Wallace Stegner and the Trap of Using Others’ Writing

For years, troubling charges — appropriation and plagiarism — hovered over Wallace Stegner’s famous novel,”rest angle“The story of a mining engineer and his wife living in the American West during the late 1980s. There is no doubt that Stegner used the life of writer Mary Hallock Foot as a basis for his novel, nor that he used passages from her work without attribution, but initially few people know. When Stegner’s novel was published, Foote’s memoirs were not published in 1971. When her book came out the following year, Stegner’s novel won a Pulitzer Prize, and was protected by an aura of recognition.

But the charges began to surface in the late 1970s. In 2000, in an introduction to the novel, Stegner biographer Jackson Benson defended Stegner’s inclusion of thirty-eight passages of Foote’s letters, “about 61 pages”, all without attribution. It’s a “brilliant tactic,” says Benson, creating “an invaluable part of the novel” and providing “depth and authenticity.” Regarding Foote’s life, Benson says the family encouraged Stegner to use the substance, believing Stegner would tell the story of Foote’s productive career and her happy marriage. Stegner wrote in the preface: “This is a novel that uses selected facts from their real lives. It is by no means a family history.” But it was a recognizable family history – one that disfigured the life he described. Recently, a Persuasive essay by Sands Holein the magazine AltaStegner is accused of plagiarism, appropriation of Foote’s life, and defamation of her name. Instead of sticking to historical facts, Stegner fabricates an adulterous relationship to the character based on Bigfoot, a transgression that costs the girl’s life and destroys her marriage. Some people who knew about Bigfoot assumed that was what happened in her life when it didn’t.

Mary Hallock Foot (1847-1938) was raised in a Quaker farming family near Poughkeepsie. She studied art in New York, at the Cooper Institute of Design for Women, then married Arthur de Wint Vut. He was a mining engineer and moved west to lead an adventurous life, in canyons and on mountainsides, in huts and cabins, on the edge of frontiers. Mary was a perceptive observer, a sympathetic friend, a devoted and daring wife, and a loving mother. She rejoiced in beauty and accepted the hardships of her surroundings. She has had a successful career as an illustrator and writer, producing novels, stories and memoirs. Her work has been published in Century Magazine and in other places. Stegner admired Foot’s stories and taught him to his creative writing students. When he encountered her letters, he aroused his interest, and asked the family for her unpublished memoirs. He said he thought he could make something out of it.

All fiction writers use some aspect of our lives in our imagination, even if it’s only the weather. Many of us wrote something based on a story we heard. But there is a difference between attributing a narrative to someone else’s story and using someone else’s written account of that story.

“The Comfort Corner” has been called one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century. I never liked it. Much of the prose seemed dull and airy, and the everyday scenes and dialogue are woody. When I read Hall’s article, I bought Foote’s diary—”A Victorian woman in the far west—and this was: the origin of ‘The Rest Angle.’ Scene after scene based on the main character—Mary Hallock Foote/Susan Burling Ward—straight out of Foote’s diary. The character of Susan Burling Ward comes alive and illuminating through Foote’s own writing; long passages taken from Her memoirs and letters are a graceful contrast to Stegner’s often prose.Besides memoirs and letters, Mary’s short stories and travel articles contain many minute details that Stegner borrowed.The life and work of Mary Hallock Foot were Stegner’s sources for his book.He was able to copy them, but seemed to be Unable to transform it through his imagination.

When I saw the plodding precision with which Stegner rewrote the scenes that Vote had already described, I realized there was no life in his writing. When you write your own novels, it’s like kayaking the rapids—you’re stuck in the current. But, if you’re rewriting someone else’s story, it’s like dragging a canoe across a field. The characters cannot live because their lives are over. They have already said everything they will ever say. The story is fixed. You are trapped in the sludge. Someone else created this, and all you do is set it back up. You try to put it in your own words, but it’s already there in someone else’s words. You simply register. I became a shorthand writer.

I know because this happened to me. When I was writing my novel “Sparta” about a Marine lieutenant returning home from Iraq, I read many war novels. Like Stegner, my only access to the realm of my novel came from other people’s words. I couldn’t try it myself. I found live accounts in blogs and memoirs, and absorbed them greedily. Drawing on one of them, I wrote a scene about a platoon going out on patrol early in the morning, walking down an Iraqi street and looking for explosive devices, as I wrote, I began to feel claustrophobic. The writing looked leaden. In fact, he died. I was copying someone else’s experience. I felt as if I was in a jacket. I had nowhere to move. I wasn’t imagining my own scene – I was setting up someone else’s scene. I became a shorthand writer.

When Stegner read Foote’s letters and diaries, they were unpublished and obscure. Practically no one knows about them. They gave him a secret portal to an entire world. Here was an intelligent and sympathetic character, describing her life story in great detail. It was like a dream. how to Not Want to use this material? He may have thought at first that he would just use the idea. Perhaps 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 her work by incorporating it into his work. Perhaps he thought, since she was a woman, that her work was there to benefit from it. He probably didn’t think about it at all.

The writer’s task is to define words in a new way. Creating a memorable phrase, sentence, paragraph is our business. Using someone else’s words without credit, and pretending that you wrote them yourself, is stealing. When I was writing my novel Dawson’s Fall, I once again had the problem of using the works of other writers. In this case, the characters were Frank and Sarah Dawson. They were my great-grandparents’ grandparents, so I felt I had the right to use their lives. But what about their writing? Both were prolific letter writers and both published Civil War memoirs. Frank was a newspaper editor, and wrote editorials for over fifteen years in Charleston News and mailwhich he founded. I had hundreds of pages of their writing, mostly vivid, depicting their life and period. Like Stegner, I was fascinated by this window on the past. Like Stegner, I thought a novel could be made out of matter.

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