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Outgrowing Myths

Writer William Kittredge Says Good-bye to the Old West

HUMANITIES, September/October 2001 | Volume 22, Number 5

When William Kittredge talked recently with NEH Chairman William R. Ferris, the conversation turned to the West that is emerging from the mythology of the old. Kittredge is the author of several books, among them Who Owns the West and Hole in the Sky. He teaches at the University of Montana in Missoula and is the winner of a National Humanities Medal.

William R. Ferris: You grew up as the third generation in a ranch family in Oregon, which sounds like an idyllic childhood.

William Kittredge: It was, in fact, kind of idyllic. It was a big valley, Warner Valley, in south-eastern Oregon right on the Nevada border. My grandfather, who was sixty-two at the time, got this enormous ranch during the Great Depression for basically nothing down and a handshake.

We owned, I think, twenty-one thousand acres of very good land there in the valley. Most of the rest of the people in the valley, fifteen or twenty families, were Irish from County Cork, second- and third-generation immigrants, occasionally first. We were different. We talked different. But there was no sense, really, of any kind of class difference.

We rode on horseback all day long when I was six or seven years old. We could go anywhere in the valley, pretty much, that we wanted to. We were utterly safe. We were expected home for dinner and that was about the size of it. It was a sweet, wandering boyhood, sometimes very lonely. I got polio when I was five and couldn’t go to school with the rest of my peers when I was six. I remember one fall, wandering around and getting a taste of isolation.

The ranch ran cattle out on the high desert and when we were about eight or nine, my cousin and I were sent out with the cowboys, the buckaroos they’re called. Cowboys are from Texas. Buckaroos are from California, in the Spanish tradition, the vaquero tradition.

There were about a half a million acres of great basin sagebrush and lava rock, a huge terrain. It was a tough life. We were on horseback seven or eight hours a day and it was very dry. The idea of going out of your way for a drink of water was regarded as unmanly. But the buckaroos were pretty good to us and by the time we were twelve or thirteen, we were pretty much used to it.

On the other hand, we were privileged. We were the owner’s kids. I went through the sixth grade in Adel, a one-room schoolhouse. The teacher lived in a little house we had on our property and ate dinner with us every night. It was sweet in that sense. Then in the seventh grade I was sent to a private school in California. My mother decided I ought to actually get some education. She said all I ever learned to do in the first grade was to quick-draw with toy guns. Anyway, I went to Tamalpais School, out of San Rafael, in the seventh grade, then Jordan Junior High, in Palo Alto, and then Red Bluff. We had a fairly sizable property out of Red Bluff for winter grazing. Finally, to Klamath Falls, to high school.

Along about fourteen or fifteen, I began to regret going back to the ranch in the summertime. I discovered girls and cars.

When other kids came out there from Klamath we would do all kinds of hair-raising things. I remember Coleman Lake, a great dry playa. We used to go out there in an old World War II jeep and shoot jackrabbits. We must have killed -- I don’t know -- hundreds of jackrabbits, for no purpose other than just to go kill something. It was great, good fun, but it was pretty bloody and awful, looking back on it. Nevertheless, a lot of the time in the evening when the sun went down, I remember sitting on the veranda porch and reading books my mother got into the house. I think she must have belonged to the Book of the Month Club. The first book -- at least that’s the story I tell myself now -- that I ever got seriously interested in was The Big Sky. I think it was published in ’47. That would have been the year I was a sophomore in high school. I was just swept away by Guthrie.

I got to college but I still didn’t know anything about literature. Winter quarter of my freshman year at Oregon State I took an introduction to lit class and they did Eudora Welty’s first published story, The Traveling Salesman. It was just an absolute piece of bafflement to me, and I dropped the class as a consequence.

Then, a year or so later, there was a guy named Herbert Childs, the model for the man who owns horses in Malamud’s novel about that English department, A New Life. (Malamud was teaching there at the time.) I took a class from Herb Childs, and read Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Childs opened the door for me and I loved it.

The next quarter, Malamud published the baseball novel and they let him teach a creative writing class. I sat in it and he hated me and I hated him. But, nevertheless, I was firmly hooked by that point and I kept trying to write.

I wanted to write anecdotes, and Malamud wanted to write stories that involve recognitions and change, just like I’ve tried to tell my students for thirty years. But I wouldn’t do it. He had good reason to hate me. I was arrogant and resisted everything he said, and he was very strong-minded. He gave me, I think, five Fs in a row and, finally, I rolled over and did a paper the way he wanted and he gave me an A for the final one and a B for the class. But he was going to flunk me, I think, if I would not turn in anything except these anecdotal pieces about what it was like one Sunday afternoon or something, which is what I really valued, what I really held sacred.

