Too often I fear our vision of the history of the West is very narrow in focus, unmoored from what was happening in the rest of the country and the world. Our take on the “old West,” calcified from fourth grade history lessons, is limited to wagon trains, pick-axes and the Donner party. Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose offers a much broader view.
This book, published in 1971, had somehow escaped my attention for all these years. I recently heard a claim made that it is one of the best novels ever written. I have got to read this book, I thought. I sauntered up the five blocks to our neighborhood public library and checked out a copy.
I loved this book. I enjoyed every moment I spent reading it. This was certainly one of those synchronous instances of a book showing up at just the perfect time in my life. There are rich layers of storytelling here, and some wonderful writing. It would have been an engaging read at any point, but I found its overlap with my own current interests in both my family’s history and California history very compelling. History comes alive when we begin to understand what people’s lives were like during a bygone era, and Stegner’s novel paints a captivating picture of life in the developing West using fictional and non-fictional persons and events.
The narrator is a disabled man, a retired professor, who is researching his grandmother and writing about her life—as am I researching and writing about my ancestors. He is living in Grass Valley, a mining town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. This is the town my cousins grew up in and where I spent time as a kid. This part of the book is set in the late 1960s, which is when my cousins and I would have been riding our bikes and roaming over the grounds of the old Empire Mine before it was made into a State Historic Park. The book references a fictional Zodiac Mine, which was apparently based on another major mine in the area, the North Star Mine. And, for the correlation trifecta, his grandparents’ history is all wrapped up in the history of the West in the 1800s, as his East-Coast-grandmother (a semi-fictional character based on Mary Hallock Foote) married a mining engineer and subsequently spent most of her life in the unsettled West. The title of the book, Angle of Repose, refers to the maximum slant of an incline without loose materials sliding down—a term used in mining, and a reference, no doubt, to the dynamics of his grandparents’ marriage.
Stegner reminds us that those who journeyed west were not just young men with gold dust in their eyes staking a claim on some stream in the Sierra, but professionals—people with education and intellect and skills. Engineers. Geologists. Artists. Writers. And every kind of speculator. I’ve read that gambling was the number one form of entertainment in the West, but it was not limited to games of chance. Fortunes were made and lost through shaky land deals involving outright lying and cheating, but investors also gambled that a railroad would come through, a canal would be built, a mine would pay off. Often these dreams never materialized. In the book, the narrator’s grandparents spend much time in dusty frontier towns awaiting just such improvements only to be disappointed time and again, after which they would move on to the next uncivilized spot. Stegner asks,
Who were those glittering people intent on raiding the continent for money or for scientific knowledge?
The old West has, of course, been much romanticized over time. As I research my ancestors’ participation in the “early” history of California, it is not lost on me that this land has a history that predates white settlers by millennia, and that California’s history for the past several centuries is based on theft. Spain took the land from the indigenous people and the Mexicans, the Mexicans eventually took it back, and the white settlers, backed by the United States government and the credo of manifest destiny, took it from Mexico and whatever indigenous peoples had survived disease and enslavement by the Spanish Missions up until that point. The settlement of the West was all about the appropriation of resources. These included minerals—the main topic of Stegner’s novel—but also land, forests, quarries, and, that priceless commodity, water.
Historical fiction is my favorite genre because I get to learn while being entertained. This book does not disappoint on either score, and I now have some new jumping off points for further study on the machinations involved in incorporating the West into the United States. For example, Stegner’s novel referenced the Public Land Commission, which was formed in 1851 after California became a state. The Commission existed for only five years and was mainly a way to steal land from the Mexicans, as far as I can tell, because it forced the Californios (Mexican inhabitants of California) to defend their land grants through an expensive process. Many could not afford to participate in the legal maneuvering required, and so lost their land.
The Public Land Commission commissioned a report entitled the Public Domain. This is a fascinating document—available online—of over 500 pages. The title page has the following lengthy title: The Public Domain. Its history, with statistics, with references to the national domain, colonization, acquirement of territory, the survey, disposition, and several methods of sale and disposition of the public domain of the United States, with sketch of legislative history of the land states and territories, and references to the land systems of the colonies, and also that of several foreign governments. The report is a codification of public land laws and essentially covers every treaty and legislative act used to acquire and manage (i.e. settle) land in the public domain in the US, as well as descriptions of public land systems used in Canada, Brazil, Mexico and Australia. It is quite an amazing document.
Wallace Stegner’s writing has whet my appetite for further delvings into the many forces that shaped the settlement of the West. The West’s history is comprised of far more than the gold rush. The events that brought so many settlers west did not occur in a vacuum but were influenced by issues of slavery, the Civil War, the Mexican-American war, and the Homestead Act of 1862, among other things. Stegner subtly weaves the politics and current events of the period of western migration into what is ultimately a well-written novel about human relationships and the intricate workings of a marriage—definitely worth the read.
History Geek links:
The report on the Public Domain can be found here: https://archive.org/stream/publicdomainits00goog#page/n6/mode/2up
Here’s a link to a lengthy but interesting article about the Homestead Act and how it played out in different states over the years (right up until the 1970’s in Alaska). It was featured in Prologue magazine, a quarterly publication of the National Archives: