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P A U L T. B R Y A N T Radford University External Characterization in The Big Sky A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s novel, The Big Sky, has long interested critics and scholars in its dramatization of a colorful period in the history of the West, and its insight into the development of the American character.1 Guthrie himself focused attention on such questions, saying that his series of nov­ els of the West, beginning with The Big Sky, were an effort to “interpret American life to the American people” (Breit 39). This emphasis coincides with the foregrounding in recent years of sociocultural, political, and philosophical analyses of literary works. Certainly the great popularity of this novel at its publication in 1947, and its impact upon popular culture (to the extent of providing Montana with its license plate motto!), justify such analysis. In the process, however, lit­ tle attention has been paid to the art and craft of the novel. Frequently studied as an embodiment of historical artifact, it has seldom been exam­ ined as narrative art. My purpose here is to tease out some strands of imagery and character development that demonstrate Guthrie’s craft as a writer, and to show how those strands make The Big Sky a unified, com­ plex, highly developed work of literary art. Scholars have noted Guthrie’s careful, accurate use of historical sources (Cracroft, Erisman, Walker). Consequently, critics often oversim­ plify Guthrie as “more often than not a down-to-earth realist” (Milton 161). This view ignores Guthrie’s own statement of intentions. In his auto­ biography, describing his Nieman Fellowship year at Harvard, Guthrie writes, “Ken Murdock defines naturalism and realism in literature, and I decide I’d rather be a Frank Norris than a William Dean Howells” (Blue H en’ s Chick 165). Guthrie does not elaborate upon this distinction, but perhaps part of it was that Howells gave us Silas Lapham and the paint business, while Norris gave us not only railroads and wheat ranches, but 196 Western American Literature also Angel and the Seed Ranch. In short, Guthrie, like Norris, could give us not only logically empirical accounts of the physical world, what con­ descendingly has been called “naive realism” (Kearns 769), but also pat­ terns of image, metaphor, and symbol to convey or reinforce meaning. He could reach beyond the concrete and objective to the mythopoeic in the development of the American character, achieving a vision of “reality” beyond the limits of documentary reporting and verisimilitude. In The Blue H en’ s Chick, discussing fictional techniques, Guthrie seems more a realist of the stripe of Henry James. He speaks of overcom­ ing the flaw of “declaration instead of evidential suggestion” (150) and of learning to “show and not tell” (171). Resembling a textbook on the craft of fiction, the passage concludes, “Whatever the wisdom of a writer, it does and must exist in dispersion, to be drawn on in fiction as fictional cir­ cumstances suggest, to be expressed bit by bit in the actions and reactions and thoughts and conversation of characters” (174). Henry James’s fre­ quent injunction to the novelist to “dramatise, dramatise!” (James 237 ff.) looms clearly behind these precepts, yet Guthrie, like James, transcends these rules of realism to develop his characters. This movement through, then beyond, the limits of empirical realism (metarealism?) has been recognized by a few critics. Wallace Stegner notes that Boone Caudill “is both mountain man and myth, both individual and archetype” (xi). Thomas Ford observes that Guthrie was concerned not only for historical accuracy but also for “metaphorical significance” and that he fits well the pattern of what Max Westbrook defines as the “Western realist,” someone who “moves between fact and dream,” as dis­ cussed in his article “Conservative, Liberal, and Western: Three Modes of American Realism,” (Preface, unnumbered). Fred Erisman considers Guthrie “simultaneously realist and myth-maker” (69). Guthrie’s work encompasses but is not restricted to what Kearns calls “principled real­ ism,” a term that “holds that no objective truths or transcendentally privi­ leged perspective can be found” (769). Rather than maintaining the pos­ ture that all events and contexts arise organically out of the intrinsic...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 195-210
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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