Wallace Stegner and the Trap of Using Other People’s Writing

For years, troubling charges—appropriation, plagiarism—have hovered over Wallace Stegner’s famous novel, “Angle of Repose,” the story of a mining engineer and his wife living in the American West during the late eighteen-hundreds. There’s no question that Stegner used the life of the writer Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for his novel, nor that he used passages of her work without attribution, but at first few people knew it. In 1971, when Stegner’s novel was published, Foote’s memoir was unpublished. When her book came out the following year, Stegner’s novel had won the Pulitzer Prize, and it was protected by a halo of esteem.

But charges began emerging in the late seventies. In 2000, in an introduction to the novel, Jackson Benson, Stegner’s biographer, defended Stegner’s inclusion of thirty-eight passages from Foote’s letters, “approximately 61 pages,” all without attribution. It’s “a brilliant tactic,” Benson says, that creates “an invaluable part of the novel” and provides “depth and authenticity.” As to Foote’s life, Benson says the family had encouraged Stegner to use the material, believing that Stegner would tell the story of Foote’s productive career and happy marriage. In a preface, Stegner wrote, “This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.” But it was recognizably a family history—one that distorted the lives it described. More recently, a persuasive essay by Sands Hall, in the journal Alta, accuses Stegner of plagiarism, the appropriation of Foote’s life, and the slandering of her name. Instead of hewing to the historical facts, Stegner fabricates an adulterous liaison for the character based on Foote, a transgression that costs the life of a child and destroys her marriage. Some people who knew about Foote assumed that’s what happened in her own life, when it did not.

Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) grew up in a Quaker farming family near Poughkeepsie. She studied art in New York, at the Cooper Institute School of Design for Women, then married Arthur De Wint Foote. He was a mining engineer and they moved West to lead an adventurous life, in canyons and on mountainsides, in shacks and cabins, on the edge of the frontier. Mary was a perceptive observer, a compassionate friend, a loyal, intrepid wife, and a loving mother. She revelled in the beauty and accepted the hardships of her surroundings. She had her own career as a successful illustrator and writer, producing novels, stories, and the memoir. Her work was published in The Century Magazine and elsewhere. Stegner admired Foote’s fiction, and taught it to his creative-writing students. When he encountered her letters, he became intrigued, and asked the family for her unpublished memoir. He said he thought he could make something of it.

All fiction writers use some aspects from our own lives in our fiction, even if it’s only the weather. Many of us have written something based on a story we’ve heard. But there’s a difference between basing a novel on someone else’s story and using someone else’s written account of that story.

“Angle of Repose” has been called one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I have never admired it. Much of the prose seemed dull and airless, the scenes quotidian, and the dialogue wooden. When I read Hall’s essay, I bought Foote’s memoir—“A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West”—and there it was: the origin of “Angle of Repose.” Scene after scene based on the main character—Mary Hallock Foote/Susan Burling Ward—comes directly from Foote’s memoir. Susan Burling Ward’s character is vivified and illuminated by Foote’s own writing; long passages taken from her memoir and letters provide a graceful counterpoint to Stegner’s often prosaic prose. Besides the memoir and letters, Mary’s short stories and travel pieces contain many precise details that Stegner borrowed. Mary Hallock Foote’s life and work were Stegner’s sources for his book. He was able to transcribe them, but he seemed to be unable to transform them through his own imagination.

When I saw the plodding precision with which Stegner had rewritten scenes that Foote had already described, I understood the lifelessness of his writing. When you’re writing your own fiction, it’s like taking a kayak down the rapids—you’re caught up in the current. But, if you’re rewriting someone else’s story, it’s like dragging a rowboat across a field. The characters can’t come alive because their lives are over. They’ve already said all they will ever say. The story is immovable. You’re trapped in sludge. Someone else created this, and all you’re doing is setting it down again. You try to put it into your own words, but it already exists in someone’s else’s. You are simply recording. You have become a stenographer.

I know because this happened to me. When I was writing my novel “Sparta,” about a Marine lieutenant coming home from Iraq, I read many first-person accounts of the war. Like Stegner, my only access to the world of my novel came from other people’s words; I couldn’t experience it myself. I found vivid accounts in blogs and memoirs, and I absorbed them greedily. Drawing on one, I wrote a scene about a platoon going out on patrol in the early dawn, walking down an Iraqi street and searching for I.E.D.s. As I wrote, I began to feel claustrophobic. The writing seemed leaden; in fact it was dead. I was transcribing someone else’s experience. It felt as though I were in a straitjacket. I had no room to move. I wasn’t imagining my own scene—I was setting down someone else’s. I had become a stenographer.

When Stegner read Foote’s letters and memoirs, they were unpublished and obscure. Virtually no one knew about them. They offered him a secret portal to a whole world. Here was an intelligent, sympathetic character, describing her life story in brilliant detail. It was like being in a dream. How could he not want to use this material? At the start, perhaps, he thought he would use only the idea. Perhaps he thought he would rewrite it in his own words, and this would make it his. Perhaps he thought that, as an established writer, he was somehow elevating her work by incorporating it into his. Perhaps he thought that, since she was a woman, her work was there for the taking. Perhaps he didn’t think about it at all.

The writer’s task is to set down words in a new way. Creating a memorable phrase, a sentence, a paragraph is our work. Using someone else’s words without credit, pretending you wrote it yourself, is theft. When I was writing my novel “Dawson’s Fall,” I again faced the problem of using the work of other writers. In this case, the characters were Frank and Sarah Dawson. They were my great-grandparents, so I felt I had a right to use their lives. But what about their writing? They were both copious letter writers and they both published Civil War memoirs. Frank was a newspaper editor, and wrote editorials for more than fifteen years, in the Charleston News and Courier, which he founded. I had hundreds of pages of their writing, much of it vivid, capturing their lives and the period. Like Stegner, I was fascinated by this window into the past. Like Stegner, I thought a novel could be made of the material.

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