Guthrie, A(lfred) B(ertram), Jr.
A(lfred) B(ertram) Guthrie, Jr. 1901–
American novelist, short story writer, nonfiction writer, scriptwriter, and poet.
Guthrie's love and knowledge of the American West is evident in all of his work. His themes, however, go beyond the mythic regionalism of the Old West to focus on the relationships between families, men and women, and the individual and society.
Guthrie is the author of five novels depicting the settlement of the West. The first three, The Big Sky, The Way West, and These Thousand Hills, cover the years 1830–1890 and work well as trilogy, moving from the days of the mountain men, to the pioneers on the Oregon Trail, to the establishment of cities in the wilderness. Arfive and The Last Valley, written several years later, are set in the twentieth century and chronicle the closing of the frontier. The first three books are considered Guthrie's finest achievement for their accurate, honest recreation of the past. The Way West won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Guthrie wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film Shane. In recent years, he has also written mysteries set in the West.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 6.)
J. M. Lalley
If it were possible to have a novel that was the result of a collaboration by Ned Buntline, James T. Farrell, and Donn Byrne, it would, I suspect, be rather like "The Big Sky," by A. B. Guthrie, Jr.… To say this is not necessarily a disparagement, for each member of the disparate triad I have just mentioned is, in his own métier, an excellent storyteller. So, for that matter, is Mr. Guthrie. Yet despite this great and nowadays unusual merit, the book has certain artistic disharmonies that make it seem to me not quite the masterpiece its publishers think it is.
This is a historical novel, and its milieu is one much favored by the contributors to Beadle's Dime Library; that is, the Wild West before there were any gold-rushers, cowboys, cavalry, professional bad men, or breech-loading rifles…. Mr. Guthrie, though, differs from the old dime novelists, on the one side, and the new, interpretive historians like Turner and Parrington, on the other, because of his naturalistic approach to the epoch. His purpose is to portray [the trappers and mountain men of the period] as they really were, which requires as much attention to their barbaric vices as to their romantic resourcefulness and fortitude. But Mr. Guthrie comes very close to defeating this purpose by employing in his descriptive passages a prose that is startlingly like the costumes of his characters—a sort of sturdy buckskin dialect lavishly embellished with poetical fofaraw....
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Dorothy Canfield Fisher
["The Big Sky" is a] monument of a book! One of those monuments made out of rough boulders, native to the spot, rolled together to serve as a pedestal for a towering bronze figure of epic size. The first monument raised to the men who in the wild emptiness of those middle plains and beyond, in the mountains which are the spine of our country, preceded the home-making pioneer, a monument to the "mountain man."…
The book is exactly what it should be to chronicle and portray this figure of an American past who has never before been set in the center of our attention. Rough as an oak log with the bark on, and as stiff and strong-fibered and dense. The style is sober, simple American, natural and unselfconscious as the central figure of the book. The author looks at the reader out of clear, honest, truth-telling eyes and says what he has to say, without uneasiness, without heroics….
We have rarely had in an American book a full-length portrait-statue of any man, so sound, so convincing, so rounded, as this portrayal of Boone Caudill, the Kentucky mountain man. In the first fifty pages (when the narrative current, everywhere swift in this fascinating book, runs so fast that the reader can hardly get his breath) Mr. Guthrie shows us the human boy—still at least partly human—from whom the solitary lone-wolf man develops….
The danger in a book of this kind, for this is really an "historical novel,"...
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Joseph Kinsey Howard
"The Big Sky" is an authentic and exciting novel about the mountain men and their lonely country. Mr. Guthrie … has poured into his book all of the Westerner's fierce fondness for sun and sky and space, and he has succeeded in explaining (perhaps for the first time in fiction) what motivated the wildnerness wanderers of a century ago, the rough and ruthless men who dreamed of freedom under the big sky….
[Men like Guthrie's hero Boone Caldwell] do not lend themselves easily to the novelist's manipulation, and one may wish occasionally for fuller exploration of his character; but the character is consistently drawn, and he is convincing as representative of the inarticulate, courageous, often ruffianly company of which he was a member….
