1924, 14 years before her death. It was not published until 1972, but Stegner was attracted to the manuscript--and had access to it--long before that.

Stegner had long known of Foote’s writing and admired it, using her stories in his “The Rise of Realism” class at Stanford, referring to her as one of the best storytellers and chroniclers of life in the Western coal mines. Stegner’s entre to Foote’s family came through one of his graduate students at Stanford, George McMurray, who sometime before 1954 decided to write his dissertation on Foote’s life. McMurray began a correspondence with Janet Micoleau, a Foote granddaughter who was living in Grass Valley. Although McMurray never finished the dissertation, he collected much of the Foote material and later introduced Stegner to Micoleau.

Stegner went to visit Micoleau in March 1957. In an introductory letter, he told her he wanted to ask “a few questions both about Grass Valley’s history and about your grandmother.” He also asked for permission to reprint a Foote story in Holiday magazine, and later asked if he could publish some of her letters in The American West, a magazine that Stegner edited. Sometime later he wrote to Micoleau that he knew there was an epic novel of the American West in Foote’s life.

A decade later, in August 1967, Stegner again wrote to Micoleau, hinting at a “big Western novel” he hoped to write, “probably not recognizable as based on MHF . . . since it would involve no recognizable characterizations and no quotations direct from the letters, I assume this sort of book is more or less open to me.”

If Stegner’s words implied a promise, he certainly broke it. About 10% of “Angle of Repose” comes nearly verbatim (including some passages that are several paragraphs long) from the letters and writings of Foote. That’s a limited estimate offered by Stegner biographer Jackson Benson, who cited and largely forgave the “38 instances of letter quotation for a total of 61 pages in a book of 555 pages.” Stegner also used many quotations from Foote’s reminiscences and writings, as well as thousands of small phrases and details found in Foote’s work.

Beyond accusations of plagiarism, Foote’s family was just as concerned about how he bent the facts of her life to the needs of his fiction. Stegner made his character seem haughty, ill at ease in the West, unhappy with her husband and potentially a lesbian and adulteress. What most rankles the Foote family and fans of Mary Hallock Foote is that Stegner, in depending so heavily on Foote’s own words and life in creating Susan, ultimately cast aspersions on the real woman.

Why would Stegner need the life of Mary Hallock Foote so badly? “I was without book,” Stegner told Western scholar Richard Etulain for a collection of interviews with the author. At the time, he pointed out, McMurray had decided that he was not going to write a dissertation based on Foote’s reminscences and letters.

Stegner’s method was not unusual for him. He frequently used real lives to inspire his fiction, although none so completely as Foote’s. “Like many other writers, he seemed to need some kind of outside narrative to provide a scaffold from which to build his long fiction,” wrote Benson, the Stegner biographer. For example, Stegner’s “A Shooting Star,” published in 1961, was based on the diaries of Mrs. Gardiner Hammond’s mother, given to Stegner by Hammond in Santa Barbara. His 1947 novel “Second Growth,” based on the lives of good friends in the Vermont town where the Stegners spent their summers, made Greensboro look so sinister that the Stegner family did not go back East the summer after it was published. His 1950 novel “The Preacher and the Slave” was based on the life of labor leader Joe Hill. Reviews of his 1960 book “The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail,” a history of the Mormons, earned reviews that said Stegner ought to “write history and not novels.”

“Angle of Repose” marinated in Stegner’s mind for years, during which he wrote definitive and successful books on John Wesley Powell and the American West (“Beyond the Hundredth Meridian,” 1954), the Mormons (“The Gathering of Zion,” 1964) and several novels, including one on hippies, “All the Little Live Things” (1967). “Angle of Repose” contains elements of all of Stegner’s work--the irascible narrator contemplating his life and work, the West, there is even a young hippie. But he leans so heavily on Foote that you can almost hear him lose steam as he runs out of material on her life around page 450 of the novel.

Foote had not surfaced in the modern american literary consciousness when Stegner was writing “Angle of Repose,” raising troubling questions for which there are no clear answers. If Foote had been as well-known then as she is today, would Stegner have been forced to better account for his use of her life and words? If Foote had been a male writer, would readers and relatives have taken her ownership of her own life more seriously? If Stegner had not become such an important and respected figure, would he have been called to task?

