- “man’s meat ain’t proper meat”: The Big Sky, Cannibalism, and the Clap
There is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in Western rural areas. It is a type of homosexuality which was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men in general. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general—among groups that are virile and physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner.Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, Alfred Kinsey et al.
It is our custom to consume the person we love.“The Cannibal’s Canción,” Gloria Anzaldúa
And all men kill the thing they love, By all let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!“The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Oscar Wilde
Although A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s readership and literary reputation have no doubt waned since his commercial and critical heyday of the late 1940s and early 1950s—in 1949, the University of Montana (then called Montana State) mistakenly awarded him [End Page 63] an Honorary Doctorate of Literature (they had intended to award him the less prestigious Honorary Doctorate of Letters but realized their error too late); in 1950, The Way West, the sequel to his most enduring novel, The Big Sky, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction; in 1953, his screenplay for Shane was nominated for an Academy Award (the prize ultimately went to Daniel Taradash for From Here to Eternity)—his oeuvre has continued to hold the attention of a small, yet loyal and evidently admiring cadre of general and scholarly readers. In 1999, for example, the Western Writers of America convened a fifty-five person panel of Western writers and scholars from across the U.S. (and one from Canada) to rank what they considered the greatest Western films, novels, authors, and more of the twentieth century (Moulton). Guthrie ranked third on their list of the “Best Western Authors” (behind Elmer Kelton and Willa Cather), and The Big Sky placed third in the category of “Best Western Novels” (behind Jack Schaefer’s Shane and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove). Further, Shane was rated first among the “Best Western Films.” The Big Sky has also been the focus of William E. Farr and William W. Bevis’s collection of scholarly essays, Fifty Years After The Big Sky: New Perspectives on the Fiction and Films of A.B. Guthrie, Jr. (2001) and Guthrie has been the subject of a recent biography by Jackson J. Benson, Under the Big Sky (2009). If Guthrie no longer enjoys the popular acclaim he once did, his life and work continue to attract a dedicated, albeit critically conservative following; perhaps little read outside of Montana and the West (and doubtlessly even less by scholars outside of Western Studies), he nevertheless retains an honored place in the canon of Western U.S. writing.
While Guthrie has received some critical attention over the years, and while many scholars have taken steadfastly New Critical, biographical, and historicist approaches to his work, relatively little consideration has been given to what must be one of the most striking aspects of his best-known novel: The Big Sky (1947) may be one of the more highly sexualized tales of westward expansionism. At the beginning of the novel, for example, Guthrie rewrites—in an homage replete with what Harold Bloom long ago dubbed The Anxiety of Influence (1973)—the opening scenes of Huckleberry Finn and enacts Boone’s oedipal crisis. Like Huck, Guthrie’s anti-hero struggles with his “Pap,” but where Huck must be content with dodging his old man whenever possible, Boone lays his father out with a club to the head and wrests the phallus—here [End Page 64] taking the form of Pap’s beloved rifle, “Old Sure Shot”—from his drunk, abusive begetter. As he prepares to leave home following...