Long before I set foot in Idaho for the first time, I got a glimpse of it through “Angle of Repose,” the Wallace Stegner novel about Arthur and Mary Hallock Foote. The couple moved to Idaho from the East in 1875 so Arthur, an engineer, could work as a mine manager and surveyer.
The Footes had a difficult time of it on the raw frontier. Mary pined for the genteel existence she’d left behind in New York. Arthur didn’t have the stomach for the unregulated and tough world of mining. But he designed an extensive irrigation project in southern Idaho aimed at bringing fertility to the high plains desert. While the Footes left Idaho before seeing the project to fruition, the the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation came along in the early 1900s and used Arthur’s plans to build what would become the New York Canal that irrigates the Treasure Valley.
Meanwhile, Mary raised the couple’s three children and worked as an author and illustrator, sometimes as the family breadwinner, winning commissions from writers such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlett Letter.”
When the Footes moved west in 1895 so Arthur could work at a California mine, they left behind their home, built from lava rock, just outside of Boise.
Nothing remains of the house now except a few traces of rock. Their story as told in “Angle of Repose,” Stegner’s best-known work and one of the greatest novels ever written about Idaho, is not widely known in the state.
But a small group called the Foote Park Project is working to change that. Retired English professor Janet Worthington and Mary Ann Arnold, who was a project controls engineer for nearly 30 years at Morrison-Knudsen, are raising $70,000 to build an interpretative center to show the legacy of the Footes.
Worthington focuses on Mary Hallock Foote’s work as a writer and illustrator; Arnold is making sure that Arthur Foote’s engineering achievements have an equal place in the spotlight. The interpretative center will include a wall made of lava rock and plaques that honor the accomplishments of both.
“We wouldn’t be the Treasure Valley as we know it today without their contributions, especially Arthur’s contributions,” Arnold said. She noted that after the Bureau of Reclamation used Arthur Foote’s plans to build a canal system, “a fellow by the name of Morrison and a fellow by the name of Knudsen came from back East to work on those projects and met.”
Morrison-Knudsen, which became one of Boise’s largest and most important companies, was founded in 1912.
Stegner’s place in all this is a little more ambiguous. Although he wrote the novel that won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize and brought the work and struggles of the Footes to generations of readers, it’s now known that he actually copied much of it from Mary Hallock Foote’s then-unpublished memoir, “A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West.”
There’s no question that Stegner plagiarized. And Worthington and Arnold aren’t airbrushing that detail. They traveled to California last summer to meet with Ann Brillhart, a great-grandaughter of Mary Hallock Foote, to discuss Stegner’s appropriation. Mary Hallock Foote herself was a published author, putting out 12 novels through Houghton-Mifflin.
Yet Stegner’s literary achievements are great, despite this major lapse. His love and admiration for the West shines through in much of his 16 books and in his powerful essays and short stories. He won the 1977 National Book Award for “The Spectator Bird” and a host of other, lesser-known awards. He started the creative writing program at Stanford University. And he worked to protect the places he loved. When there was talk in 1955 of converting Dinosaur National Park’s Yama and Green canyons into a reservoir for a hydroelectric dam, Stegner wrote an essay that reads as an ode to the park:
“The cliffs and sculptured forms are sometimes smooth, sometimes fantastically craggy, always massive, and they have a peculiar capacity to excite the imagination,” he wrote in a book of essays, “Dinosaur.” “The effect on the human spirit is neither numbing nor awesome, but infinitely peaceful.”
Worthington and Arnold expect work to start on the interpretative center, located by the Boise River across from Discovery Park on Highway 21, next year. They’re working with the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the site, and have raised about $47,000 so far, much of it from small donors and local foundations.
On June 4, they’re staging “Fair Use,” a play by author and songwriter Sands Hall that tells the story of Stegner’s plagiarism. And on June 11, Worthington and Arnold are holding a celebration of the Foote legacy at the Boise Public Library. They’re marking the century since Boise held a celebration of its own, Mary Hallock Foote Day, in 1916.
“We owe it to the Foote family to bring some of this to light,” Worthington said. “We owe it to these two people who were pioneers and kept going despite the adversity.”
Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.