“Riding Backwards”: Wallace Stegner, The Spectator Bird

spectator1Is there a name for books structured as backward explorations — books like Moon Tiger, say, or Old Filth, or Stegner’s Angle of Repose or The Spectator Bird, framed by aged protagonists’ desire (part nostalgic, part existential) to understand the story of their own lives? It’s a simple enough device, and at least in the examples I can think of right now, there’s a similarity of tone, a blend of introspection and acerbity, as if the past chafes a bit uncomfortably, a bit ironically, against the present. “Put it down to historical queasiness,” says Joe Allston in The Spectator Bird: “I always did get a little seasick riding backwards.”

The Spectator Bird begins with Joe and Ruth retired, living a version of the good life but beset, as Joe is increasingly aware, by both the physical and the psychological effects of aging. Joe suffers from arthritis, for example, that  pains and partially immobilizes him — and one side effect of his grating joints is a grating temper, a desire to assert his will in the face of changes he can’t control. A former literary agent, he has left the intensity of mid-town Manhattan for the more pastoral pleasures of California, which Stegner evokes with his characteristic sympathetic artistry:

Fat towhees sidle up to one another, pinheaded doves forage in the grass, the field next door is suddenly full of robins who arrive like blown leaves, picnic awhile, and depart all together as if summoned. From my study I can watch wrens and bush tits in the live oak outside. The wrens are nesting in a hole for the fifth straight year and are very busy: tilted tails going in, sharp heads with the white eyebrow stripe coming out. They are surly and aggressive, and I wonder idly why I, who seem to be as testy as the wrens, much prefer the sociable bush tits. Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide-and-sek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Instead of being carefree, Joe is “irritable and depressed,” and it doesn’t help to learn that yet another of their close friends is dying, or to be visited by a flamboyant Italian novelist, a vestige of the old literary scene, who can’t comprehend how they are living now: “You don’t want to sit in this imitation Umbria and dig in the mud and struggle against uncivilized nature. That is the way to grow old.” “By working our heads off,” Joe says acidly, “we managed to give Césare the dullest two and a half hours he has had since arriving in America.”

spectator2Still, Ruth and Joe seem likely to putter on, if not in perfect amity, at least in stolid companionship, without any new crises, until a postcard arrives from an old friend that prompts Joe to dig up his decades-old journals, which Ruth then encourages him to read aloud. They both know, it turns out, that the journals tell the story of a trip to Denmark that became a turning point in their relationship, one that has long gone unacknowledged but that has been a small irritation in their consciousness for decades. “You wanted the pebble out of the shoe,” says Joe to Ruth after she has forced a long-deferred confession; “I suppose,” she replies.

The Spectator Bird alternates between Joe and Ruth in the present and Joe’s journals. The Danish adventure the journals record begins as an escape from their own family drama — their son has died and Joe has just recovered from a serious illness — but takes them into one that’s even more fraught and complicated: an elegant Countess whose mysterious isolation turns out to be the result of her husband’s collaboration with the Nazis, and whose family’s past, intertwined, it turns out, with Joe’s, has secrets that make it, as Joe and Ruth observe, the stuff of Gothic novels.

Though I enjoyed the Danish segments a lot, I was a bit puzzled by the nature of those secrets, by why this kind of story provided the counterpoint Stegner wanted to the rest of Joe’s narrative. Its details seemed extreme and somewhat perverse, with no necessary thematic links to the life Joe is living now. But then I thought that maybe the contrast is deliberate: the Countess’s world is precisely not Joe’s, and though it’s enticing to imagine himself living in a Gothic romance, in the end — as he says — “there never was any real choice.” He doesn’t even feel any real regret. That’s not to say he doesn’t look back on those heady, confusing days and think about what might have been, but “jump[ing] into the Baltic, all for love and the world well lost” is not his way.

spectator3It’s tempting, perhaps, to look back with regret on a life that hasn’t turned out to be particularly memorable to anyone but the person who lived it. Early in the novel, Joe casts himself as a secondary character, a kind of Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, someone who watched other people live instead of really living himself:

As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about.