Ferris: When you describe the place where you grew up, you say “The way in was the way out.” What do you mean by that?

Kittredge: Literally, the way in was the way out. The road from Lakeview to Adel was thirty-six miles of gravel road. It was paved after the Second World War. But it still ended at Adel.

Buckarooing on that desert in the summer we’d see maybe one or two automobiles. There were only wagon track roads, and they didn’t go clear through, so there was literally no way to go on east from there except to go back to the west and around to Burns or south to Winnemucca, two hundred miles north or two hundred miles south.

So it was a frontier, and it was an oasis culture. Across the northern Great Basin there are several big valleys that are well-watered and landlocked, like Warner. We had deep soil, six, seven, eight feet of peat, and lots of water collecting off mountains to the west. The water came down into that valley in creeks and ended up in a series of lakes, Crump, Stone Corral, Bluejoint and others, which got increasingly arid until, finally, depending on if it was a wet year or dry year, sometimes the northernmost lake would dry up.

But once you left those fault-locked valleys, up about a thousand feet up to the high desert, it was a frontier. It smelled different, dry and clean. It looked different. Nobody was out there. You were literally all alone out there. There would be eight or ten people in our buckaroo outfit and two or three guys keeping line camps out fifty or sixty miles from the valley, and that was it. The next cluster of human beings was 120 or 30 miles to the east. It was a long way to anywhere out there.

Ferris: What changes did you witness in that world?

Kittredge: My father, in the late thirties and forties, built a huge irrigation system in the valley using Caterpillars. Then in 1946, my grandfather sold about two hundred head of workhorses -- good, matched, trained teams. He traded them off for a fleet of John Deere tractors. By the middle fifties, the old horse-oriented way of going about things was gone. We did everything with equipment.

When I got out of the Air Force, we were doing everything mechanically. I had a crew of fifteen men who did more work than thirty men could have beforehand.

In the old days, all that haying, for instance, was done with teams. Probably there were somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty or sixty hired men in the valley during the summertime, scattered across the valley, cutting, mowing, a stacking crew putting up hay. The valley was alive and full of people, full of people working.

One of the consequences of mechanization was that the place suddenly became uninhabited. The valley was huge and empty, maybe a dozen people out there running equipment, hay balers and swathers. God, my baler crew could go through 160 acres a day like nothing, just foomp, foomp, foomp, day after day after day after day. We farmed three thousand acres of barley in fifteen days with Caterpillars.

This was theoretically more efficient. Bad things happened, though. We began to use chemical fertilizers. We began to use pesticides. I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the second chapter of which was set at Tule Lake, about one hundred miles west of us, where they farmed in ways similar to ours.

I had a terrible recognition. I had thought that we were doing God’s work, making the world better. Suddenly I realized we were actually wrecking things.

There had been millions of water birds. When I was about five years old, standing on the lawn in front of my parents’ house in the spring, I watched water birds go north. There would be raft after raft of ducks and geese, sometimes three and four deep, flying north to the tundra. I mean literally millions.

We sprayed parathion on the barley fields. It was a German nerve gas, a World War I nerve gas. It killed every songbird in the valley. Damn lucky we didn’t kill ourselves, probably.

We built a big feed mill, another industrialization of the processes. Clearly, that’s not the best or most productive way to raise food. I don’t think industrialization raises good food. Any indictment of agribusiness you want, I’ll give it to you.

Ferris: Your grandfather owned a ranch about the size of Delaware. What were his goals?

Kittredge: Well, he wanted property. He wanted, I suppose, power. His father had come from Michigan, a physician’s son from Saginaw. He and his brother went down the Mississippi, walked across the Isthmus of Panama and up to the gold fields in California, where the brother got shot and killed in a dispute over a mining claim.

This fellow, my great-grandfather, went back to Michigan, got married, took a wagon train back across the country, and ended up as a kind of itinerant -- he was both a teacher and some kind of doctor. He dragged his family from homestead to homestead, from northern California up to Fort Simco and Yakima in Washington State, then back down into Oregon. He finally ended up dying in 1897, in Silver Lake, Oregon, very, very poor. So my grandfather started off with absolutely dead zero, and, through the years, in an indomitable fashion, acquired property and more property. He was a hard dealer. The story is that he traded an Indian fellow on the Klamath Reservation out of 160 acres, traded a wagonload of groceries for 160 acres on a bad winter, 160 acres of meadowland. By the mid-1930s he was prosperous, when he got the ranch at Warner. He just couldn’t resist it. He certainly didn’t need it. But, as I say, his game was accumulation. Possessions would render him invulnerable, so he thought, and he would never be vulnerable in the way he had been as a young boy, the way he saw his father be vulnerable.

