A welcome biography of the Western novelist and environmentalist.
Born in Indiana in 1901 and raised in Choteau, Mont.—which Benson (The Ox-Bow Man: A Biography of Walter Van Tilburg Clark, 2004, etc.) rightly calls “the center of his writing universe”—Alfred Bertram “Bud” Guthrie Jr. grew up in a bookish household and got ink in his blood the old-fashioned way, by hand-setting type and feeding a linotype machine. In 1926, he moved to Kentucky to work for a newspaper, eventually covering politics and, as Benson wryly notes, acquiring two requisites of an old-timey scrivener: alcoholism and cynicism. In the late ’30s, Guthrie wrote his first novel, Murders at Moon Dance, which was not published until 1943—and about which he would say, “I can’t say it is the worst book ever written, but I’ve long considered it as a contender.” Better things would come with his best-known novel, The Big Sky, published in 1947 and hailed in the national press—despite some quibbles about anachronisms in his portrayal of the West at the time of the mountain men, “lavishly embellished,” as one reviewer wrote, “with poetical foofaraw.” Guthrie later went to work writing and doctoring the scripts of western movies, including Shane, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Broad fame largely eluded him, but he earned a local reputation in the environs of Missoula, Mont., for being a barfly. Involvement with local conservation issues and the university rehabilitated that reputation in time. Toward the end of his life, he would assert, “Thomas Jefferson once swore enmity against any tyranny over the mind of man. I have sworn opposition to abusers of the land.” Benson offers a sympathetic, well-written portrait that is long on the life but a little short on the literature—which is perhaps understandable, since Guthrie is little read these days.
A worthy treatment of an interesting subject, which, one hopes, will inspire renewed interest in Guthrie’s body of work.