I.

We knew what we were there to talk about. It was an autumn evening, 1998, when we settled in around my large kitchen table. The artistic director of Nevada City’s Foothill Theatre Company, Philip Sneed, had invited core members of our company—director, costume and lighting designers, key actors, and me, as playwright—to spin ideas about creating a stage adaptation of one of the great American novels.

Our production of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose seemed meant to be. The theater and production offices were not five miles from Grass Valley, where the novel’s narrator, Lyman Ward, lives and writes in a cottage built for his grandparents decades before—and where those remarkable grandparents, Oliver, superintendent of the Zodiac Mine, and his wife, Susan, a writer and illustrator, live out the final years of one of the most extraordinary fictional marriages of the 19th-century West.

“Have you visited the North Star House?” Phil asked. “It’s exactly as Stegner describes it.”

“We should take a field trip,” said Tom Taylor, often our production manager. “Including the North Star Mining Museum.”

“Wait,” someone said. “You mean what Stegner in his novel calls Zodiac Cottage and Zodiac Mine are actually the North Star?”

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Tom nodded. Born and raised in Nevada City—the heart of California gold country—he was deeply familiar with the region’s history. “Stegner didn’t just cutely rename the North Star House and the mine,” he said. “He based Susan and Oliver Ward on people who lived there, Mary and Arthur Foote—Arthur was superintendent of the North Star, as Lyman’s grandfather is of the Zodiac.”

Something flickered, but as a fiction writer myself, and the daughter of one, I knew that we often fold in the real with the invented. At the time, I was more concerned with how, as playwright, I’d handle Lyman Ward. After discovering that his wife is having an affair, Lyman, a historian, comes to terms with his own marriage by examining that of his grandparents. I found Lyman unappealing, both self-pitying—he’s lost a leg to a degenerative disease and must use a wheelchair—and full of diatribes against the youth of the ’60s, as personified in his holier-than-thou lefty son. To me, that amputated leg seemed like some bludgeoning effort of Stegner’s to indicate a “missing part,” emotional or otherwise. And the final scene of the novel was a dream, that most unforgivable of fictional devices—made even more so here by featuring the large and naked breasts of Lyman’s caretaker. But while Lyman was a clumsy framing device, I was keen to dramatize what was inside that frame—the life of Lyman’s grandparents, largely unfolded and reconstructed through his grandmother’s letters and reminiscences.

“You should all know,” Tom said, “that there’s a lot of local dudgeon aimed in Stegner’s direction. There’s a rumor he used Mary’s journal, or diary—”

This was met by a chorus of outrage: “There’s no way!” “We’re talking about Wallace Stegner!”

I was among those who found this absurd. Stegner, the revered novelist and environmentalist? The “dean” of western writers, founder of the eponymous writing program at Stanford? I’d met him a few times, at parties given by my parents in San Francisco, and been impressed by his sense of himself as Author, manifested in his height, his deep voice, that leonine head of white hair. He and my father, Oakley Hall, had a literary friendship. Dad, too, was a prolific novelist, the author of the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Warlock. Soaring arias often blared from Dad’s study as he wrote, and when, in 1976, San Francisco Opera produced an adaptation of Repose, it commissioned him to write the libretto. Although Stegner was 11 years my father’s elder, they both occupied a world that might be called patriarchal (well, one of them was my father) and certainly seemed unassailable: old, white, educated as well as brilliant—men. Aware as I was of the Problem with the Patriarchy, I was eager, with this project, to earn the approbation of that world, and those men.

“Still,” Tom insisted. “Since this is going to be a local production, it might be a good idea to look into this local controversy.”

With a lot of shrugging, and a feeling that our enthusiasm had been dented, we determined what we’d each do before our next meeting and adjourned.

Tom was my sweetheart at the time, and as we lay in bed that night, he told me that many locals believed there was more to what Stegner had done than any review of the novel had explored or presented. “He used the Footes’ entire lives.”

“Lots of historical novels do that,” I said. “Any biographical novel. Lust for Life, Van Gogh. The Agony and the Ecstasy, Michelangelo. What’s the big deal?”