The Spectator Bird does not end on a note of regret, though. Instead, thinking back on his past, revisiting the road not taken, brings Joe to a form of acceptance that is better, more forgiving, more insightful than simple resignation:

The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.

I’ve always liked books of this kind, but now as I approach 50 I feel them taking on new significance. While it’s true that things could still take an unexpected turn in my own life, that different possibilities of one kind or another could certainly (presumably) open up, this feels like a time when, for me, I am living out the consequences of my earlier choices more than I am making new ones. Like Joe, I have journals recording some of what I now understand as my formative years, some of my own decisive (if probably inevitable) choices, and I also have memories that cover many more years, and many more nuances, than those sparse volumes ever can. I think there’s value in recollection — in hanging on to and trying to understand the evidence of our own pasts — but retrospection can too quickly become brooding for me. The Spectator Bird is hardly a consoling picture (“in every choice,” Joe thinks, “there is a component, maybe a big component, of pain”), but I found something bracing in his refusal to consider himself a failure because he opted to do what he thought was, as far as he could figure out, right:

It has seemed to me that my commitments are often more important than my impulses or my pleasures, and that even when my pleasures or desires are the principal issue, there are choices to be made between better and worse, bad and better, good and good.

It may make a better novel to choose what’s impulsive, dramatic, romantic — but The Spectator Bird proposes that it won’t necessarily, even probably, make a better life.

“A Kind of Investigation Into a Life”: Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose

stegnerNear the end of Angle of Repose its narrator, retired historian Lyman Ward, is talking with his ex-wife about the book he’s been working on. (Actually, it turns out that he dreamed that he was talking to his ex-wife, but the whole episode, including this conversation, is so unremarkably plausible as a continuation of the story he’s been recounting that even he has to “persuade [himself] that it was all a dream” — an unexpected variation on the novel’s theme of blurred lines between fact and fiction.) Asked its title, he offers up the ones he has been considering — including Angle of Repose, a moment that bounces us deftly into metafiction — and then shrugs off the question:

Forget it. It doesn’t matter. The title’s the least of it. . . It isn’t a book anyway, it’s just a kind of investigation into a life.

 Angle of Repose — that is, the novel that Wallace Stegner has written, not (necessarily) the non-book Lyman Ward contemplates — is exactly that, an investigation into a life. But whose life? Ostensibly, it explores the life of Lyman’s grandmother, illustrator and writer Susan Ward, reconstructing it from sources including her letters and notebooks as well as her published writings and drawings. And a very interesting life it is, too: from an elegant, cultured existence in Brooklyn Heights, surrounded by sophisticated people and domestic luxuries, she moves west with her engineer husband Oliver to places that, in the 1870s, were still works in progress as outposts of American “civilization.” As jobs come and go and hopes rise and fall, they move around, from California to Colorado, from Idaho to Mexico, each time in a new way re-establishing themselves as at home.

In all his guises (as narrator, as Lyman, as Susan), Stegner writes wonderfully about the landscapes of their travels. (So too, perhaps, does Mary Hallock Foote, the real 19th-century woman on whom Susan Ward is based and some of whose letters are incorporated verbatim into the novel — I say “perhaps” because her materials are not identified so I don’t know what words are hers.) The descriptions are never conspicuously stylish or artful. They are just wonderfully specific and tactile:

They came out onto a plateau and passed through aspens still leafless, with drifts deep among the trunks, then through a scattering of alpine firs that grew runty and gnarled and gave way to brown grass that showed the faintest tint of green on the southward slopes and disappeared under deep snowbanks on the northward ones. The whole high upland glittered with light.