Parts of "The Big Sky" are brutal; this is no adventure book for boys. There are memorable pictures of the back-breaking struggle to haul a keel-boat up the river, of the debauchery during the boatmen's "shore leaves" at remote posts, and of the wild holiday of the rendezvous. There is an unforgettable ride through the dead camps of the Blackfeet after smallpox has humbled that once mighty tribe, and there is absorbing drama in the ordeal of a starving party trapped by snow in Marias Pass.
But it is in its quiet reflections upon the essential quality of life in the Western wilderness that the novel excels, and the reader soon recognizes it as a moving tribute by a...
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[However well Mr. Guthrie understands the three mountain men who are the principle characters of "The Big Sky"], his rendering of their thoughts and feelings is not very convincing. I doubt whether any contemporary rendering could be. It would be almost impossible not to ascribe to them, as Mr. Guthrie often seems to do, the thoughts and feelings about the early West of a present-day American. The fact that the two sets of thoughts and feelings may be similar only complicates the problem. As for his handling of the romance of Caudill and Teal Eye, it is, to say the least, anachronistic….
[The] landscape is the object and motivation of the emotional drive out of which Mr. Guthrie writes. At times, notably in the account of men marooned in a mountain pass in winter, he succeeds in communicating its reality…. The human characters here become mere figures in the landscape pointing up its overwhelming presence, yet are none the less real. This is the best passage of the book and I think it is no accident that it takes on a legendary quality.
Throughout the book it is the characters who are allowed to remain figures in the landscape who seem most real. The Indians, whose stream of consciousness Mr. Guthrie does not attempt to plumb—including Teal Eye, except when she is drawn too far into the orbit of her white man's consciousness—are more convincing than the three mountain men on whom he spends so much effort and...
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Elrick B. Davis
["The Way West"] is the story of the early emigrant trek to Oregon, told nobly and without melodrama. In a way it is a sequel to Mr. Guthrie's remarkable first novel, "The Big Sky," his tale of the mountain men. One of the chief characters of that is a hero of this. The two have also in continuum Mr. Guthrie's extraordinary realization of the Northwestern country, the Plains and the northern Rockies and their rivers and weathers and indigenous life; and of history as an organic process molding men's characters, one way or another. But "The Way West" is complete enough in itself, with a beginning at Independence, Mo., the spring of 1846, and an end on the Columbia River that autumn; and if it is not as big a book as "The Big Sky" it is a better novel. Its pattern of character is more various, more human, and warmer than was Mr. Guthrie's development of the creation of a Kentucky boy into a mountain man, and this book's plot is neater.
In fact, if Mr. Guthrie's abilities did not transcend mere plot, the story pattern of "The Way West" would be too neat. Because it is inevitable. Recollection falters at the attempt to number the troops of fictional tales spawned of Parkman's "Oregon Trail" and the library of overland emigrants' journals. Just as Emerson Hough's "Covered Wagon" was the best of the lot when it appeared, now "The Way West" tops them all; indeed it is another kind of book. Those were adventure stories. This is a novel. It is...
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Robert Gorham Davis
Even more successfully than its predecessor, "The Big Sky." Mr. Guthrie's ["The Way West"] repossesses the past and gives a sense, not of fiction, but of the Western experience itself as it was totally known a hundred years ago by the men who underwent it, who chose it, and who were re-created by it as Western Americans. Mr. Guthrie writes with modest but sure art, especially in his feeling for the idiom of Western talk and for the narrative style proper to it.
In so far as we are conscious of the author at all, it is not of a romancer making the most of the color and drama of the early narratives but of a man who loves the Western mountain country….
With the same imaginative conviction as "The Big Sky" in practical knowledge of everyday life—cooking over buffalo chips, for instance, or fording the violent Snake River—"The Way West" is a better novel as a novel, a humanly richer and wiser book.
Boone Caudill of "The Big Sky" was right psychologically for one kind of mountain man. But it was not clear what kind of identification the reader could make with him, or how far he represented what is bad rather than good in the developing American character. Moreover, there was something a little romantic, a little suggestive of Chateaubriand, in Boone and something more than a little fictional and factitious in the incidents which brought that relationship to a tragic end.