Tom was stubborn. “Why doesn’t he use their names? Why name them Ward? Also, I gather he used some of her writing.”

I found myself shrugging. The derivation of the word fiction is form. Stegner formed his astonishing novel from the materials he had. That’s what fiction writers do.

Nevertheless, it bothered me.

It bothered me in 1998, and it more than bothers me now. For far too long, the accomplishments of women have been attributed to men: F. Scott Fitzgerald appropriated Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing. Rosalind Franklin was denied the recognition—and the Nobel Prize—for helping discover DNA. Margaret Keane’s husband took credit for her big-eyed paintings. And although I didn’t know it at the time, I was about to wade into the long-standing case of literary license taken by one of the West’s preeminent male writers, whose most heralded work won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction exactly 50 years ago. Might Stegner’s literary legacy begin to shift in the era of #MeToo? Especially given the ongoing debate (a debate that I am, in fact, remarkably ambivalent about) regarding who has the right to tell another’s story.

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But lying there beside Tom, plotting how to successfully bring Angle of Repose to the stage, I brushed away the idea that Stegner might be one of those men who’d arrogate a woman’s work as his own. How could that be the case with the characters who dominate his novel? The Wards are perpetually on the move as Oliver’s career as a mining engineer takes him to California and Mexico and Colorado. They hang out with historical luminaries like geologist Clarence King and author Helen Hunt Jackson. Not to mention that tragic, awful decade in Boise, Idaho, as Oliver tries and fails to bring water to arid lands. Of course Stegner had invented those extraordinary lives and those bold, courageous characters. All that couldn’t possibly be real.

mary hallock foote
THOMAS EHRETSMANN

II.

A few days after that first meeting, Lynne Collins, slated to direct the adaptation, dropped by. “I was at Harmony Books, buying a new copy of Angle of Repose, and look what I found.”

She handed me a trade paperback: A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote. On the cover was a drawing of a woman in a Victorian dress waiting by empty train tracks, a pile of luggage beside her, including a long cylinder that might hold maps or plans. Published by the Huntington Library Press.

“It was shelved right next to Angle of Repose,” Lynne said. “Quite purposefully. So maybe there is some local connection there.”

“Interesting.” I leafed through pages that held photographs as well as drawings—clearly, Mary Foote, like Stegner’s Susan Ward, had been a talented illustrator. I put it on my desk next to my edition of Angle of Repose, which, published by Penguin, was in its zillionth printing. Above the title: “Winner of the Pulitzer Prize.”

Late that afternoon, feeling dutiful, I sagged into an armchair and opened Reminiscences to Book 1, “Quaker Beginnings.” I was immediately struck by Foote’s writing: “There were dark winter mornings when we woke as it were in the night,” she writes of being a child during an upstate New York winter, “in a room where an airtight stove blared away with the draft open, panting and reddening on its legless feet.”

Her writing was bright and joyous and beautifully detailed. But within a dozen pages, for other reasons, I was sitting up straight, spine tingling.

Mary Hallock Foote and Susan Burling Ward had far too much in common. Both were raised as Quakers in Milton, New York. Both attended Manhattan’s Cooper Union School of Design for Women in 1864. Both began their careers as illustrators, contributing to books by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Both married brilliant mining engineers, one named Arthur, the other Oliver. During their time at the New Almaden Mine in California, Mary/Susan wrote vivid letters to their dear friends Helena/Augusta, whose husbands, editors of the Century Magazine, asked to publish their correspondence, thus launching Mary/Susan’s writing careers. They went on to publish novels, story collections, and essays. Eventually, both women, each with three children, spent an achingly difficult decade outside Boise as their husbands pursued their vision of a vast irrigation system called the Big Ditch.

More disturbingly, I kept reading phrases and descriptions that felt familiar.

And then, on page 97, I came across this passage (ellipses mine, to give a sense of the whole):

And then Helena dawned on my nineteenth year like a rose pink winter sunrise, in the bare halls of Cooper, sweet and cold after her walk up from the ferry.… Across the city we came together and across the world in some respects.… Her sharings in books and friends were the stored honey of my girlhood.… Salt is added to dried rose leaves with the perfume and spices when we store them away in covered jars, the summers of our past.

