by Jean Henry Mead
The Pulitzer winner was 86 when I interviewed him at his A-frame home near the foot of northern Montana’s Sawtooth Mountain Range. We were sitting at the kitchen table when I asked him about his family background.
He said, “I was born in Bedford, Indiana, Janaury 23, 1901. When I was six months old, my father, a graduate of Indiana University, and my mother, who graduated from a Quaker college at Richmond, Indiana, came to Montana. My father came west to become the first principal of the first free high school in this considerable territory.”
When I asked if his mother also taught school, he smiled and said, “No, she was too busy having kids. Nine in all, but most of them died in babyhood. The mortality rate in our family was terrific. I was the third child and am now the family patriarch.”
Were you a precocious child? I asked. “I was an onery little bastard. I was always impatient about something. And I was a sickly one, too. They didn’t think I would live for long. In fact, we moved to Ontario, California, when I was ten for my health and that of my baby brother. There, my sister, who was three years older than I, contracted spinal meningitis from a tick bite and died. We’d hardly gotten back to Montana, within a matter of three months, when my baby brother died.” Only three of nine Guthrie children survived to adulthood.
When asked if he read incessantly as a child, he said, “Dad used to read aloud to us from Dickens and Kipling. My tastes were omnivorous. I read anything I could lay my hands on, but the memory that stays with me is that of my father reading the Jungle Books to us when we were young. Beautiful stories!”
Guthrie began writing in high school, fiction and some essays although he knew little about the craft of fiction. He majored in journalism in college and may have been influenced by his father who worked as a news reporter for four years in a small Kentucky town. He said, “I guess he thought it was the way to become a writer—a point that I will dispute because the crafts are so different. Newspaper writing, aside from a little investigative work, is so much on the surface, while fiction goes a lot deeper.
“An example of that: a well known man in Lexington died and afterward, his widow had a full-size portrait of him in the house, and when people came to visit, she would refer to the picture as if he were still alive, saying, ‘Isn’t that so, Enoch?’ So you see, you can’t put that in a newspaper, but it’s great for fiction.”
How then did he make the transition from journalism to fiction? I asked. “With luck. I won the Neiman Fellowship at Harvard, while working as an executive editor of the Lexington Leader in Kentucky, and there I became friendly with a professor of English, Theodore Morrison, who knew so much about writing, probably more than I’ll ever know. And somehow, he took me under his wing. My writing to begin with was wretched. I see that now. But with patience and gentleness and always deliberation he taught me the language of fiction.”
Excerpted from a much longer interview in my book, Maverick Writers