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D A V I D C. S T I N E B A C R Union College “ On History and Its Consequences: A.B. Guthrie’s These Thousand Hills” A. B. Guthrie, Jr.’s three novels about the settlement of the American West (the Rocky Mountain region to the Pacific) all deal with social change and its pains. Taken together, The Big Sky (1947), The Way West (1949), and These Thousand Hills (1956) present a vision of history based upon the hopelessness of re­ sisting progress and the disappointment of embracing it: “Changes come on, regardless,” the wisest of Guthrie’s characters says in The Big Sky. In the second novel, the same character— a former trap­ per and present scout for a wagon train— elaborates on the same point: Summers thought it was only the earth that didn’t change. It was just the mountains watching others flower and seed, watching men come and go, the Indian first and after him the trapper, push­ ing up the unspoiled rivers, pleased with risk and loneliness, and now the wanters of new homes, the hunters of fortune, the wouldbe makers of a bigger nation, spelling the end to a time that was ended anyway. He didn’t blame the Oregoners as he had known old moun­ tain men to do. Everybody had his life to make, and every time its way, one different from another. The fur hunter didn’t have title to the mountains no matter if he did say finders’ keepers. By that system the country belonged to the Indians, or maybe someone before them or someone before them. No use to stand against the stream of change and time.1 The trapper, or mountain man, during the 1830’s is the sub­ ject of The Big Sky, and the first settlers who followed in the 1840’s are the subject of The Way West, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Guthrie in 1950. As such, these novels are very similar—in spirit as well as subject matter—to the first two volumes of an historical trilogy by another Pulitzer Prize winner: Bernard DeVoto’s Across the Wide Missouri (1947) and The Year of Decision: 1846 (1943). If Guthrie specialized in historical fiction, then DeVoto, at his best, 1A. B . Guthrie, Jr., The Way West (New York: W illiam Sloane, 1949), p. 217. 178 Western American Literature wrote a kind of imaginative history, both attempting in effect to envision and dramatize a process of historical change which was romantic in its scope yet often very unromantic in its results. One could argue that Guthrie and DeVoto were themselves somewhat nostalgic in their desire to recapture the spirit of the American West, whether that spirit resulted in fulfillment (as in The Way West) or disappointment (as in The Big Sky). Like DeVoto, who became his friend and a promoter of his novels in the 1940’s, Guthrie spent his boyhood years in the West (Montana as opposed to Utah) and then wrote from the other side of the Mississippi out of a fondness for the dreams of those historical figures who wanted the West to be, ultimately, something unhistorical and even mythi­ cal. Indeed, in his own fiction, Guthrie may well be said to ap­ proximate one of Wallace Stegner’s descriptions of DeVoto: Debunking or correcting western myths, scorning the things the West had become, he would continue to love, to the point of pas­ sion, western openness, freedom, air, scenery, violence; and would accept some of the myths as eagerly as the most illiterate cowhand reading Western Stories in the shade of the cookhouse.2 But this, it seems to me, would be least true of These Thousand Hills, which is also, artistically, Guthrie’s best novel (despite his own disclaimer that it was his “most difficult and least successful [novel], because it dealt with the cowpuncher and had to avoid, if it could, the stylized Western myth”3). The concern with social change is still there—in this case, the homesteading and fencing of open range by the first cattlemen in Montana during the 1880’s.4 But Guthrie’s nostalgia (as distinguished from that of his...


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