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The author of "The Big Sky" and "The Way West" assumed much greater difficulties than either of those admirable books presented to him when he chose to write "These Thousand Hills."… With the earlier works. A. B. Guthrie, Jr. had the advantage of a detailed knowledge of material not generally known and could depend on the curiosity of his readers to enhance his narratives. This latest of his products begins in the 1880s, and his young hero's first action is leaving his Oregon home to join a Pendleton outfit bent on trailing cattle from Boise City to Fort Benton. In other words, Mr. Guthrie faced the challenge of writing a "Western," the basic materials of which are known to almost every American over the age of five.
That he has produced a highly readable novel under these circumstances is further proof of the fact demonstrated by his earlier books—that he is a novelist of stature. It would almost seem that he has welcomed the familiar scenes of a nationally accepted formula for the purpose of demonstrating what a gifted artist can do with them….
Unattended by Guthrie's skills this plot structure seems as worn and conventional as most of those adopted by lesser writers. But picturesque and flavorful dialogue, crisply outlined characterizations, unusual understanding of human motives, amazingly comprehensive knowledge of the folk, and their ways, ever-weighing suspense, constant humor, and the poetic use of...
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Walter Van Tilburg Clark
Like Mr. Guthrie's two previous volumes, "The Big Sky," a magnificently pictorial account of the mountain-man era, and the steadily moving "The Way West," which told of the Oregon Trail, "These Thousand Hills" is spaciously conceived and closely thought out. With it, Mr. Guthrie puts beyond question what many of his readers had already guessed, that he is working deliberately and with foresight within the larger intention of depicting the opening and development of the American Northwest.
If this were the only certainty concerning Mr. Guthrie's work as a whole to emerge from "These Thousand Hills," it might give rise to as much uneasiness as hope about what is yet to come in the chronicle. There are ways in which this work is not so strong a book as either of its predecessors, and only too often the task of sustaining a long, planned series, especially within the arbitrary frames of history, can weary an author into dead writing and formula plotting. But, if there are signs of less successful work in "These Thousand Hills," it is also, in itself and in what it makes clearer about "The Big Sky" and "The Way West," the sufficient proof that they have not resulted from any cheapening of intention or weakening of will.
On the contrary, as a longer glance back now shows us, Mr. Guthrie has worked out a method admirably suited to keeping each book complete and alive in itself, and making it serve its purpose in the whole at...
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One of the finest collections of short stories in recent years is A. B. Guthrie, Jr.'s "The Big It." This excellent book is not an assortment of "Western" stories, as the publishers have implied, for Guthrie is no more a "Western" writer than Melville was an Eastern writer or Hemingway a Spanish writer. True, the West provides the locale, but what a difference between these tales and those of Zane Grey and the host of TV scriptwriters! Guthrie's stories illustrate that good writing is universal, transcending the limitations of a particular place.
The stories can be divided into two groups: those of courage, physical and moral, and those of fierce humor. "Old Mother Hubbard," "First Principal," "Bargain," "Mountain Medicine," and "Last Snake" all display aspects of human courage. In them Guthrie presents the sensitive man, kind, understanding, tolerant, confronted by the raw shock of brutality. But Guthrie's men are not made of straw; he makes his brutality convincing; his people are familiar, men we have known, those who love war and the spurt of blood. Maniacs? Guthrie doesn't think so. They are our neighbors, peppered all over the earth.
But Guthrie's gentle characters are closer to us. Innocent, almost naïve, yet they are allowed by the author to cope, to survive, even to triumph. It takes an artist like Guthrie to depict them realistically. Very few writers will consider naked good and evil; they prefer to...
