Wallace Stegner's novel, Angle of Repose (Doubleday), was published in 1971. The next year, it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It has since been lauded as one of the finest, most influential works of literature about the American West, but it has also been dogged by controversy. As much as 10 percent of it was lifted directly from the letters and journals of early Boise resident Mary Hallock Foote, and the now-famous literary theft is now the subject of an play soon to be performed in Boise.
"What I try to lay out in the play is a kind of trial. ... There's a legal versus ethical discussion," said Sands Hall, author of the play Fair Use.
In 1876, Mary Hallock Foote and her husband, Arthur, moved West from the East Coast, spending time in towns like Leadville, Colo.; Grass Valley, Calif.; and, from 1884-95, in Boise River, Idaho. Arthur was a mining engineer later credited with developing a plan to irrigate the Boise Valley. Mary was a noted illustrator and author of popular reports on the experience of being a woman in the Wild West.
Hall said Stegner would have likely been ignorant of the increased interest scholars and the public began to have in pioneer women's writings, which earlier in the 20th century would have been all but forgotten. In an ironic twist, Foote's Reminiscences of a Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West—Stegner's source material—was published the same year as Angle of Repose.
The controversy has been an enduring part of the conversation surrounding Stegner's most famous novel. Fair Use, which was first performed in Boise by New Heritage Theatre in 2004, attempts to make sense of that controversy. The dramatis personae in the play include, among others, MHF, WS, Playwright, Historian and Actors (all listed as such). In Fair Use, Playwright pens a stage play exploring an identical act of literary theft in which the victim and perpetrator are able to speak with one another. Playwright is a staunch defender of Foote while Historian tries to salvage Stegner.
At the core of Fair Use is the act of theft. During his life, Stegner was regarded as one of America's foremost literary figures. He founded Stanford University's literary program—his students included Sandra Day O'Connor, Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey—and was the winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the National Book Award. For Hall, imagining someone of Stegner's stature unethically using someone else's work was ripe for exploration.
"I kept imagining him sitting at his desk copying—typing someone else's words. What an interesting thing that must have been for him," she said.
Fair Use, which will receive a staged reading at 7 p.m., Saturday, June 4 at the Boise State University Danny Peterson Theater, has another motive: some of the play's proceeds will support an effort to memorialize the Foote family's legacy in Idaho at the site of their original homestead, located between the Discovery Picnic Area and Lucky Peak Dam Recreation Area at what is now Foote Park.
For Dr. Janet Worthington, there was a need that wasn't being met for recognizing the Footes' time in the Treasure Valley.
"It was kind of disgraceful that the house there is pretty much gone except for the foundation," she said.
For the past 18 months, Worthington has been part of a team working to build an interpretive center on the site housing illuminations of the Footes' achievements and legacies in Boise. It has gotten green lights from the Idaho Humanities Council, the Idaho State Historical Society and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Worthington and her partners in the project have set for themselves a $70,000 fundraising goal, of which they've already raised $47,000. The production of Fair Use and other historical-themed events, she hopes, will get them the rest of the way.
While Arthur will be represented equally with his wife at the interpretive center, Worthington said she has a particular fondness for Mary. Since moving to Boise in 2004, Worthington has performed impersonations of famous American women to adult audiences through the Idaho Humanities Council. So far she has collected a roster of 13 historical figures, ranging from Foote to First Lady Martha Washington to Mrs. Santa Claus.
She recalled an instance when a member of the public asked her if Martha Washington, the wife of President George Washington, was still alive. It's egregious, she said, so many women who have affected the course of history are unknown or misunderstood.
"My goal is to help people realize the importance of women in history. There are so many women who played such vital roles, and people know almost nothing," she said.
For her, Stegner's appropriation of Foote's work is also egregious, but Foote's contribution to literature and American history will stand the test of time.
"She presented to the East a woman's perspective on the West. People in the East were just hungry for something about the West, and she presented a different point of view because she was looking at it from the perspective of a female," Worthington said.