There remains another question, though, and its answer is murky enough to have fostered three decades of acrimony and debate within the not-so-well-mannered halls of academe: Did Stegner have permission to use Foote’s work?

Stegner almost certainly believed he did based on Micoleau’s supportive letters, which are archived among the Stegner papers in the Special Collections section of the library at the University of Utah. In September 1967, she wrote, “We’d be delighted to have the MHF materials used as background for a novel.” And in April 1970, she declared, “I see no need for you to change or modify anything. Perhaps in an introduction, you could explain your interweaving of truth and fiction for the benefit of those who have read the [‘Reminiscences,’ Foote’s memoir] and might recognize the threads of truth amidst the fiction. But that is up to you--I’m sure all concerned are content to trust your judgment.”

“You needn’t fear,” she wrote again in March 1971, after she had received the novel but not yet read it, “that any of us will be offended--and I’m sure I can speak for all the family.” But in the same letter, Micoleau says that no one in the family had even read the letters, so they wouldn’t necessarily know “which were altered and which invented.”

Turns out that Micoleau did not speak for the whole family. Marian Conway, another Foote granddaughter, was highly displeased and voiced her opinion in a September 1976 article in the San Francisco Chronicle. In a letter of apology to Stegner following the article’s publication, Micoleau wrote, “I told Marian that if she felt cheated it is largely my own fault, because without counseling her, I waived the opportunity you gave us of reading the manuscripts.”

Even if Stegner believed he had the family’s permission, though, there remain questions about his judgment in using so much of the Foote material. Letters from Stegner leading up to the publication of “Angle of Repose” and continuing until his death in 1993 suggest that the author knew the book might cause him trouble, especially after the editor of Foote’s “Reminiscences” notified Stegner in 1970 that the Huntington Library planned to publish the memoir.

Stegner tells Micoleau in a letter that he has heard about the planned publication of “Reminiscences” and worries that Foote will now be fully recognizable as the fictional Susan in his novel. “Must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly ravelled together, the real with the fictional, and replace all truth with fiction? . . . What should I do about my threads of actual fact?”

A year later, in writing to Micoleau that she would soon receive a copy of the novel, he said: “I must admit I send you this book with some trepidation because in spite of my reiterated warning that this was a novel not a biography, I imagine you may have expected me to stick with your grandmother’s real life and character. And that I found I was unable to do. I had to warp it . . . I quote fairly freely from her letters (though I rewrite those, too, when I have to).”

These sentiments are reiterated on the acknowledgment page, which reads: “My thanks to J.M. and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.”

Foote’s “Reminiscences” came out to little notice in 1972, the same year Stegner’s “Angle of Repose” won the Pulitzer Prize.

Many of Foote’s descendants, most of whom live in and around Grass Valley, where Foote and her husband spent their final years, were appalled by the novel. Few facts about the life of Foote and her family were changed--Evelyn Foote Gardiner, Micoleau’s sister, claims Stegner used the real names of 19 people in the novel--except for two liberties taken by Stegner that the family found disturbing.

First, Stegner’s novel depicts the Foote-based character, Susan, falling out of love with her husband, Oliver Ward, and in love with one of his assistants, Frank (in real life, Arthur’s assistant’s name was Harry Tompkins). Stegner’s characters have an affair--something that would have been scandalous in a conservative Quaker family such as Foote’s. Secondly, Stegner has Susan’s daughter Agnes (the same name as Foote’s daughter) drown in a river while her mother is engaged in an illicit encounter with her lover. In fact, the real Agnes died at age 17 from complications from appendicitis.

The family also was concerned--although less so--about Stegner’s somewhat lurid implications that Susan’s relationship with her best friend and frequent correspondent, Augusta Hudson (in real life Helena de Kay Gilder), was more than just a Victorian friendship between women.

“Wally was a good guy who made a big boo-boo,” says Bob Gardiner, who works as a tour guide at the North Star mine in Grass Valley, a historic landmark that was managed by his grandfather, Arthur Foote. He is surrounded by yellowing photos of his grandfather as he speaks. “Yup, people back East always liked to read about people out West without getting their feet dirty. Stegner didn’t even do his research. He just stole it.”

