Alfred Bertram Guthrie, Jr., earned a deserved reputation as an important American novelist, winning both popular and critical acclaim for his major novels that dramatize Western settlement in the Rocky Mountain region.
When Guthrie was six months old, his family moved to Choteau, Montana. From his father, the first principal of the local high school and later publisher of a newspaper, Guthrie learned to respect historical research and to love the spacious beauty of the land, which evoked a sense of freedom. Attracted to writing as a career early in life, Guthrie worked during his high school years on the Choteau Acantha. He majored in journalism at the University of Washington and later at the University of Montana, from which he graduated with honors in 1923, and which awarded Guthrie an honorary Doctorate of Literature in 1949.
In 1926, he became a reporter for Kentucky’s Lexington Leader, where he remained for twenty years, eventually becoming executive editor. In 1931, he married Harriet Helen Larson, a childhood friend from Choteau, and they had a son and a daughter. Guthrie first tried his hand at fiction with Murders at Moon Dance, a weak novel which anticipated his later, more successful fusion of detective and Western fiction. In 1944, Guthrie won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University, which gave him free access to the library, classes, and faculty. He had already begun writing The Big Sky, and he resumed work on the manuscript under the direction of Theodore Morrison. Before returning to Kentucky, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where he was encouraged to continue to work on his manuscript. The novel, published in 1947, was called the definitive novel of the mountain man in the 1840’s. Encouraged by The Big Sky’s success, Guthrie resigned from the Lexington Leader to become a full-time novelist. The Way West, a novel of the Oregon Trail during the 1850’s, was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and won for Guthrie a Pulitzer Prize in 1950. It became apparent that Guthrie had embarked on an ambitious project to fictionalize phases of the westward movement that, to him, represented the essence of the American experience.
Although Guthrie wrote screenplays and several short stories in the 1950’s, his major literary achievement during this period was his third novel of Western settlement, These Thousand Hills, a narrative of the cattle industry in Montana in the 1880’s. Guthrie had moved back to Montana in 1953, and this spacious, beautiful landscape would become the setting for the rest of his fiction. In 1960 Guthrie collected his short stories in The Big It. He and his wife were divorced in 1962, and in 1965 Guthrie published his autobiography, The Blue Hen’s Chick, which illuminates the themes of his novels and the autobiographical direction his later fiction would take. In 1969, the year after his former wife died, Guthrie married Carol B. Luthin. He resumed his fictional re-creation of Western settlement in 1971, when he published Arfive, a novel focusing on small-town life from the turn of the century to World War I; Arfive was followed by The Last Valley, a sequel that carries the narrative forward to 1946. Returning to the period of his most successful fiction, Guthrie published Fair Land, Fair Land, the narrative of Dick Summers (the guide in The Way West), who returns to his life as a hunter and trapper in Montana from 1845 to 1870. Guthrie’s interest in the detective-Western genre, reflected in his first novel, Murders at Moon Dance, became apparent in 1973 with the publication of Wild Pitch. This novel and its sequels (The Genuine Article, No Second Wind, and Playing Catch-Up) form a sort of Bildungsroman of the narrator, youthful Jason Beard, who relates the adventures of his friend and mentor, Sheriff Chick Charleston.
From the beginning, Guthrie’s major purpose as a writer was to create a series of interrelated novels about the westward movement that would faithfully render time and place while interpreting American life to the American people. Guthrie’s special power as a novelist lies in his ability to dramatize in spare, uncluttered prose the great spiritual adventure of moving westward in terms of the personable qualities of unbelievable characters. Guthrie shows the influence of the landscape and sky in forming within these characters a breadth of vision and a sense of freedom, revealing their inherent strengths and weaknesses as they respond to the challenge of the natural world. In this portrayal of character, Guthrie conveys a realistic sense of history as process and change. Progress and civilization inevitably diminish earlier values, the wild freedom and spiritual breadth of vision necessarily shrinking in the face of the rules, laws, and compromises that accompany the complex relationships of community life. The dominant tone of Guthrie’s fiction is elegiac because of his pervasive sense of loss.
Intensifying the elegiac tone is Guthrie’s tragic perception that people kill the things they love most because choices are never “clean.” A mountain man kills off the beaver that made his free life possible and then serves as a guide to settlers. A cattleman’s desire for success and prominence costs him his less reputable friends. A high school principal’s effort to win acceptance is accompanied by an inner struggle between his Puritan values and the Thoreauvian freedom experienced in his relationship with the landscape. A newspaper man must resolve his attitude toward a government dam that brings benefits and irreversible loss. In all Guthrie’s novels, the characters move away from self-centeredness toward a more tolerant acceptance of the world as it really is.
Erisman, Fred. “Coming of Age in Montana: The Legacy of A. B. Guthrie, Jr.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 43 (1993). Sheds light on Guthrie’s place in American and Western literature.
Erisman, Fred. Reading A. B. Guthrie’s “The Big Sky.” Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 2000. An examination of one of Guthrie’s most successful novels.
Farr, William E., and William W. Bevis, eds. Fifty Years After “The Big Sky”: New Perspectives on the Fiction and Films of A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2001. An anthology in which writers, historians, and intellectuals remember and celebrate Guthrie’s life and work.
Ford, Thomas W. A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Boston: Twayne, 1981. An excellent book-length work on Guthrie.
Roripaugh, Robert. “The Influential Novels of the American West.” South Dakota Review 29 (1991). Places Guthrie in his literary context.
Stineback, David C. “On History and Its Consequences: A. B. Guthrie’s These Thousand Hills.” Western American Literature 6 (1971). Examines These Thousand Hills, Guthrie’s narrative of the Montana cattle industry in the 1880’s.