The hair stirring on my arms, I reached for the novel. Yes. There it was, page 33: “And then Augusta dawned on my nineteenth year…sweet and cold from her walk up from the ferry” (ellipsis Stegner’s). The passage carries on for an entire page—with negligible alteration. I’d assumed Stegner had come up with that elegant, time-specific metaphor—the bitterness of salt and the beauty of roses in making potpourri—but clearly it was Foote’s.

I looked for an acknowledgment from Stegner, an endnote, and found an author’s note:

My thanks to JM and her sister for the loan of their ancestors. Though I have used many details of their lives and characters, I have not hesitated to warp both personalities and events to fictional needs. This is a novel which utilizes selected facts from their real lives. It is in no sense a family history.

“Selected facts”? (And who was “JM”?) Scene after scene drawn directly from Reminiscences shows up in Repose, as do many lengthy verbatim quotes. Troublingly, even as Stegner uses Foote’s descriptions and insights, he subtly yet thoroughly denigrates her character. While Foote in her writings emerges as lively and game, eager to engage with wherever her husband’s engineering interests and career might take them, Lyman Ward hints, leeringly, that his grandmother is more in love with Augusta than with Oliver. Susan finds endless fault with her husband and the cross-country traipsing intrinsic to the life of a mining engineer.

Stegner, an ardent scholar of the West (his biography of John Wesley Powell should be required reading for those living, as the title describes it, “beyond the hundredth meridian”), gives that historical expertise to his narrator, Lyman. It’s a clever literary sleight of hand, as it’s Lyman who creates scenes based on—and uses entire passages lifted from—his “grandmother’s unpublished reminiscences.” And I could not help but notice that Lyman quotes, also extensively, from the letters Susan writes to Augusta. Surely, surely, Stegner had written those?

Again, I turned to Tom, who, with his 50-year knowledge of the community, put me in touch with Tyler Micoleau, the widower of one of Foote’s granddaughters, Janet—the JM of Stegner’s author’s note. Tyler was delighted that I was looking into an issue that had infuriated the Foote family for decades. He offered folders of documents, including letters from Stegner to Janet. He also informed me that a great number of the Foote family’s papers, including Mary’s letters to Helena—lent to a student of Stegner’s and never returned—were now stored at the Cecil H. Green Library at Stanford University.

Galvanized, I raced to Palo Alto.

mary hallock foote, a victorian gentlewoman in the far west, wallace stegner, angle of repose
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III.

I may have felt I was pickaxing into new territory, but since Repose’s 1971 publication, controversy has churned around Stegner and his novel. However, as those objections have been confined largely to academic circles, they’ve seldom reached those who for decades have read and adored the book.

Stegner appears to have become aware of Mary Hallock Foote’s writing in the late 1940s; by the end of the next decade, he is teaching her stories at Stanford. One of Stegner’s graduate students, George McMurry, interested in pursuing a dissertation on MHF, as she is known, tracks down her descendants in Grass Valley. In a 1957 letter to Stegner, his thesis adviser, McMurry writes that he met with Janet and Tyler Micoleau and they gave him “two more [emphasis mine] cartons each as big as the one in the Felton Room of prime MHF material, including nearly 200 of her sketches, all her press clippings, reviews and family and fan letters.” McMurry’s own letters demonstrate that he is entranced by MHF: he’s collecting her out-of-print novels, working on a biography, and transcribing the letters loaned to him by the Micoleaus.

In March 1957, Stegner asks to meet with MHF’s family “about your grandmother.” They lend him some manuscripts of her stories. As he returns these, Stegner writes that he’s encouraging McMurry to finish MHF’s biography, as well as his editing, “for parallel publication,” of the reminiscences.