Or, from one of Susan’s letters:

I wish I could make you feel a place like Kuna. It is a place where silence closes about you after the bustle of the train, where a soft, dry wind from great distances hums through the telephone wires and a stage road goes out of sight in one direction and a new railroad track in another. There is not a tree, nothing but sage. As moonlight unto sunlight is that desert sage to other greens. The wind has magic in it, and the air is full of birds and birdsong. Meadowlarks pipe all around us, something else — pipits? true skylarks? — rains down brief sweet showers of notes from the sky. Hawks sail far up in the blue, magpies fly along ahead, coming back now and then like ranging dogs to make sure you are not lost. Not a house, windmill, hill, only that jade-gray plain with lilac mountains on every distant horizon. The mountains companionably move along with you as the dirt road flows behind. The plain, like a great Lazy Susan, turns gravely, and as it turns it brings into view primroses blooming in the sand, and cactus pads with great red and yellow blooms as showy as hibiscus.

I’m not at all a “roughing it in the bush” type, but often reading Angle of Repose I wished I could step outside into the fresh air of a pine forest and dabble my feet in a rushing brook.

The people in the story, Susan and Oliver in particular, are as vivid and three-dimensional as their surroundings, and the story of their marriage — which survives, despite frequent separations, repeated disappointments and disagreements, tragic loss, and personal betrayals, for 60 years — is full of insight and human drama. But ultimately this biographical story is neither the most important nor the most interesting aspect of Angle of Repose. For one thing, it’s embedded in Lyman’s own story: the dream sequence near the end makes even clearer what has been implicitly evident all along, which is that Lyman is investigating his grandmother’s life as a way of trying to understand his own. Crippled by disease, confined to a wheelchair, in near-constant pain,  increasingly dependent on others’ care and fearful of losing what autonomy remains to him, Lyman finds in the activity of his mind both distraction from and consolation for the limitations of his body. Forced to retire from his work as a history professor, he can at least pursue his vocation as a historian, and in a manner that also provides him with a way of reflecting, by proxy, on his failed marriage, his relationship with his son, and the inevitable constrictions of his future. In Lyman’s story too there is much insight and even some drama — though that, for him, often borders uncomfortably on farce, and his wry self-awareness keeps pathos at bay.

What exactly is Lyman’s “vocation,” though? “It isn’t history,” says his assistant Shelly at one point; “you’re making half of it up.” Shelly is specifically concerned about what she considers his reticence about his grandparents’ sex life: “You get close,” she says, “and blip, you turn off the light.” “I may look to you like a novelist,” he responds, “but I’m still a historian under the crust. . . I stick with the actual. That’s what they would have done, turned off the light.” The discussion that follows, about changing mores and whether a historian can or should respect the values of his subject (“There are hints in the letters,” Shelly argues; “You could extrapolate”; “She valued her privacy,” Lyman retorts on his grandmother’s behalf; “she would never in this life have extrapolated. Neither would I.”) is interesting in itself, but the broader question of genre is even more interesting, and one that permeates Angle of Repose — itself a novel based so closely on a particular historical record that the some members of the family involved were apparently deeply offended by Stegner’s deviations from “the truth” but also considered him guilty of plagiarism for the unattributed letters he included.* Stegner created fiction from fact; so does Susan, who publishes both “sketches” and novels based on her Western experiences; and so too does Lyman, though he calls what he’s doing “history.”

The boundaries are difficult to police (as has been discussed explicitly at great and highly theoretical length at least since Hayden White’s Metahistory was published in 1973, and implicitly for at least as long as “historical fiction” has been a recognizable category) because even when the recorded facts are strictly adhered to, they require both interpretation and placement into a coherent narrative. There are always gaps, whether of evidence or of understanding. “I have to make it up, or part of it,” Lyman admits when he arrives at one of the pivotal events in Susan’s family history; “All I know is the what and not all of that; the how and the why are all speculation.” Even when the evidence is abundant, there’s always a process of selection: who decides what is “historical”? on what basis? according to what standard of relevance or significance? “A historian scans a thousand documents,” notes Lyman, “to find one fact he can use”:

If he is working with correspondence, as I am, and with the correspondence of a woman to boot, he will wade towards his little islands of information through a dismal swamp of recipes, housekeeping details, children’s diseases, insignificant visitors, inconclusive conversations with people unknown to the historian, and recitations of what the writer did yesterday.

