State Historian Patty Limerick regales Steamboat Springs audience with Wallace Stegner stories
October 25, 2016
Steamboat Springs — Colorado State Historian Patty Limerick offered no easy answers Oct. 24 to questions about the complex personality of Wallace Stegner, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer about the American West. However, Limerick succeeded in weaving humorous anecdotes into her talk at the Bud Werner Memorial Library, while confronting controversial aspects of Stegner's career.
"He was certainly a complex person, like everyone in the room," Limerick said.
And she promised by the end of the evening to discuss the greatest paradox on Stegner's resume — his decision to appropriate long passages from the correspondence of a late 19th century illustrator and writer Mary Hallock Foote in his prize-winning novel “Angle of Repose.”
It is the life of Hallock Foote that is the basis for "Angle of Repose," which is Bud Werner Memorial Library’s selection for this year’s "One Book Steamboat." Although he acknowledged his reliance on the correspondence of others at the beginning of the book, Stegner did not specifically credit Hallock Foote, who is the book's protagonist.
Yet "Angle of Repose" is a beloved book, and members of Limerick's Steamboat audience had read it more than once.
As well as novels, Stegner wrote nonfiction historical books like "Beyond the Hundredth Meridian," his recounting of John Wesley Powell's first descent of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.
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Limerick observed that Stegner's bitterness over his father's treatment of Stegner's mother, which endured throughout his life, comes out in his fiction. At the same time, Limerick said, Stegner relished identifying a historic figure with a story to tell, a figure to whom he could "lend his current."
"He was a person who was enchanted by experiences well-captured by stories," she said of Stegner. "He was magnetized by those stories."
Limerick, who is also a professor of environmental studies and history at the University of Colorado Boulder, and faculty director and chairperson of the board of CU's Center of the American West, considered Stegner a personal friend. She came to know Stegner when she was quite young and in awe of him.
Limerick shared some moments of self-deprecating humor stemming from their professional encounters.
Stegner had been persuaded to talk to a large audience of admirers from a stage in Boulder, and Limerick, eager to please, found a way to embarrass herself in front of all of them.
"Mr. Stegner gave a speech in front of 800 to 900 people in Boulder," Limerick recalled. "A good share of them had brought their home libraries with them to be signed."
Limerick decided it was her job to track down a cold beer for the author. Returning with the frosty beverage, Limerick realized because the author was essentially seated on the floor and signing people’s books, it would be awkward to lean over and hand him the beer. Without really thinking it through, she got on one knee and proffered the beer with an extended arm.
"He looked a little puzzled at first," Limerick deadpanned. "Then, he kissed his fingers, put them on my forehead and said, 'Rise and sin no more.'"
Then, there is the matter of Stegner's decision to appropriate the words Hallock Foote in "Angle of Repose." He took that step, which still confounds academics, after consulting with one of Hallock Foote's three granddaughters to whom he expressed in writing a desire to use the life of Hallock Foote and her husband in his book, without really specifying how, Limerick explained.
"When you read a novel you pick it up and expect to read the words of the novelist," Limerick said. The notion that the novelist used the words of another, "seems a little like a violation of the social contract."
Yet, it was the cumulative work of Stegner that helped to batter down barriers to publishing for writers like Norman Maclean, author of "A River Runs Through It," and "This House of Sky" by Ivan Doig.
And ironically, the controversy over "Angle of Repose" brought Hallock Foote to the attention of a new generation of admirers.