Northwest Schools of Literature: Commentary

1. William Kittredge, 1932–

William Kittredge lived the classic Western story. His grandfather carved out full control over a million plus acres of southeast Oregon with a reverence for landholding that defined his MC Ranch, as grandfather and father turned vast scablands and grass-and-sage prairies into a huge cattle ranch. They drained ancient wetlands for grain fields and hayfields. Their crews drove stock, built fences, and put up hay. From his boyhood, William Kittredge rode with the crews as a prince; in college his professors taught the agricultural methods his father developed. His life matched the deep myths of the place he lived. From his childhood home on the boss’s place to his life’s later work teaching and writing in Missoula, Montana, Kittredge held the reins for the west’s wagon load of stories, old and new.

Though he had studied inattentively with Bernard Malamud at Oregon State University, the idea of story telling stuck with him. When he did begin to write, he chose to challenge the myths he’d lived and his stories corrected tall tales of the lone, tough, cowman. Kittredge’s cowhands often come to the trail’s end arthritic and down at the heels, not riding into the blue, leaking a little blood, immortal as the next dawn. Kittredge wrote both nostalgia and historical re-vision. To have breathed that air from atop a good horse and to have owned so much and not praise it would imply revulsion for the life. Kittredge loved parts of it. He writes: “What I want to recall are mornings when I would go outside by myself, just after daybreak. I would slip from the bedroom I shared with my younger brother, while he was sleeping, and wander barefoot on the lawn still wet with dew. The air was thick with the reek of damp sage and greasewood and the raw odor of the apple orchard in full blossom and the stench of cowshit from the shed….That boy felt like he was full of the world, breathing it into himself, and he was” (Kittredge 1992: 5).

What Kittredge grew to despise was the belief that if one bought and worked the land, one had absolute control, and that those unfortunate enough to work for the owner, beast or man, in the field or in the house, were property, too. His family fractured. “It’s just that nobody in my family could agree on anything, much less the right life.”

Kittredge left when all the ranch began to break down. Turning wetlands into over 21,000 acres of irrigated crops meant an explosion of new insects, new rodents, new chemicals; they exterminated the migrating birds, shot coyotes from the air, poisoned anything that ate the ranch’s products. Kittredge felt penned, isolated and suffocated by loss. Kittredge began writing while he still managed the ranch. He developed a taste for high-toned storytelling. (In the 1960’s not many Eastern Oregon ranchers subscribed to the Kenyon Review.) He had a nervous breakdown and, at 35, went to writing school at the University of Iowa and to a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. Kittredge joined the University of Montana English department in 1968 where his colleague was Richard Hugo. Both men were gifted, hard drinking, and broken down. Hugo and Kittredge drank and drove Montana, taught their classes in bars and wrote their way into a new home.

Kittredge found home in Missoula, a city where serious writing about the West had been going on for many years. Around Kittredge, the University of Montana writing program grew and attracted peers like James Welch, James Crumley, Richard Ford, Raymond Carver (who influenced, encouraged, and edited Kittredge), Madeline deFrees, Mary Clearman Blew, Kim Barnes, and Debra Magpie Earling. Not far off were Norman Maclean, Ivan Doig, and the synthesizer William Bevis. Kittredge wrote and taught with Steven Krauzer. Together, under the pseudonym Owen Rountree, they wrote nine western novels and edited books of adventure stories. Together they taught courses on film and popular literature in which Kittredge worked out a new relation to the received myths of his home place and where he began to undermine those myths with post-modern, new-western methodologies.

The nine Owen Rountree Cord novels have a cowboy hero and female sidekick with some sense of who they are, but in his short stories Kittredge’s characters are often at loose ends. Still, he affectionately details the lost crafts of the horseman and the western laborer. Kittredge’s characters often self-destruct or are deceived by their own legends. Kittredge wrote how grizzly bears in Montana’s great national parks sobered the locals by eating campers in their tents or picking them off as unwary backpackers. Kittredge imagines a man who loses his lover to a bear and swears vengeance, only to be saved by a sure-shot woman as the lovelorn man waits with his rifle to even the score with the grizzly. This is not the fate of the classic western male. We Are Not in This Together is an apt title for a 1984 story collection.

Kittredge has edited books of stories and essays, most notably the monumental The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology, a tome that sold the idea of the state as a state-of-mind to appreciative readers around the world. He has written film scripts for Heartland and A River Runs Through It. Kittredge’s recent book, The Nature of Generosity, suggests a kind of theology for all those under the Big Sky, a theology that also concludes his autobiographical Hole in the Sky: A Memoir: “Our old pilgrims believed stories in which the West was a promise, a place where decent people could escape the wreckage of failed lives and start over. Come along, the dream whispers, and you can have another chance. We still listen to promises in the wind. This time, we think, we’ll get it right.” (Kittredge 1992: 234)

To read William Kittredge is to read across the West’s spectra. He knows the seduction and the power of individualism as it’s embodied in the landholder, the rough father, the cowboy. He knows the foibles of the dandy and the dude. He also sees how the legends of ownership can eat the land alive. In Kittredge, understanding comes through listening as others try to explain what they see, and through returning the gift of a story, told as well as the teller can tell.

See: William Kittredge, “Owning It All,” in Owning It All: Essays. St. Paul, Minn.: Graywolf Press, 1987.

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