Why didn’t Foote’s family take any action? “We’re non-litigious,” says Gardiner. “We’re academicians. But I know that plagiarism is a crime with a victim.”

Elizabeth Haskell, Foote’s great-granddaughter, lives just a few miles away. She’s a placid, self-contained woman in her early 60s. She believes that Stegner’s great mistake was one of hubris. “He simply did not feel that Mary Hallock Foote would be discovered on her own someday. He thought her life was there for the taking. Well, of course, she was discovered. She was a talented artist and writer and, what’s more, a cultured pioneer! She married a man she loved whose greatest dreams failed one after the other, and still she stayed by him. Her friendship with Helena de Kay was a marriage of true minds, and not what Stegner indicated.” She sighs. “It doesn’t bother me anymore. True greatness can outlive anything.”

By the late 1970s--perhaps because of Stegner’s use of the Foote material or because of her own talent--Foote’s star was indeed rising. Contrary to the assumptions Stegner often voiced in his letters that she was not important enough to merit a biography, gender studies departments in Western literature were quick to pick up on Foote’s talents. Academic discussion about Stegner’s appropriation of Foote’s writing took an ugly turn in 1979 when Mary Ellen Williams, an associate professor of English at Idaho State University, published a paper titled: “Succubi and Other Monsters: The Women in ‘Angle of Repose’.” Not only did Williams detail the similarities between “Angle of Repose” and the life and work of Foote, she also raised the issue of sexism by referring to Stegner’s dismissal of Foote’s literary worth as “condescending.”

“Finally,” she wrote, “scholars are beginning to learn exactly how little hesitation Stegner felt about warping Mary Hallock Foote’s personality and the events of her life to his fictional needs. . . . Stegner has warped Foote into monstrous shapes--an Eve who destroyed her husband’s western Eden, a lesbian, an adulteress, a filicide.”

Charges and countercharges flew, but mostly at academic conferences and in panel discussions, and at the pace of a slow-motion replay. Stegner’s vague acknowledgment kept most accusations of foul play at bay, and the issue of whether he fairly used the material was murky because of Micoleau’s early support for his project. But over the years Stegner’s hubris revealed itself in interviews and letters to detractors.

In an interview with Etulain published in the collection “Conversations on History and Literature,” Stegner refers to Foote’s life as “broken rocks out of which I could make any kind of wall I wanted to.” In a 1993 letter that Stegner wrote to Nancy Rushforth, who had criticized Stegner’s use of the Foote material, he insisted: “If it had been meant as history . . . Agnes would not drown, or even exist.” He says he “contemplated a biography” but did not write it because “to be frank, she did not strike me as important enough historically to make her more than modestly interesting--a talented woman on the frontier. By converting her to fiction I at least had the chance to make her immortal.”

The people closest to Stegner agree and suggest the issue is not worth debating, much less resolving. Forrest Robinson, who teaches at UC Santa Cruz, says that Foote was a minor character made famous by Stegner. He does concede “some element of impropriety” in spite of Stegner’s “extraordinary integrity.”

“Why is this such a hot, sexy topic?” asks Stegner’s son Page from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. “I pay no attention to that stuff.” Besides, he says, “I am not the keeper of my old man’s literary legacy.”

The issue might have remained one of academic and family debate had a playwright and novelist named Sands Hall not flushed the issue into the open. Hall comes from a family of writers. She is the oldest daughter of Oakley Hall, a novelist and co-founder of the graduate writing program at UC Irvine and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Hall found herself happily living in Grass Valley in 1994 after having spent time in L.A., New York and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She settled into a good relationship with the Foothill Theatre Company in Nevada City, near Grass Valley, where she is an affiliate artist. When the theater company began talking about an adaptation of “Angle of Repose” in the mid-1990s, Philip Sneed, its artistic director, asked Hall to write it.

It didn’t take long for her to realize how much acrimony existed between the citizens of Foote’s spiritual home and Wallace Stegner. Hall wanted to find out why, and to make the long-simmering controversy the focus of her play. She felt strongly that she did not want to give Stegner any more credit for the story. The project was tabled.

