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  • Literary Sociology in a Montana TownNovelist Thomas Savage Rewrites Old Dillon
  • Alan Weltzien (bio)
Key Words

hotels, ranching culture, satire, whorehouses, Willa Cather

Anatomy and Physiology of a Town

Montana's southwest corner, and the town of Dillon in particular, have received only intermittent historical attention apart from the usual local histories, such as the hefty two-volume History of Beaverhead County 1880–1997 (Beaverhead County Museum Association, 1997) or the more recent Beaverhead County (Images of America, 2008) by Stephen C. Morehouse and the Beaverhead County Museum).1 Dillon receives only passing mention in state histories such as Montana: A History of Two Centuries (Malone, Roeder, and Lang, 1991). Thomas Savage (1915–2003), a first-rate if neglected Montana novelist who published thirteen novels over four decades (1944–88), created through his work a remarkable literary sociology of a Montana town that particularly focuses upon the interwar period (1918–39). In his case, novelistic representations of a community provide a collective portrait of a cow town typical of so many in the Northern Rockies or Great Plains. This essay analyzes that portrait, which features the town's leading hotel and whorehouses and a cafe, as a bracing and necessary counterbalance to the cheerful glow emanating from local histories. Literary sociology becomes the vehicle for social criticism.

Savage returned to Dillon repeatedly in his imagination, rewriting it in seven of his eight western-set novels. Those interested in Dillon's interwar history should turn to Savage's novels, which capture better than any other texts the feel of a county seat long dominated by hay and cattle ranching.2 Savage's Dillon of the 1920s and 1930s, it could be argued, typifies many western rural communities of that period.

By his second novel, Lona Hanson (1948; reprint, 2011), Savage recreated Dillon ("Sentinel") between 1928 and 1933, as the 1920s agricultural [End Page 111]

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Fig. 1.

Thomas Savage teaching a Brandeis University class in his Waltham, Massachusetts, living room in 1951.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Main.

[End Page 112] bubble collapsed and stomachs shrank by the hardscrabble early 1930s. Sentinel figures as the alternative setting to that novel's center, based on the Brenner Ranch (Savage's home) in Horse Prairie, Montana. Dillon reappears in several scenes as Herndon—a Savage "near name"—in The Power of the Dog (1967; reprint, 2001), which is set 1924, and in The Liar (1969), which covers two generations and whose setting ultimately shifts to Boston.3

But Savage was nowhere near done with his hometown. Dillon becomes Grayling in Midnight Line (1976); I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (1977; retitled The Sheep Queen, reprint 2001); For Mary, With Love (1983); and The Corner of Rife and Pacific (1988).4 Arguably, in Midnight Line and The Corner, Savage's ninth and final (thirteenth) novels, Dillon (Grayling) serves as protagonist, one manifest through a range of characters and locales. Several versions of Dillon from Savage's The Liar stretch beyond the interwar period in their historical setting. The Corner, Savage's swansong, chronicles Dillon in the decades between 1890 and 1920,5 and, more than his earlier versions of Dillon, the novel lends itself to easy dating, as though this writer more tightly and clearly braided his last plot with obvious historical references.

In Savage's novelistic anatomy, Dillon, though it had a college (Montana State Normal College, now University of Montana Western), aspires to the same social distinctions and reveals the same socioeconomic divisions as most smaller rural communities. Life there proves stultifying and painful for some, particularly for those who imagine or desire something different in their lives. For them, small towns figure more as prisons than havens. Such sentiment is absent from local histories, which ignore the provinciality and confinement often characteristic of them.

Aside from the novelist's evocations, what was Dillon actually like during the interwar period? According to Tom Strout in his 1921 snapshot,6 Beaverhead County "occupies a leading position among the counties of the state principally because of its stock growing interests, in this connection being one of the most important centers in Montana." In 1921 Dillon, forty years...


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