Part II: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose (Pulitzer Prize, 1972)
Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning Angle of Repose best captures the struggle Americans have experienced, especially over the past 150 years, regarding our attitude toward Nature and civilization. The novel covers two time periods: the last quarter of the 19th century, focusing on Oliver and Susan Burling Ward’s courtship and early marriage; and the 1960s, as their grandson Lyman Ward, nearing the end of his own life ponders their lives, realizing that the past “is the only direction we can learn from.” Oliver and Susan Ward help to illustrate the paradoxical attitude toward Nature and Wilderness. There is no denying nature holds the power to influence our thoughts and actions. An Easterner, Susan falls in love after a picnic at “Big Pond, eight miles back in the woods, a wild and romantic place where a waterfall poured into a marble pool.” Susan is apologetic about the inadequacy of Eastern nature, because Oliver has traveled the West and has “seen the Yosemite and ridden the length of the San Joaquin Valley through square miles of wildflowers.” The two experience nature as “poets and philosophers did outdoors in the early years of the picturesque—strolling, picking early autumn leaves.” Susan, who “had always responded strongly to storms, rain in the face, wild winds, wild waters . . . . hung her face over the cliff to see down the waterfall” with Oliver securing her by the ankles to prevent accident. Lyman Ward, the narrator, points out that “at about the same time, and for similar reasons, John Muir was hanging over the brink of Yosemite Falls dizzying himself with the thunder of hundreds of tons of foam and green glass going by him.” The moment at the falls seals Susan’s fate. Influenced by the transcendent power of nature, she agrees to give up the art world of New York City and its society for what turns out to be a nomadic Western excursion through the West’s wildest country and roughest mining towns.
Oliver Ward, an engineer, though reticent by nature, favors the vibrant life of the mine camps and works incessantly through grueling conditions imposed by weather, terrain, the limitations imposed by investors seeking to make a profit off of natural resources, and the fickleness of the economy. He and his attitudes toward Wilderness and Nature is perhaps best characterized early in the novel through objective correlation, objects that symbolize the “freedom dream” that drove so many people to the open spaces of the West. Among these symbols are Oliver’s most personal possessions, which Susan kept hanging on the wall even after his death, even after their marriage had been destroyed. These possessions include “a broad leather belt, a wooden-handled cavalry revolver of the Civil War period, a bowie knife, and a pair of Mexican spurs with 4-inch rowels.” Likewise, when Susan returns to the East with their son for a visit, Oliver sends unwanted and, to her mind, useless gifts of beaver skins and a mounted elk head to “keep before her some aspect of himself that he did not want her to forget.” She uses the elk head to “impress on [her son] the idea of his father.” As she looks at the elk head mounted in the barn, she thinks that it “did not acknowledge the tame-animal smells of the barn; it had an air of scorning the hay on which such animals fed.”
Common 19th Century attitudes toward Nature are even better revealed through Oliver’s occupation as a mining engineer. Lyman describes his grandfather’s “inventiveness . . . his genius for having big ideas twenty years ahead of their time . . . his struggle to do something grand and humanly productive and to be one of the builders of the West.” Attitudes toward land and its value have always revolved around the paradoxes of preservation vs. utilization, conservation vs. development, and primitivism vs. progress. Oliver’s plan to build a canal system and dam to irrigate a high elevation sage plain in Idaho, to engineer the natural environment into irrigated farmland, leads to the family’s financial and spiritual disaster. Ironically, Oliver’s failed plan foreshadows the boom of federal dam building and irrigation projects that will begin to transform the West a few years later, projects that will lead to the loss of natural wonders such as Glen Canyon on the Colorado River, and the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite, as well as contribute to urban sprawl, pollution, and loss of species habitat. The fiction here serves to express the spiritual loss that comes with failing to adapt to Nature, rather than engineer it.
Ironically, it is Susan Ward, “. . . who came West not to join a new society but to endure it, not to build anything but to enjoy a temporary experience and make it yield whatever instruction it contained,” who illustrates Stegner’s ideas about adaptation. Over the course of the novel, Susan views her sojourn West as first “an adventurous picnic,” then “with a solemn intention of making a home in her husband’s chosen country,” and finally “into exile.” But at times, she is buoyed by restorative nature, as when the rainy season comes to California and “the sun that had been inescapable for months was now out of sight for sometimes a week on end,” and “wild gusts of rain beat against her house . . . and the mountain was lost and revealed and lost again in stormy roils of cloud, the hills emerged under the slashes of reasserted sun a magical fresh green.” Or when she shows the elk head to her son and tries to paint an idyllic scene of riding in the high country and hearing an elk bugle. In the lantern light the elk’s “varnished muzzle, coated with eighteen months of dust, shown as if wet in the light. A phantasmal fire glinted it the eyeballs. It might have bugled at any moment.” Later, she tells her sister, “It simply gleamed at us, as if the talk about going to the mountains had wakened it from its sleep. . . . Oh, now I feel myself coming to life, too! I can hardly wait to get back there and make a home in that wild beautiful place.” Once in Idaho she expresses concerns about the cultural limitations of the West in one breath, and in the next describes her arrival in the canyon: “. . . that dry magical wind from the west blew across us, until at last we came out on a long bench above a river valley, with mountains close behind patched with snow and forest. To our right, the stream broke out of a canyon cut through the sagebrush foothills.” She brags to her Eastern friends, “Have you ever built a house with your own hands, out of the materials that Nature left lying around? . . . . It is the most satisfying experience I know” (390).
The struggle to reconcile these disparate points of view about Nature still dominates conversations in the U.S., and the world: Who owns the land? How do we manage it? Who profits from it? How do we protect it? How does it shape our identity?