Here we see even Lyman rather cavalierly discarding as useless all kinds of material that historians trained in different (later) schools of historiography would readily and eagerly incorporate into their accounts of pioneer life. And in fact Lyman does not disdain this “swamp” of domestic trivia: his account of Susan’s life is fully of it, and the story he (re)constructs is one that eschews many conventional notions of historical significance. As Stegner’s novel opens, Lyman is being harrassed by his cloddish son Rodman, who thinks he should “give up this business of Grandmother’s papers and write a book on ‘somebody interesting.'” Rodman, you see, has looked at some of Susan Ward’s work and seen “nothing in them”:

All full of pious renunciations, he says, everything covered up with Victorian antimacassars. He cited me her own remark that she wrote from the protected point of view, the woman’s point of view, as evidence that she went through her life from inexperience to inexperience.

Rodman has inadvertently stumbled on another issue that has also been written about extensively: the way in which ideas of “historical significance” have traditionally been gendered. Lyman himself is well aware that the “real” history is happening somewhere else while he stays at home with Susan Ward: over and over Oliver and his colleagues ride off to do manly work (“They departed like a Crusade,” observes Susan at one point) but it’s her perspective we share, and Stegner often makes the point that she too, with her home-making and domestic chores, but also with the cultural aspirations she carried with her and the drawings and stories she created to build bridges of understanding between East and West, was engaged in building a nation. It’s just that her experiences could easily be dismissed, as Rodman dismisses them, as “inexperience,” an error Angle of Repose corrects simply by paying attention to them.

Stegner’s exploration of these historiographical themes seems almost prescient: Angle of Repose was published in 1971, so just as both women’s history and historical narrative were emerging as major fields of theoretical and scholarly inquiry. Looking at the conclusion to my book about gender and genre in 19th-century historical writing, I’m reminded that Gerda Lerner’s “New Approaches to the Study of Women in History” appeared in 1969; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese’s “Placing Women’s History in History” in 1975; Joan Kelly’s “Did Women Have a Renaissance” in 1977. Many others followed White in exploring ways historical narrative could be read in literary ways: an essay I drew on a lot in my own earlier work was Louis O. Mink’s “Narrative Form as a Cognitive Instrument.”

Angle of Repose in fact made me think often of my research on gender and genre: though his specifics are very different from my own examples, we’re both looking into who gets written about, by whom, and in what form. The writing he (or Lyman, as his proxy) actually does about Susan Ward resonated very much for me with the novel that provides the final example in my book, Daphne Marlatt’s 1988 novel Ana Historic, in which her story of a frontier woman is also framed by a contemporary perspective and motivated by resistance to rules about who matters, about who (or what) counts as historical:

i learned that history is the real story the city fathers tell of the only important events in the world. a tale of their exploits hacked out against a silent backdrop of trees, of wooden masses, so many claims to fame, so many ordinary men turned into heroes. (where are the city mothers?) the city fathers busy building a town out of so many shacks labelled the Western Terminus of the Transcontinental. Gateway to the East — all these capital letters to convince themselves of its, of their, significance.

As I argued in my book, I think Marlatt’s vision in Ana Historic is “ultimately exclusionary: for her, women’s history can achieve authenticity only through isolation from masculinity in both life and representation.” Stegner, in contrast, seems committed to reconciling difference and opposition:

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.

 That “angle of repose” seems to me something that Stegner achieves, not just for his characters, but for the historical and fictional imperatives that underlie Angle of Repose.


*Jackson J. Benson’s introduction to my Penguin edition explains the permutations of Stegner’s negotiations with the Foote family.