Sands Hall, a playwright and daughter of author Oakley Hall, digs into the work of Wallace Stegner — specifically his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Angle of Repose, which is based on the life of Mary Hallock Foote. “[W]e often fold in the real with the invented,” writes Hall, but when does inspiration become plagiarism?
Yet in the end, it wasn’t that Stegner copied so much, verbatim, that incensed me. Nor that, in creating the Wards, he followed so precisely—for 523 of the novel’s 569 pages—the trajectory of the Footes’ lives. It was that, in the process, he altered Mary’s character. Susan emerges as a griping, entitled, discontented 1950s housewife, nothing like the adventurous, deeply intelligent, resilient woman on whom she was modeled.
Stegner didn’t physically assault Mary Foote, but he abused her—her life, her writing, and, as it turned out, her reputation. And he got away with it because he was a man. A privileged, white, older man. Would he have used the journal and letters of a male writer in this way?