Ten years pass. In August 1967, Stegner writes to the Micoleaus that McMurry “has got pretty old” and the biography isn’t going to happen. “He has given me his typescripts of the letters, however, and I have been reading them, and I see why the letters excited him.” While Stegner isn’t interested in writing a biography of MHF, he can see that “out of [their] so-typical and so-comprehensive life,” he “might work out the outlines of a big western novel of a kind” he has “not yet seen written.” He continues:

Since it would involve no recognizable characterizations and no quotations direct from the letters I assume this sort of book is more or less open to me.

In a P.S. he asks, “Do you know the location of your grandmother’s reminiscences?”

That October, he thanks Janet for sending the reminiscences. “Quite a book, really,” he writes. “And quite a life. I’m all the more persuaded that it ought to be worked into something, and I’m all the more eager to try to do it.”

Then, silence.

Meanwhile, James D. Hague, the grandson of Arthur’s brother-in-law, encourages the Huntington Library Press to publish MHF’s reminiscences, which it enthusiastically agrees to do. And in March 1970, Janet receives a slightly panicky letter from Stegner: “Probably you thought I was dead, paralyzed, struck dumb, or otherwise incapacitated. I am none of those. I am only slow as a sinful conscience.” What sins might be plaguing him, he leaves her to guess.

He’s just heard about the forthcoming publication. “Me, I think it’s a splendid idea,” he writes.

But…must I now unravel all those little threads I have so painstakingly ravelled together, the real with the fictional, and replace all truth with fiction? Or does it matter to you that an occasional reader or scholar can detect the Footes behind my fictions?

The news of the imminent publication of MHF’s writings must have been unsettling. As long as there was no copyright, Stegner was within his legal rights to borrow from them freely. Above all, though, to “unravel” those “little threads” would have destroyed the novel.

“For reasons of drama,” he writes, “…I’m having to throw in a domestic tragedy of an entirely fictional nature. But I think that I’m not too far from their real characters.”

Alerted to Reminiscences’ impending publication, he seems in a headlong rush to put his novel to bed: only a month later, he writes to Janet that he’s nearing completion.

Do you want to read this fat 600-page manuscript when it’s finished, or would you rather wait till I can send it to you in print? As I have already warned you, it wouldn’t do to look for your grandparents’ lives in it; only a sort of outline, and flashes, all of it bent when I needed to bend it.

We don’t have Janet’s reply, but it’s clear she demurred from reading that “fat” manuscript. And so the novel is published with the “threads” intact.

That was 1971. Reminiscences was published in 1972—the same year that Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize.

wallace stegner
THOMAS EHRETSMANN

IV.

I spent three days at Stanford studying Foote’s letters and family ephemera. In the evenings, I visited my parents in their San Francisco flat, whose living room windows encompassed a spectacular view, from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate. As we watched the setting sun flicking with gold the dark water, the talk naturally swirled around Stegner.

“Foote’s Reminiscences had no copyright when Stegner used them,” my father said. “He’s legally within his rights.”

“ ‘Legally,’ ” I repeated, appalled that my father was offering the same excuse routinely offered by Stegner and his other defenders.

Dad chuckled. “On a related note? The editor of Warlock chided me about Goodpasture’s journals.” Henry Goodpasture, a character in Dad’s novel, owns the local mercantile; at night, he ruminates in his journal—wonderful, wise passages about how law must necessarily follow the desire for order that’s developed among his fellow citizens in the town of Warlock.

“My editor thought those journals were real. He pretty much shouted at me, ‘You can’t use journals written by somebody else!’ ”

I stared. “Exactly, Dad! That’s what Stegner’s done! Why are you defending him?” My mother and I both looked at him, waiting. He looked sad. “The man was my friend.”

That sentence would stick with me.

Back home, I shared my outrage with Tom and Lynne. “I don’t know how we can possibly give him more credit,” I said. But I had yet to articulate any of this to the rest of the group, especially artistic director Philip Sneed. Instead, I dove further into research.

In his Conversations with Wallace Stegner, historian Richard Etulain dedicates a chapter to Repose, and Stegner is often defensive. It “has nothing to do with the actual life of Mary Hallock Foote except that I borrowed a lot of her experiences,” he tells Etulain. And the Mary Foote “stuff” (his word) “had the same function as raw material, broken rocks out of which I could make any kind of wall I wanted to.”