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There is sentiment, there is indeed a bushel of corn, in "Arfive," and a sadness in seeing the wilderness harnessed and gentled. One scene, infinitely touching, seems to condense all that Guthrie has said about the West's final taming. On a solitary trout-fishing expedition, Collingsworth meets and shares a campfire with two aging buffalo hunters who remember the savage country of 50 years earlier. Unlettered, they know only the oral literature of Indian myth and legend, told by Blackfoot and Crow around a thousand campfires. They ask the schoolmaster for a story. Able to recall only the fairy tales he has told his own children, he relates "The Bremen Town Musicians," embarrassed by its childishness. The two ancients listen enchanted, deeply satisfied by the good tale well told. When it ends, they ponder it and set out the moral they have found: "We're a couple of old cocks but still crowing."
"Arfive" is an old-fashioned novel, direct, readable, free of artifice, a quiet, solid ending to its author's monumental tetralogy. The great deeds of the earlier books are missing, because this was not a time for great deeds. But Guthrie's keen trapper's eye is bright as ever. And he writes with a flawless sense of place and time, in a wise, manly poetry.
There is corn in "Arfive," but corn is a fundamental American grain, without which there would be no Brunswick stew, no succotash, no yellow meal for frying cut-throat trout....
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Richard H. Cracroft
[The Big Sky] owes much of its convincing authenticity not only to Guthrie's use of historical sources, but to the imaginative manner in which he wove the texture of his design to recreate a region which "is not oppressed," wrote the Reverend Samuel Parker, "by the tyranny of religion," nor "awed by the frown of virtue."
And this imaginative excellence in interpolating a vivid fiction from historical fact in turn owes much to Guthrie's own longstanding love affair with the American West, an affection reflected in every page of the book. Indeed, while writing the book he claims to have achieved a kind of mystical unity with the characters, an empathy which kept him writing ahead of his research. (p. 174)
Still, such empathy would doubtless be impossible if the West were not a sounding board for Guthrie's own philosophical reflections on the nature of man, time, and space in a region stripped of societal values and encumbrances. Thus The Way West is not as good a book as The Big Sky, partially because the pioneers, who carried civilization in their wagon beds and camp meetings, limited Guthrie's freedom in exploring the existential questions inherent in the West of The Big Sky.
Guthrie therefore affirms and surpasses the truth of Owen Wister's pronouncement that "It is imagination that takes the load of fact, supplied by experience and lifts it into universal truth."...
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Levi S. Peterson
The Big Sky strikes me as a more successful tragedy and one more central to the Western mind [than Walter Van Tilburg Clark's The Ox-Bow Incident]. It possesses, like Clark's novel, the ring of tough-minded realism that the twentieth century has come to relish. It has, as well, the flavor of full authenticity in its reconstruction of the life of the mountain man between 1830 and 1843. But unobtrusively entered among the undisputably authentic details of the mountain man's external life is an interpretation that has more of myth than of demonstrable historical fact about it. This is the depiction of the mountain man's wilderness life as paradise. (p. 247)
The Big Sky does not merely celebrate the paradisiacal quality of the mountain man's life: like other Edens, this one becomes a paradise lost. Deliberately setting his novel at the moment when beaver were vanishing and settlers were starting over South Pass, Guthrie skillfully chooses his events and characters to give sharp impact to the ponderous historical process by which the mountain man's frontier gave way to the settler's frontier. Dick Summer's nostalgia, expressed in eloquent passages of internal monologue while Dick rides out of the mountains for the last time, is one method Guthrie uses to underscore the tragic loss of the wilderness paradise. More important is the private tragedy which Boone brings upon himself by giving in, Othello-like, to his...
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L. J. Davis
To get to the point at once, with a bluntness that I hope contains an element of mercy; The Last Valley, A. B. Guthrie's fifth and, he says, probably final novel about America's westering, is a near-total disaster as a work of fiction. (It is an extremely interesting sociological document, however, a point to which I shall return in a moment.) One can scarcely believe that the man who wrote The Big Sky and The Way West is responsible for it.
