William E. Farr & William W. Bevis, editors
Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press, 2001
316 pp., $39.95 hc
For better or for worse, A.B. Guthrie Jr.'s The Big Sky has been the Ur text, the master narrative, the canonical text of texts of modern Montana literature and historical thought, since its initial publication in 1947. As such, for those of us intimately involved in regionalism in its manifold forms it has informed and influenced much of our thinking--overtly or insidiously, depending upon one's perspective--over the last five-and-a-half decades. It taxes the imagination to perceive of another 20th century literary work that has had a similar impact on the inter-mountain West's collective consciousness. There simply is none. As Alan Weltzien notes, "The Big Sky serves as a prism through which much subsequent Montana literature, both fiction and nonfiction, refracts itself" (223). Though over the course of his long career Guthrie went on to write an impressive range of other novels, including a Pulitzer Prize winner, The Way West, environmental essays, and the screenplay for the critically acclaimed 1953 film Shane, he will always be mostly closely associated with his second book. When I ask my Montana History students if they've ever heard of Bud Guthrie, unlike the stony silence I usually receive when I pose the question for other modern Montana authors, there is at least some nervous stirring in the crowd: "The Big Sky?"
For the uninitiated, Guthrie, a University of Montana trained journalist and then-recent Kentucky expatriate, set the novel in the mid-1830s upper Missouri drainage, centering on the exploits (and exploitations) of several fur trappers on the make from back east. But they've arrived just a trifle too late; mostly the streams have been trapped out by earlier voyagers ("expectant capitalists" in the words of historian Richard Hofstadter). They are rough men, ruthless, violent, completely lacking in any of the romance, mythic nobility or Gabby Hayes hokum that undergirded most of western literature and Hollywood film up to that point and beyond. As one of Guthrie's minor characters exclaimed, "She's gone, goddamn it! Gone.... The whole shitaree. Gone, by God, and naught to care savin' some of us who seen'er new." Paradisiacal Montana (Edenic only for an illusory and relative momentary speck of time) is lost. And "fallen" Montana now overshadows and signifies much that will follow in our literary and historical conceptions of the place and its people. The boom of the fur bonanza echoed only a mere twenty or so years; gold, silver, copper, wheat, cattle, and now coal and oil, all have followed the pattern since.
This book emanates from a 1997 conference spearheaded by the two editors, Bill Farr and Bill Bevis (both of the University of Montana) and Mark Sherouse, executive director of the Montana Committee for the Humanities. The editors have included most of the region's top writers, historians, economists, thinkers, and assorted illuminati herein and the introduction and following eighteen compact pieces are arranged and juxtaposed as thematically as can be expected, in that there was no overarching charge guiding the conference; there are, thus, essays about Guthrie's oeuvre and career, pieces analyzing Guthrie's substantial literary impact, his continuing influence and pull on intellectual and environmental thought, essays by and about women and minorities in his work--including a nuanced and wide-ranging exploration by Dee Garceau linking post-World War II perceptions of gender that influenced Guthrie's own historical treatment of fur-trading era women. There are essays about the presence or absence of Native Americans, and, concluding the volume, essays by veteran Montana politicians Pat Williams and Dan Kemmis that consider Guthrie's politics as a possible template and roadmap for 21st century Montana.
As with any disparate compilation, some offerings are stronger, more intellectually rigorous, and more provocative than others. For this reviewer, the essays by Dan Flores, Alan Weltzien, Lee Rostad, and Bill Bevis, which use The Big Sky to foliate into their own perceptions of how the work has both romanticized and yet informs post-modern Montana environmentalism and our concept of place, are especially relevant as the state continues its unsteady lurch through a painful economic transition from primarily resource extraction to...something else. And yet, as Guthrie explained through his characters, "everything we done it looks like we done against ourselves" (The Big Sky). And "at every turn, sometimes it seems to me, man fucks himself" (The Last Valley). The latter could very well stand, unfortunately, as Montana's post-modern epitaph.
Some of the essays--particularly those by Sue Hart and James Welch--are festschrift in tone, as if a klatch of old friends are sitting around the fire, sharing their favorite Bud Guthrie stories. As can be expected, too, given the diverse range of academic expertise and opinion, there is no consensus on Guthrie's legacy, on whether he "got it right" or wrong in The Big Sky (however we may construe those terms), or basically how the book speaks to us today. All the essays are accessible by those outside the given disciplinary boundaries and therein lies the strength of this book.
Even the best published conference proceedings rarely hang together tightly and are occasionally simply unruly mishmashes assembled by the editors and the academic press seeking to capitalize on the ruminations and preening of a few big name attendees. Fortunately, this is not the case with this work--though there were several well-known speakers--as the conference scope was narrow enough in theme and focus to delimit the various presenters-cum-authors. There is also a fine balance of the purely academic versus not quite so, descriptive versus rigorously analytical, literary with historical, environmental and political. In short, there is a little something for everyone in this volume, particularly if you are a devotee of Guthrie's work. For those of us who preach regionalism (to borrow Ken Egan's opening essay's rhetorical structure) or for those who are unacquainted with this powerful novel by one helluva writer, this collection confirms our legitimacy. All of the authors in this compilation I'm certain would agree with me: though Montana's literary outpouring has been nothing short of astonishing over the last half century, if you only have time ever to read one novel about Montana, read The Big Sky.