Contemporary reviewers and writers—with few exceptions, men—defend Stegner with the “no copyright” argument or by insisting, as Stegner himself did, that the family gave him permission. But that permission, if it was indeed granted, seems to have been secured under false pretenses. There’s that 1967 letter, in which he tells Janet that the novel would involve no direct quotations; in 1970, he assures her that “it wouldn’t do to look for your grandparents’ lives in it; only a sort of outline.”

For many, the only excuse needed is that Stegner created a great work of art.

But whose work of art is it, really? When Repose was released, the New Yorker described the Wards’ “triumphantly American Odyssey.” The New Statesman wrote that Susan is the book’s “great strength”; the Atlantic praised Stegner’s ability with voice, especially Susan’s, “in letters that are a triumph of verisimilitude.”

Verisimilitude.

It’s plagiarism.

Yet in the end, it wasn’t that Stegner copied so much, verbatim, that incensed me. Nor that, in creating the Wards, he followed so precisely—for 523 of the novel’s 569 pages—the trajectory of the Footes’ lives. It was that, in the process, he altered Mary’s character. Susan emerges as a griping, entitled, discontented 1950s housewife, nothing like the adventurous, deeply intelligent, resilient woman on whom she was modeled.

My outrage on MHF’s behalf became a living, writhing thing; I was both fish—pulled along by the information I was finding—and fisherperson, casting hook after hook into waters into which I’d inadvertently waded. I felt I was doing the most important work of my life—a feeling that has not left me. My fury surprised me, but as I located its sources, it grew: I was angry at how, for centuries and across cultures, men have demeaned women; I was angry at their entitlement; I was angry at language in which “bitch” belittles both female dogs and female humans, and that unexplored lands are called “virgin territory.” I was angered by how often God is defined as male and that so much destruction and violence is committed in, and justified by, his name. Stegner didn’t physically assault Mary Foote, but he abused her—her life, her writing, and, as it turned out, her reputation. And he got away with it because he was a man. A privileged, white, older man. Would he have used the journal and letters of a male writer in this way?

Fifty pages from the end of the novel, Stegner, in his guise of Lyman Ward, writes:

Up to now, reconstructing Grandmother’s life has been an easy game. Her letters and reminiscences have provided both event and interpretation. But now I am at a place where she hasn’t done the work for me.… I have to make it up.

And “make it up” Stegner does. Susan and one of Oliver’s assistants, Frank Sargent, have an affair. While Susan is thus distracted, her toddler, Agnes, drowns. Sargent blows his brains out. Oliver refuses to speak to Susan for the rest of their lives.

This is Stegner’s “domestic tragedy.” This is the part of the Footes’ lives he “bent when [he] needed to bend it.” While also telling the family, “But I think that I’m not too far from their real characters.”

Stegner had a good sense of what he was doing. In 1971, he sent Janet a copy of the published novel “with trepidation.”

You may have expected me to stick to your grandmother’s real life and character. And that I found I was unable to do. I had to warp it—it warped itself.… In effect [I] make your grandmother bolster with her authentic letters the false portrait I am painting of her. The ways of fiction are devious indeed.

After he blasts their lives apart, Stegner returns the Wards’ story to his source material. The Footes (speaking) and the Wards (not) land a house and a job in Grass Valley: brothers-in-law Hague/Prager hire Arthur/Oliver to run a mine. For the Wards, it’s the Zodiac; for the Footes, the North Star.

In 1971, when Repose was published, many recognized the arc of the Footes’ lives. The couple’s daughter Agnes—the only Foote family name Stegner did not change—had also died young, at 18, of pneumonia. Those readers naturally assumed that Mary had had an affair and that she and Arthur lived in bitter silence out there at the North Star. Later, in what the Foote descendants apparently felt was a direct response to having opened the door to Stegner, Janet Micoleau suffered a nervous breakdown. Her nephew, Bob, who struggled with mental illness but for years worked as a docent at the North Star Mining Museum—commandeering the attention of anyone who visited with the story of the vast disservice done to his great-grandparents—died by suicide.

