Thursday, February 28, 2008

Wallace Stegner

Philip Fradkin’s new biography of Wallace Stegner has just been released, both to acclaim and criticism. Fradkin is speaking Thursday night at the Mechanic’s Institute and I am hoping to attend.

I have read and enjoyed many of Stegner’s books. While Angle of Repose won the Pulitzer Prize, my favorite was always Crossing to Safety, about the friendship of two couples who are very different in temperament and upbringing.

And since I went to Stanford, I knew about the prestigious Stegner writing fellowship program that has helped along the careers of many illustrious writers, including Ken Kesey, Edward Abbey. Robert Stone, Raymond Carver, Larry McMurtry, and Vikram Seth, among many others.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my mother recently attended a lecture on Stegner and later informed me that he has been accused of plagiarism. Apparently Angle of Repose is based on the letters and unpublished memoir of Mary Hallock Foote, who moved to California in the 19th century. Entire pages were lifted almost verbatim from Foote’s work.

These accusations of plagiarism aren’t well known, despite the fact that Stegner is considered one of the West’s greatest writers. The author and playwright Sands Hall created a play about the controversy, called Fair Use, and other biographers have discussed the plagiarism, but Fradkin's book places the issue front and center. It's a complex question because Stegner apparently had permission to use Hallock's material. He acknowledged her contribution in Angle of Repose, but didn't reveal the extent to which he relied on her writings.

In an editorial published in the Los Angeles Times, Fradkin wrote:

“The book evolved in the following manner. After hearing Stegner lecture in 1954, a graduate student asked if he thought that Foote would be a proper subject for his dissertation. She would, Stegner said. Her letters and manuscripts were obtained from a relative of Foote's in Nevada City, Calif., and brought to the Stanford University library. The student failed to produce anything, and by mutual consent, Stegner took over the subject in 1967.

Foote had died in 1938, and her closest relatives were her grandchildren. Stegner dealt solely with one, Janet Micoleau, who he had met in Nevada City through mutual friends. When she thought it necessary, Micoleau contacted two sisters for concurrence in her dealings with Stegner.

Stegner assured Micoleau in 1967 that the book would contain no recognizable characters and "no quotations direct from the letters." Was this all right with her? She replied that the family would "be delighted to have the MHF materials used as background." Stegner thanked Micoleau for her "blanket approval."

He wasn't sure at first if the book would be a novel or a biography. He settled on a fictional account because "she just wasn't a big enough figure for a biography to be a big book."

Stegner's concept of the book kept evolving. He then told Micoleau he wanted to mix fact with fiction. He was bending the characters "so you may not recognize your ancestors when I get through with them."

At most, Stegner assured her, he was using only selected paragraphs from the letters and memoir. (Actually, the borrowed passages would be considerably longer.) Would she read a draft of the manuscript? "I'm having to throw in a domestic tragedy of an entirely fictional nature," Stegner warned.

Micoleau declined. She was busy, and a 600-page manuscript was a lot to read. "I'm sure all concerned are content to trust your judgment," she wrote Stegner. "We all wish you well with the undertaking and have no desire to censor or interfere with it in any way."

The subject will surely come up this weekend, when Fradkin and others put on a weekend long conference on Stegner at Pt. Reyes in Marin County.

1 comment:

Peter Richardson said...

Frances, if you're planning to attend the Pt. Reyes conference, I hope to see you there. I had read Stegner casually over the years, including Crossing To Safety, which was lying around my parents' house over some holiday or other. But I did my homework (quickly) when David Ulin asked me to review the Stegner bio for the LA Times. So the conference looked especially interesting to me. BTW, I checked the book's sales yesterday on Bookscan--very promising.