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In 1989 at nearly 80, you wrote a letter to your deceased

mother, Hilda, who died at age fifty. Today I recall your death at 84, thirty-one years ago in Sante Fe. I also note it is 52 years since you won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Angle of Repose. Articles are still written about this novel. In the June 1, 2022, New Yorker, Roxanna Robinson discusses Angle of Repose & the “act that mars” your literary legacy. Once again, the claim is made for a house of fiction built on purloined pillars. Forgive my borrowed phrase from Henry James, a writer you honored. And who is to say this phrase is original with Henry?


In front of me are two large biographies, totaling 839 pages. The 1996 “authorized” one took a decade for Jackson J. Benson to write. He devotes fewer than twenty pages to the Angle of Repose controversy. Yet Philip L. Fradkin’s 2008 biography has a detailed chapter of 45 pages, “Angle of Unrest.” I find this biography beautifully structured and a pleasure to read… because Fradkin physically visits all the landscapes of your life.


What did I learn in the chapter, “Angle of Unrest?” That a mélange of communication mishaps occurred.  First, you thought about a project involving the real-life Mary Hallock Foote from as early as 1945. Much later and on multiple occasions, you met with Foote’s granddaughter, Janet. She was the one (of three) with whom you communicated through the years.  The family in Grass Valley had un-transcribed “Reminiscences” & letters; and they worried Grandmother Foote, the late 19th century illustrator and writer, would be forgotten in history.


By 1995 the Stegner-Janet Micoleau correspondence was in the U of Utah library and accessible to scholars. But the communication mix-ups, as you know, happened after the novel’s publication in 1971. A few of these are sisters not in accord with each other, Janet not taking the time to read the draft you offered before publication, neither she nor sister Marion reading the novel cover to cover when it came out. And by then aggravation was felt because Grass Valley folk began to comment on Mary Foote in unpleasant ways. Yet you had warned Janet to think of the character as Susan Burling Ward, not her grandmother.  Then at some point Blake Green, a journalist in search of a story, contacted an aggrieved Marion, not Janet. Green sensationalizes what you claimed would have been a dull story otherwise. In 1978, Professor Walsh at U of Idaho (publish or perish world of universities) gets in touch with sister Marion. Professor Walsh thinks you also stole your narrator Lyman from Mary Foote. Walsh does not contact you but conducts “a nasty piece of character assassination.”  If asked, you could have explained that Lyman’s prototype was your old mentor with one leg and a frozen spine. Okay, I have limited space, and the mélange could continue.  I just wish you knew something I just read.  The 2002 hardcover about the life of Mary H. Foote sold fewer than one-thousand copies. Between 1997 and 2007, Angle of Repose sold over half a million. Your novels and other books remain in print. You acknowledged your borrowing and once again mixed history and fiction. I am a wiser person for having known you, Wallace Stegner.

Next week:  Your memorable Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird










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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

I try to write about whatever I promise at the end of my weekly blog. Today, however, I will switch to something that Wallace Stegner, who lived by a strict moral code, might understand. Which is my need to comment on Thursday April 25th when four Supreme Court male justices focused on hypotheticals & not the January 6th insurrection. And why, I ask, was Clarence Thomas even there?  How egregious in a flagrant and shocking way.

On Friday, April 26th, several media commentators mentioned Lady Justice related to the Thursday Supreme Court hearing on presidential immunity. These comments made me think of Venezuela’s Lady J. The first and only time I saw her was when I left Caracas in August 1995, after four years of helping incarcerated North Americans. One was a medical doctor, found not guilty in Superior Court. Yet five Venezuelan Supreme Court justices passed his case back and forth, year after year. Eight years of incarceration before this medical doctor was released and could again be a pediatrician. A special nod to then Senator Joseph Biden for having his office act on this injustice and exert pressure on the U.S. Embassy about this prisoner.

The life-size Lady Justice I saw in August 1995 was painted by a Chilean prisoner.  His large drawing replaced Abe Lincoln’s words in the lawyer’s room in Reten La Planta in Caracas. Translated from the Spanish, Abe’s English words stated… do not be a lawyer unless you can be an honorable one. In a ‘pay and you go’ legal system, these were ironic words. So why not push the mockery beyond honest Abe? Why not depict on the wall of the lawyer’s room, Lady Justice as she was in Venezuela? Peeking from her blindfold and loading the scales of justice with gold for herself.                                                                       

In 2020 I re-issued Beyond the Wall. The brilliant artist, A. Cort Sinnes of Napa Valley, took my description of Lady J and created this new cover for the second edition. Twenty years earlier, living in Bogota, Colombia, I wrote the first edition of Beyond the Wall under a grant from the Puffin Foundation in New Jersey. In the new 2020 foreword, I ended with these words. 


“A reader might ask: What does this book have to do with me?”


I answer with a quote from poet Theodore Roethke:

In a dark time, the eye begins to see. 

Yet is this true in our country in a time of increasing darkness for our Democracy?


And Lady Justice?  How at the present time should she be depicted in the USA? 

Through a glass darkly, with her back turned away from the United States of America?


I am reissuing this book because I believe Venezuela’s corrupt legal system has something to teach us. I write these words on July 4th, 2020, four months before our national election.


Now it is 2024 and just over six months before we vote again.


Next week, Wallace Stegner’s imbroglio with the Pulitzer-prize-winning Angle of Repose

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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

In summer 2011 at the Iowa City bookstore on the ‘remaindered’ table, I found Philip L. Fradkin’s Wallace Stegner and the American West. I had an authorized Stegner bio, but I decided to buy this one for Wayne Johnson, who had been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford. In the 2010 Iowa summer writing festival, I had taken Wayne’s Novel Solutions. After that class and a two-semester phone & mail course with Wayne, I wrote the first draft of a novel.

Now in 2011, as had occurred the summer before, students met their instructors at a welcome dinner and then had a short meeting. The following afternoon classes began. My course was with a writer named Sands Hall. That first afternoon she held up a new novel and said she had read it over the weekend. Then she exuded praise for the 2011 State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  I’d read about this novel and knew that Patchett received a food magazine assignment and spent two weeks in Brazil. This gave her the authority to base a novel there. Oh, spare me, I thought, being someone who detests Bel Canto.

Why?  Because I lived in Lima, Peru, and knew a Peruvian artist who was held in the Japanese Ambassador’s residence when the terrorist group, MRTA, took it over. Besides this, a photo-journalist I had met and worked with, documented Peru’s terrorist organizations for decades. That Ann Patchett romanticized a violent and real event in Bel Canto appalled my friends.


That first day in class, Sands had no sooner finished her exuberant praise of Patchett when she asked who would ever want to spend time with Wallace Stegner’s dreadful & depressing All the Little Live Things. Besides Fradkin’s hardcover bio on Stegner, I had bought a paperback in the Iowa City bookstore: All the Little Live Things! The novel was in my Land’s End canvas briefcase beside my desk in the classroom. Even more coincidental than what occurred in class was what happened in my hotel room. I began flipping through the Fradkin biography. In the chapter, Angle of Unrest, I saw the name Sands Hall at the bottom of page 266. On the page across from her name was a short scene from Fair Use, a play in which Hall argues with her father, writer Oakley Hall. He is cast as Historian and his daughter as Playwright, and they disagree vehemently about Stegner’s Pulitzer winning novel, Angle of Repose. After this serendipitous moment, I realized why Ms. Hall had fished Stegner from a literary pond and shown antipathy toward him after her exuberance for Patchett. 

Wayne Johnson

I also knew it was going to be a long week and it was.  That is except for seeing Wayne, giving him the Fradkin bio, and finding one more copy on the Iowa City bookstore’s remaindered table for myself. 

Next week:  The Angle of Repose Controversy


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