It’s quite the Möbius twist: Those who don’t know Stegner’s sources—the Footes’ remarkable story; his copious use of MHF’s letters and reminiscences—assume he wrote every word. Those readers who do know that the novel is based on the Footes’ lives, and that so much of the writing is Mary’s, assume Stegner told their “real” story: adultery, infanticide, a destroyed marriage.

V.

The Foothill Theatre Company did not produce an adaptation of Angle of Repose. Neither Lynne nor I wanted to put our shoulders to that wheel. Phil was disappointed. But he took our concerns seriously. As the years have gone by, I’ve come to appreciate that he didn’t seek out another writer and director, which he could easily have done.

What I could imagine, I told him, was a meeting between Stegner and Foote. What would she say to him? How would he defend himself? I wanted to hear that conversation. The ideal place for such an encounter was the “ether” that theater provides.

A few months later, Phil called. “That idea you have,” he said. “Let’s apply for an NEA grant and see what might come of it.”

What came of it was Fair Use, the title a copyright term. My father’s phrase, “The man was my friend,” ended Act I and helped create the character Playwright, who, struggling in her marriage, stays with her divorced historian father. Historian happens to be a grateful student and friend of WS—who has a lot of similarities to Stegner. And MHF, penning letters and reminiscences, observes how WS, even as he uses her life and her writing to compose a novel, dramatically alters the climax of that life and, in the process, her entire character. Two actors play Mary/Susan and Arthur/Oliver, turning on an often-comedic dime to deliver those differences.

Fair Use premiered in 2001. Lynne directed. Phil, also an actor, played WS; I played MHF. Opening night, a few minutes into the play—as WS types what MHF writes—a man in the audience blurted, “Oh my God. He really did it!”

Stegner really did. But when there’s rape and murder and climate change and voter suppression, a certain “so what?” factor can emerge around plagiarism. It’s what he did to Mary’s life that fascinates and appalls, and that’s what drove me in the writing of the play. In choosing to climax the story of the Wards in a romantic tryst gone terribly wrong, Stegner not only “warped” the Footes’ story; he missed the opportunity to unfold the remarkable final act of their lives. Years after they’d “anchored at the North Star,” MHF writes, “deep in deep mining…the old Idaho dream came back to us with its sound of wild waters between dark basalt bluffs that cut the sky.” Arthur’s assistant Wiley, still in Idaho, had sent them a news clipping:

A quarter of a century ago Arthur Foote…saw where water could be diverted; he saw where it could be stored, and, in the reach of his precise imagination, he could see these lands peopled with thousands of prosperous families.

Although it took the force and wealth of the U.S. government to make it happen, Arthur’s Big Ditch was finally finished. Three thousand people lined the banks to see it open. The entire area continues to this day to be watered by Arthur’s vision.

In our current era, Stegner’s warping of the very nature of the woman who recorded so vividly her exceptional life pulses with startling relevance. Foote was a fellow writer; Stegner taught her stories. Clearly, he admired her writing enough to know he could not do better, and so he lifted it outright. I imagine him with piles of transcripts beside his typewriter, typing page after page into his manuscript, words he did not write. How did he justify it?

In that 1971 letter to Janet, Stegner ends: “Wonderful. I feel like a character in literary history.” He did not mean being famous, but that what he’d done would catch up to him. It’s time it did. It’s possible to salute Stegner as a writer while acknowledging the devious skill he used in creating this novel.

Looking back on that bleak decade in Boise while they were working on the Big Ditch, MHF recalls sitting with her husband and his assistants:

Often I thought of one of their phrases, “the angle of repose,” which was too good to waste on rockslides or heaps of sand. Each one of us…was slipping and crawling and grinding along seeking what to us was that angle, but we were not any of us ready for repose.

It was MHF who observed the fineness of that life metaphor; Stegner stole that from her as well, as the title of his novel. He has Lyman define it as “Horizontal. Permanently.” But that hopelessness, that fatalism, is not Mary’s.

I suppose that’s what I want for her: a repose that has to do with reclaiming the life that Stegner took from her.

We have a word for the theft of writing; we do not have one for a stolen life.•