Several years later Sneed approached Hall, suggesting that she write the play she had in mind. An NEA grant of $7,500 allowed Hall to workshop the play with actors. But what began as a research project became a kind of haunting, as if the soul of Mary Hallock Foote was wandering through the literary subconscious, looking for someone to set her story straight.

Hall, herself a creative woman of the West, grew up, like everyone else, in the shadow of Stegner. Her father and Stegner were peers. Oakley Hall wrote the libretto for the operatic version of “Angle of Repose.” After months of research with the Foote family and the Stegner papers, she presented Sneed with “Fair Use,” a drama in which Hall puts both Foote and Stegner on stage to revisit the matter.

“I wanted them to have a place, somewhere in the ether, where they could talk through the issues and have a relationship they could never have on this earth,” Hall says. “That could only happen on the stage.”

The play premiered at the Foothill Theatre on May 2, 2001. It begins as a conversation between characters dead and alive, fictional and real. Stage left, a character named “WS”--a beloved American author--sits in his wheelchair, creating a fictional character. Stage right, a character named “MHF” sits and watches WS pick and choose her words, sometimes murmuring approval, sometimes expressing dismay at what he has done with her life. A playwright and her father, a well-known historian about to give a speech paying tribute to Stegner, frame the stage. The playwright tries to convince her father that Stegner should not get credit for fiction so clearly derived from Foote’s life and work.

The Foothill Theatre Company’s production of the play ran for a month to full-house audiences. But its impact extended far beyond the number of tickets sold. David Fenimore, a professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, admired “Fair Use” and chose to stage a reading of the play at the October 2002 annual conference of the Western Literature Assn. in Tucson, Ariz. It was a daring choice for an organization Hall calls “a bastion of Stegner adoration.” Hall says she was nervous, fully expecting to be punished for her play, or worse, discredited. The audience was full of friends and scholars who had spent their lives analyzing Stegner’s work, debating his many influences, fending off attacks, as they put it, “from feminists.”

“I expected tomatoes,” says Hall, but the play received a standing ovation. Susan Rosowski, who teaches the work of Willa Cather at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, enjoyed the play and expressed dismay at academia’s blind spots. “We are too often selective in our extreme failure to engage deeply with questions of fair use,” she says. Issues such as those raised by the Stegner-Foote controversy are best discussed in the open, she says. “These are really questions of integrity.”

“On some level it’s a feminist issue,” says Christine Smith, who teaches English at the Colorado School of Mines. “But on another level it’s just the facts.”

Sands Hall believes that Stegner made a Faustian bargain. Like many academics, she also believes that the Foote family dropped the ball. She recalls that Foote’s granddaughter, Evelyn Foote Gardiner, who died just a week before Hall’s play was read in Tucson, fondly called the family “the feckless Footes.” She told Hall they simply didn’t know how to take on someone of Stegner’s stature.

Fenimore, of the University of Nevada, Reno, says, “I don’t think anyone really wants to denigrate Stegner.” But, he adds, there needs to be a “reckoning of accounts. The guy isn’t God.”

So what is to be done? It does not appear to be a question of lawsuits. Several of the players in what Janet Micoleau’s husband, Tyler, calls “the Tangle of Repose” would like to see a new edition of Stegner’s novel with a preface that explains the source material for the book and the resulting controversy. They believe such an explanation would give the novel a new, different and perhaps more honest life.

“Why not expose the next generation to Mary Hallock Foote?” Fenimore suggests.

“Fair Use” ends on one of Foote’s most stunning descriptive passages about the Western landscape, a place that both she and Stegner clearly loved. “There, in the whisper of the desert wind, it all comes back: The shiver of an old longing, and doubt and expectancy . . . the long, low house stretched out on the Mesa raised above the valley . . . the ring of mountains lifting and lowering down to the great gate where the sun is setting in a storm of gold. The purple shadows darken in their canons, the color mounts to the zenith, the plains are flushed with light. . . .”

In the end, as Hall realized, Foote’s own words make clear she did not need Wallace Stegner to make her immortal.


Researcher Sorina Diaconescu contributed to this story.