Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose tells a classic pioneer story, full of hardship, hope, struggle, tests of faith, and a sometimes-hostile, sometimes-beautiful environment. The novel's main character, Lyman Ward, is a retired historian who is writing the story of his grandparents' lives. Lyman is an ornery storyteller who frequently critiques his own historical moment—in which "Berkeley radicals" are challenging the Victorian morality he holds dear—and expresses nostalgia for the time before history ended, when people had character, ruggedness, patience, aspirations, and a solid work ethic. Stegner's protagonist demands our attention for the ways he represents the West's mythical elements and the ways he succumbs to the nostalgia that too often still colors these elements. In The Sound of Mountain Water, Stegner condemns nostalgia and describes his efforts to depict the "real people of the West," who are "infrequently cowboys and never myths" (31). Angle of Repose is one of Stegner's most admirable attempts to describe the West's "real people" and reestablish continuity between the past and the present without falling prey to nostalgia or myth making.
With Stegner's intentions in mind, this essay examines how Lyman helps us "theorize" western life and culture as he narrates the history of his pioneer grandparents and contrasts the "old West" with the "New West." Lyman's attitude toward the counterculture (which closely follows Stegner's own) is accompanied by a form of nostalgia that implicitly celebrates the past by contrasting it with the debilitated contemporary moment. Because he dislikes the counterculture so profoundly, Lyman is predisposed to see his pioneer relatives as more honest, more in touch with the past, and as counterpoints to all that is wrong with the "amputated Present" (SMW 193). Specifically, he asserts that "the twentieth century [has] tak[en] away the possibility of innocence" (34). This essay uses Lyman's nostalgia as a starting point to examine how his rediscovery of this lost innocence in his grandparents reifies the familiar US history of its frontier settlers as morally righteous—a history that glosses over the violent aspects of the western past.
While most scholars of this text foreground how it challenges western myths, this essay identifies the echoes of the Turnerian frontier, even in its multi-layered depictions of this fraught space. Although the environmentalist agenda of the novel is readily apparent, Lyman's nostalgia for pioneer virtue results in a narrative that elides problematic histories, exhibits paternalistic attitudes towards people of color, and reifies nature as the domain of white, privileged Americans. The frontier that emerges is ruthless and it takes casualties, but there is a mystifying substitution at work: innocent white pioneers are the suffering ones, not the people who were displaced, colonized or killed by these pioneers' ancestors. This essay suggests that readers are not sufficiently invited to critique Lyman's view and, as a result, the text reifies what Patricia Limerick has described as an "empire of innocence." The frontier remains largely trapped in its historical role as the violent proving ground for US identity, the site at which civilization battled (and eventually overcame) savagery, and the space where racist and colonial aspirations were made manifest.
In making this argument, this essay aims to respect Stegner's intentions, attend to the problems with conflating author and narrator, and develop an analysis that is nuanced and sensitive, rather than inflammatory or accusatory. While the novel is successful in some ways in representing a complex West—for instance, it acknowledges and critiques the economic intersections between Western industry and Eastern financial backing—it is less successful at exposing the problematic interconnections between race, class and the economy. Ultimately, familiar stereotypes lurk in this novel despite Stegner's intentions—stereotypes about civilization, innocence, and the hardy, virtuous pioneers said to embody both.