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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Dear Wallace Stegner…greetings on Cinco de Mayo

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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