I”m so excited this week to feature guest blogger: National Best Selling Author, playwright, musician and professor Sands Hall on Integrity. Check it out!
Have you ever done something you’re ashamed of? Something that’s made you squirm when you think of it, a little mental shudder, as you try to make your mind hop away from the memory?
The word comes from integer, meaning a whole number (not a fraction): a thing complete in itself. And when we are operating with integrity we feel complete. We return the $20 bill to the person who dropped it; we don’t tell the lie that would excuse our absence; we don’t kiss the man who is married to someone else. We feel whole. We don’t feel as if there’s something we’d like to shove under the rug and pretend is not there—even though we can feel the bump in our mental carpet every time we pass by.
Brenda invited me to write about integrity, and I am honored to have this opportunity, as a play of mine that deals with the subject, called FAIR USE, is being given a staged reading in Boise on June 4th. (Ticket information here) I’m particularly excited that FAIR USE is having an outing in Boise, as it concerns some deeply respected Boise citizens, and it’s where a very important part of the play takes place.
Mary and Arthur Foote, both from the east coast, settled in the Boise area in the 1880s. Mary was a well-known, popular illustrator and writer, Arthur a brilliant engineer who had the idea of creating what is now the Lucky Peak Dam and the canals that bring water to the Boise Valley. It was a huge vision, so huge that Arthur couldn’t pull it off (it took the U.S. Government to accomplish it), and the decade they spent trying to make it work was the nadir of their lives. Mary eventually wrote about that decade, and the rest of their remarkable lives, in her memoir, A VICTORIAN GENTLEWOMAN IN THE FAR WEST, THE REMINISCENCES OF MARY HALLOCK FOOTE, which were published by the Huntington Library in 1972.
But before the manuscript was published, it fell into the hands of Wallace Stegner, who based his 1971 novel, ANGLE OF REPOSE, on the Footes’ lives. (Stegner names them Susan and Arthur Ward.) And here’s where integrity comes in. He not only used the Footes’ lives (which is fine, as far as it goes—writers often borrow elements of people’s lives as they create their fictions); he also used those reminiscences, quoted verbatim, without attributing them to Mary Hallock Foote. He also used, also verbatim, letters that Mary wrote to her best friend, Helena (named Augusta in the novel), who lived in New York. Again, without acknowledgement.
Stegner has defended himself, saying the memoirs weren’t published when he used them and so had no copyright; and he says he had permission from the family to use the letters (that is true; but he also told them he’d use “no direct quotes”). So legally he was within his rights. But ethically? I find it very troubling, that a man of his supposed integrity could convince himself that he could use all that material written by someone else, and call himself the author.
In those days, it wasn’t a matter of highlighting a chunk of text and dragging it from one document to another (not that that makes it any less wrong); Stegner had to sit with those letters and that manuscript to one side of his typewriter and type them, word after word, into his manuscript. (His biographer, Jackson Benson, estimates it’s at least ten percent of the novel.) I wonder how he convinced himself it was all right to do that. Even with the lack of copyright making it “okay”; even with the family’s permission (and that is a complicated): he planned to call himself the author not only of the Footes’ amazing lives, but of so many pages he simply had not, himself, written.
All that is bad enough. But worse still is what he does with the memoir and the letters: as he puts it himself, in a letter to the family after the novel was published, “bolstering” a “false portrait” that he paints of “Susan’s” character, including an affair Susan has with one of her husband’s assistants, as a result of which her youngest daughter Agnes dies.
This is what most troubles the Foote family, and the publication of ANGLE OF REPOSE was traumatic for them. Not so much the copying of their ancestor’s words, without attribution, but the portrait he painted of her, using them. Many people who knew the Footes—and they were very well known, all over the west—assumed he’d unearthed a skeleton from the family closet: because so much of the historical section of the novel was based on their actual lives, they assumed the rest of it was true as well. Or—as was the case with most readers—they assumed all those letters were written by him, that he’d created the authentic “voice” of those reminiscences, and the arc of the Footes’ extraordinary lives.
I grew up appreciating Stegner, especially his environmental work. So it was personally distressing to discover this blot on his character. I kept wondering what Mary Hallock Foote would think of what he’d done with her life and words, and pondering that—imagining them talking to each other—led to FAIR USE: where better to have two dead people talk to each other than on a stage? I wish Stegner could apologize, at least to the family, but that of course is wishful thinking. Still, I can’t help but imagine that for the rest of his life, he was aware of that bump in his mental carpet: not only the harm he caused the family—the credit he took, the money he made, the awards the novel won, including the Pulitzer Prize, for so much that simply wasn’t his.
Who knows how or if he made his peace with it. I just know that the story makes me aware of my own integrity—as well as a desire to give credit where credit is due! But that’s a whole other blog post.
SANDS HALL is an author, professor, and musician. You can find more about her at www.sandshall.com, and on Facebook at Sands Hall Writer. Information about the staged reading of FAIR USE in Boise on June 4th can be found here and on Facebook here.
The reading is a benefit to support the Foote Park Project: http://www.footeparkprojectboise.org/
Photographs provided by Sands Hall and may be found on Sandshall.com
Thank you, Sands, for guest blogging today. I deeply appreciate of your thoughts on Integrity – and fair use.
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All my love,
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