Last night I began Wallace Stegner’s 1971 Pulitzer Prize winning novel Angle of Repose, which earned a place on Modern Library’s list of the top 100 novels from the 20th century. Penguin Classics describes the book:
Angle of Repose tells the story of Lyman Ward, a retired professor of history and author of books about the Western frontier, who returns to his ancestral home of Grass Valley, California, in the Sierra Nevada. Wheelchair-bound with a crippling bone disease and dependent on others for his every need, Ward is nonetheless embarking on a search of monumental proportions – to rediscover his grandmother, now long dead, who made her own journey to Grass Valley nearly a hundred years earlier. Like other great quests in literature, Lyman Ward’s investigation leads him deep into the dark shadows of his own life.
Where his son Rodman is limited by a Technicolor view of history, in which a person must be “crooked enough” or “successful enough to be interesting,” Lyman finds his “grandparents are a deep vein that has never been dug. They were people.” The challenge for Lyman – or anyone writing historical biography – is to excavate the past as it was lived by real people, and that means a theory of history is needed to communicate how life is lived forward but understood backward. The historian aspires to “get glimpses of lives close to [his], related to [his] in ways [he] recognize[s] but [doesn’t] completely understand… to live in their clothes for a while, if only so [he doesn’t] have to live in [his] own.” History, at its best, is not just a retrieval of the past but a deeper experience of the present, as Lyman realizes: “… it isn’t backward that I want to go, but downward. I want to touch once more the ground I have been maimed away from.”
In the first chapter Lyman addresses a photograph of his deceased grandmother as if she were in the studio with him. He comes upon a theory of history with the potential to do justice to his subject who is, despite the bloodline, a stranger:
If Henry Adams, who you knew slightly, could make a theory of history by applying the second law of thermodynamics to human affairs, I ought to be entitled to base one on the angle of repose, and may yet. There is another physical law that teases me, too: the Doppler Effect. The sound of anything coming at you – a train, say, or the future – has a higher pitch than the sound of the same thing going away. If you have perfect pitch and a head for mathematics you can compute the speed of the object by the interval between its arriving and departing sounds. I have neither perfect pitch nor a head for mathematics, and anyway who wants to compute the speed of history? Like all falling bodies, it constantly accelerates. But I would like to hear your life as you heard it, coming at you, instead of hearing it as I do, a sober sound of expectations reduced, desires blunted, hopes deferred or abandoned, chances lost, defeats accepted, griefs borne. I don’t find your life uninteresting, as Rodman does. I would like to hear it as it sounded while it was passing. Having no future of my own, why shouldn’t I look forward to yours?
It is no accident that this theory of history is developed in a novel. Literature, usually more than history, equips the reader to hear the lives of persons (characters) as they hear them. The act of overhearing has the power to expand the kind of sympathies that real life cannot adequately cultivate, as philosopher Martha Nussbaum articulates: “… literary imagining both inspires intense concern for the fate of characters and defines those characters as containing a rich inner life, not all of which is open to view; in the process, the reader learns to have respect for the hidden contents of that inner world, seeing its importance in defining a creature as fully human.”