Writing design

Wallace Stegner and the trap of using other people’s handwriting

For years, disturbing accusations – appropriation, plagiarism – have hung over Wallace Stegner’s famous novel, “Angle of Repose”, the story of a mining engineer and his wife living in the American West at the end of the 1800s. There is no doubt that Stegner used the life of writer Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for his novel, nor that he used passages from his work without attribution, but at first few people knew this . In 1971, when Stegner’s novel was published, Foote’s memoir was unpublished. When his book came out the following year, Stegner’s novel had won the Pulitzer Prize, and he was protected by a halo of esteem.

But accusations began to emerge 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, “about 61 pages”, all without attribution. It’s “a brilliant tactic,” Benson says, that creates “an invaluable part of the novel” and brings “depth and authenticity.” As for Foote’s life, Benson says the family had encouraged Stegner to use the material, believing Stegner would tell the story of Foote’s productive career and happy marriage. In a preface, Stegner wrote, “This is a novel that uses selected facts from their real lives. It is by no means a family affair. But it was clearly a family story – a story that distorted the lives it described. More recently, a persuasive essay by Sands Hall, in the journal High, accuses Stegner of plagiarism, appropriating Foote’s life and slandering his name. Instead of sticking to historical fact, Stegner fabricates an adulterous affair for the Foote-based character, a transgression that costs a child’s life and destroys his marriage. Some people who knew Foote assumed that was what happened in his own life, when it was 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 the mountainside, in cabins and shacks, on the edge of the frontier. Mary was a keen observer, a compassionate friend, a loyal and fearless wife, and a loving mother. She reveled in beauty and accepted the difficulties of her environment. She had her own career as a successful illustrator and writer, producing novels, stories and memoirs. His work has been published in The magazine of the century and elsewhere. Stegner admired Foote’s fiction and taught it to his creative writing students. When he came across her letters, he became intrigued and asked the family for their unpublished memoirs. He said he thought he could do something with it.

All fiction writers use some aspect of our own lives in our fiction, even if it’s just 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 20th century. I never admired him. Much of the prose sounded dull and airless, the everyday scenes and dialogue wooden. When I read Hall’s essay, I bought Foote’s memoir – “A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Wild 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 straight from Foote’s memoir. Susan Burling Ward’s character is enlivened and illuminated by Foote’s own writing; lengthy passages from his memoirs and letters provide graceful counterpoint to Stegner’s often prosaic prose. Besides memoirs and letters, Mary’s short stories and travelogues contain many specific details borrowed by Stegner. The life and work of Mary Hallock Foote were Stegner’s sources for her book. He was able to transcribe them, but he seemed unable to transform them by his own imagination.

When I saw the painstaking precision with which Stegner rewrote scenes that Foote had already described, I understood the lifelessness of his writing. When you write your own fiction, it’s like kayaking 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. Characters cannot come to life because their life is over. They have already said all they will ever say. History is immutable. You are trapped in the mud. Someone else created it, and all you do is put it back. You try to put it in your own words, but it already exists in someone else’s. You just save. You have become a stenographer.

I know this because it happened to me. When I was writing my novel “Sparta,” about a Navy lieutenant returning from Iraq, I read many first-person accounts of the war. Like Stegner, my only access to the world of my novel came from the words of others; I couldn’t experience it myself. I found vivid stories in blogs and memoirs, and absorbed them greedily. Based on one, I wrote a scene about a platoon going on patrol at dawn, walking down an Iraqi street and looking for IEDs. As I wrote, I started to feel claustrophobic. The writing seemed leaden; in fact it was dead. I was transcribing someone else’s experience. I felt like I was in a straitjacket. I had no room to move. I wasn’t imagining my own scene, I was putting down someone else’s. I had become a stenographer.

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

The task of the writer is to put the words in a new way. Creating a memorable phrase, sentence, paragraph is our job. Using someone else’s words without credit, pretending you wrote them yourself, is stealing. When I was writing my novel “Dawson’s Fall”, I was again faced with 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 the right to use their lives. But what about their writing? They were both hearty letter writers and they both published Civil War memoirs. Frank was an editor and wrote editorials for over fifteen years, in the Charleston News and Mail, which he founded. I had hundreds of pages of their writings, most of which were vivid, capturing their life and times. Like Stegner, I was fascinated by this window on the past. Like Stegner, I thought a novel could be made out of matter.