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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

June 7, 2017: The Pulitzers at 100: Angle of Repose

[The first Pulitzer Prizes were given out 100 years ago, on June 5, 1917. So to celebrate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying five Pulitzer-winning works of fiction, leading up to a special weekend post on the most recent winner!]
On two literary contexts for Wallace Stegner’s 1971 masterpiece.
In the course of a more than 50-year career, Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) published 13 novels, 17 full-length works of non-fiction, and a handful of story collections. He won the 1977 National Book Award for his moving novel of marriage, travel, and aging The Spectator Bird (1976). But I would certainly call the Pulitzer-winning Angle of Repose (1971) his best and most important novel, not only for its unquestionable quality but also because it exemplifies very fully his most abiding concerns and themes across the length of that career: memory and family, embodied in Angle by his late 20th century narrator Lyman Ward, a divorced, isolated, wheelchair-bound historian researching his grandparents Susan Burling Ward and Oliver Ward’s late 19th century lives; and the American West, as those lives (based on the historical figures Mary Hallock Foote and Arthur De Wint Foote) took his grandparents throughout the Western United States. Stegner was frequently referred to as “The Dean of Western Writers,” but I would revise the phrase to something like “Western Storytellers,” as it seems to me that he was most especially concerned with, and spent his career both examining and modeling, how we remember and tell stories of the West.
Angle of Repose is well worth reading and enjoying on its own terms, but I want to use the rest of this post to highlight two additional literary contexts for Stegner’s novel. For one thing, Mary Hallock Foote herself was a very interesting and talented writer; Stegner uses (and even quotes extensively from, with permission) her voluminous body of letters in his novel, but she also published a number of short stories and novels, most about the Western settings and worlds into which her marriage to the mining engineer Arthur took her (she was born and raised in New York City). I haven’t read nearly all of those works, but would say that Foote’s 1886 short story “The Fate of a Voice” (published in Century Magazine) nicely encapsulates both her talents and her ambiguous perspective on those Western worlds and experiences. Foote’s heroine, Madeline Hendrie, is a talented opera singer torn between a future in New York and one with Western engineer Aldis; in the course of the story she loses her voice (after an accident of Aldis’), regains it and performs in New York, and then chooses to leave that world behind and spend her life in the West with Aldis. The story concludes with other voices, some lamenting Madeline’s choice and others celebrating it; although overall I believe Foote’s narrator sides with the latter, she certainly airs both perspectives, and both help us understand her own complex artistic and Western life and identity (as well as those of Stegner’s characters).
In its own era, Stegner’s book is also part of a group of 1970s novels that focus on historian narrators researching their own family histories and legacies. I’ve written before in this space about two of my favorite such novels: David Bradley’s The Chaneysville Incident (1981), in which historian John Bradley researches his father and his family’s histories of slavery and rebellion; and E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), in which historian Daniel Isaacson researches his parents Paul and Rochelle (fictionalized versions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg) and their trial and execution for espionage. Also interestingly in this mix (SPOILER alert) is Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973), as Vidal’s fictional narrator Charlie Schuyler eventually learns that the subject of his historical researches, Aaron Burr, is also his father. Each of these books is distinct and worth its own examination and analysis, but all use the meta-fictional perspectives and structures comprised by their historical narrators to frame and comment upon the stories and histories they’re telling and re-telling. And Wallace Stegner’s novel more than stands alongside these other masterpieces of the genre.
Next Pulitzer winner tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on other prize-winning (or –worthy) books?

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