Guthrie seems to have forgotten everything he once so splendidly knew about craft, form, function, and the vagaries of the human heart; every page, every line, almost every sentence treats us to an unhappy spectacle of ineptitude, not unlike watching a man attempting to hack a tree stump into a piano with a dull ax. Mark Twain once wrote that if there are to be both corpses and living men in the same book, the reader should at all times be able to tell the dead men from the living ones. Twain was talking about Fenimore Cooper, but Guthrie has achieved the unhappy distinction of carrying Cooper's folly one step further: Not only can the reader fail to make Twain's distinction, but the corpses seem no more real than the allegedly living….
Wallace Stegner. Paul Horgan, Walter van Tilberg Clark, A. B. Guthrie, Jr. With what bright promise they all set out, Guthrie perhaps most of all. And how odd and how significant that they should all (van Tilberg Clark...
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Robert F. Gish
For Guthrie the western novel has outlived its time, and like the gunfighter the western author perhaps will fade into the sunset never to slap ink to paper again. For many readers it's just as well. "The Last Valley," however, is proof that although the Old West is dead, the New West lives on—and, in spite of itself, so does the western novel.
In reading this book one recaptures momentarily the westering feeling not just of settling and building Arfive, Montana, a bit before and after World War II, but also the universal spiritual quest for friendship, love, and procreation. The great adversaries to the realization of such a quest are there: prejudice, fear, murder, death by illness, and the ravages of nature. But what one feels most of all is the part which the actual land and the spirit of place play in it all….
The familiar rhapsodic descriptions of landscape which one associates with most westerns are rendered with special beauty here. Even the stock conventions of the showdown, the lynching, and man against the wilderness are given fresh treatment by Guthrie, so that the reader of traditional westerns will get what he expects and then some. The rather sophisticated three-part structure Guthrie uses to frame and bend his time scheme in itself adds a touch of the new to an old form; again indicating that there is still new life left in the old formulas.
At times overly sentimental and...
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John R. Milton
[In The Big Sky] Guthrie's mountain men are entirely fictional, and because there are three of them interacting with each other as well as with the wilderness it is possible for Guthrie to include all of the characteristics which, taken together, could make up the typical or representative mountain man, "that mixture of hardihood, dissipation, heroism, brute action, innocence and sin." Guthrie shuns romanticism, preferring a kind of dramatic reportage told in language which is clean, informal, and direct. His mountain man is not Leatherstocking, but "the engaging, rude, admirable, odious, thoughtless, resourceful, loyal, sinful, smart, stupid, courageous character that he was and had to be." Although some of the adjectives would seem to indicate that Guthrie was opinionated, and although he is not above eulogizing the land occasionally, The Big Sky is a remarkably objective novel with a judicious mixture of imagination and historical sources…. (pp. 165-66)
[In The Way West,] Guthrie moves logically into the 1840s when thousands of people traveled overland in wagon trains to Oregon or to California. (p. 178)
Guthrie emphasizes the social conflicts within the organization of the train, although some of these conflicts arise from the natural obstacles of the journey in that the obstacles test the courage, endurance, and overall character of the people. Because these people are ordinary and are...
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Thomas W. Ford
[The one unfailing link that joins The Big Sky, The Way West, These Thousand Hills, Arfive and The Lost Valley] is Guthrie's insistent use of the Western landscape as the distinguishing mark of the West, as the very heart and soul and body of whatever the West means. All the complexities and contradictions of the Western experience are finally seen in and judged by the interaction of characters and the landscape—that landscape which includes the earth, sky, space. And just as the idea of the West includes an enormous variety of ingredients, often paradoxical, so the landscape includes a variety of roles in Guthrie's novels: it may be at one and the same time, or at different times, mistress, friend, deadly foe, victor, victim, deity. Whatever else Guthrie may be doing or not doing, he is not simply sentimentalizing the glories and beauties of the land. Although he obviously finds moments when these beauties are present, more importantly he has an unwavering respect and regard for the power and force and strength—physical and spiritual—of that land in space under the big sky. (p. 65)
Guthrie saw the meaning of America in terms of the Western movement. All along, Guthrie's aim had been to write a series of novels on the Western movement in which he attempted to interpret American life. Such an ambitious aim would support the view that Guthrie's fictional purpose was indeed high and that his...
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