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Why Write About the West?* I am not insensitive to this occasion, to the honor that comes to me now. I do thank you, hoping I have deserved your nomination. But, since I heartily dislike to make speeches and stand abashed before crowds, I feel like a Montana rancher I know. One winter he and his wife moved into town, where he spent his time playing solo and having an occasional drink with the boys. Once, late in the morning, after making his accustomed rounds, he decided to go home for a bite to eat. The quickest way into the house was by the back door. He barged into the kitchen, calling out for his wife, and flung open the door into the living quarters—to find what he had forgotten, that his wife was entertaining her bridge club. Before the stares of the ladies he stood for a shocked moment, then said, “Hello, goddamit,” and took himself hence. My impulse is to do the same thing. A Chicago novelist has been quoted as saying: Why write about the West? There’s nothing there to write about. A New York critic, defending an unfavorable review he had written about my The Way West, said: How tired I am of the chronic drunk! And how suspicious I am of a writer who tries to plant admirable qualities in men who lived a hundred years ago and whose habits of mind it is absolutely impossible to recapture! In both cases I am paraphrasing but doing no damage to the sense of the opinions. Neither one is worth much of a rejoinder. The first can be dismissed with the observation that, wherever people are, no matter how few, there are stories, and the people need not be junkies, pimps, prostitutes, pickpockets or other proper protagonists. The second comment yields to a couple of sentences. There are no chronic drunks in The Way West. And if all fiction set in Editor’s Note) *Mr. Guthrie read this paper at the seventh annual meeting of the Western Literature Association in Jackson Hole, Wyo­ ming, in October 1972, when he was given the Association’sDistinguished Achievement Award and an Honorary Life Membership. A . B. G U T H R I E , J R . 164 Western American Literature times a hundred years or more ago—if all of it is to be junked, well, I supposte libraries could be converted into gymnasiums. Silly as the opinions are, however, they open avenues for dis­ cussion. Why do some novelists choose to deal with the past? What is their justification, if justification can be found for literary en­ deavors that so many people regard so dubiously? What are their considerations, beyond mere conceit of choice, beyond financial returns, if any? I can speak only for myself. I can’t remember when the westward movement in America didn’t interest me. As a small boy I hunted arrowheads at the bases of buffalo traps and picked up buffalo skulls in grass-grown wallows and found myself in another time, a magic time. I discovered a rusted Spanish spur, I stumbled on to a bull shoe, and I was trans­ ported. Depending on the immediate experience, I was fur-hunter, breech-clouted Indian, traveler on the Oregon Trail, old-time cowpuncher . And all the roles were good, better because the impassable years lay between, the years impassible except to imagination, ex­ cept to devotion, except for the chronicles I read then and later. They were all dust, those people, those times, and they came out of the dust and enriched me. They still do. The first novel in my panel was, as you know, The Big Sky. I might not have tackled it save for the conviction that justice hadn’t been done to the mountain man, that mixture of hardihood, dis­ sipation, herosim, brute action, innocence and sin. Folklore makes one quality, preferably admirable, the sum and substance of the man. Romanticism has no room for rutting. Both lean to the pre­ sentation of perfection, ignoring the truth that perfection is im­ possible as well as damn dull. I wanted to show the mountain man he was, or as what...


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pp. 163-170
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