Ferris: How were his goals different from yours and from your father’s?

Kittredge: Three generations from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves, as they say. My father was a man who enjoyed life. A very bright and successful man, he went to Warner Valley and instituted what at that time in that country were innovative processes. He built a huge irrigation system. When the Second World War came along, he made a lot of money farming oats and barley. He spent it on things like a Beachcraft Bonanza.

He was a great friend of a couple of movie stars -- two or three of them used to come up to the ranch; Dennis Morgan, a singer and movie star, and rich men like old man Cord, the guy who invented the Cord automobile, from Reno. Pat McCarren, the God-awful senator from Nevada, was a great, great pal of my dad’s. They all ran together and partied. My grandfather thought this was an abomination.

He couldn’t believe that you would get money and then spend it on frivolities. My father owned a racehorse, for God’s sake, at one point. He lost his ass and my grandfather was just appalled. About 1957, when my father was set to take over the properties, his father, who had been so appalled at his antics for all these years, essentially disinherited him. That was the beginning of big family trouble, which eventually led to the selling of the properties.

By the time we sold, in 1967, I was desperate to get out of there. I began to recognize it wasn’t great work that I was doing, and all the time I’d always had the bug to write. Tried to write a novel when I was in the Air Force. Finally, in ’65, on the day after Thanksgiving, with a considerable hangover, I thought, “You’ve been telling yourself for ten years you’re going to write and if you don’t sit down and start today you’re going to be just another phony who never did it.” And so I made a deal with myself: “I’ll do this every day in some way or shape, if I can. It doesn’t have to come to anything. It doesn’t have to go anywhere. You don't have to publish a word.

In any event, I changed my ambitions which led to a change in values. It’s a process which continues today. Stories, after all, lead to recognitions, and recognitions lead to change. I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and went to Iowa and met writers like Dick Yates. Then I lucked out in ways I didn’t realize and got a job in Montana.

I probably couldn’t have survived anywhere in academia at that time except Montana, because I knew nothing. Dick Hugo looked out for me through the first two or three years.

Ferris: How did your family respond to your decision?

Kittredge: Oh, they thought I was crazy. But my father didn’t. He was a smart, humane man. I was on the Klamath Marsh in ’67. I had split up with my wife. There was a lot of chaos at that time in my life -- and I was living in a little house. About the tenth of December, deep snow on the ground, he came driving in. I was living by myself, drinking too much, pretending to be a writer. He came driving in about ten o’clock one morning and said, “Have you got anything to drink?” I gave him a glass of Jack Daniels and he sat down and he said, “What the hell are you going to do with yourself?”

I explained to him that I had applied for the workshop at the University of Iowa, and I was going to attend classes at the University of Oregon in the meantime -- that I was going to go away and be a writer. This was clearly the nuttiest thing he had ever heard of in his life.

He looked at me and he said, “Well” -- he said, “I’ll tell you one thing. I've done things I hated all my life and I was sure as hell wouldn't recommend that." That was the end of it. He just said, "Yeah, go do it." God bles his heart. That meant a lot to me. It carried me a long ways, that it was okay with him.

Ferris: Good for him.

Kittredge: And not only okay -- he thought it was terrific. “Go do what you want to do.” He had always wanted to be a lawyer. His father talked him out of it when he was twenty-three or twenty-four years old and got him to come back to the ranch where he spent the rest of his life. My father felt that he had not used his life in the smartest way possible. So he was very sympathetic.

And my mother was always sympathetic to anything I wanted to do. But she was terrifically tough-minded. I’ll tell you a little story.

About twenty years ago -- and I had published quite a bit by that time -- she wanted to read something new I’d written. I gave her a typed script and she read and read and read, about twenty pages.

She got done, and I’m sitting there, and dead silence. Finally I said, “Well, what did you think of it?” She looked at me. “I would have thought you would have outgrown this sort of thing.”

Ferris: You wrote in your memoir, Hole in the Sky, that in the community you grew up in “a man who told stories was regarded as suspect and sappy.” Did you fall into that category?

Kittredge: Oh, sure. I remember a cowboy, in the fall of 1967 on the Klamath Marsh, saying, “You know, you’re not worth a goddamn thing but to sit around and read books.” He regarded that as reasonably useless, I think.

I think storytelling was regarded as revealing secrets or the underside of things. Anything other than the official family story was regarded as a way of fomenting trouble. In Dakota, Kathleen Norris writes about small communities in the short-grass plains country where she lives. To many people there, she says, “Change indicates failure.” The people she talks about are the survivors, the 10 percent who made a go of it in an extremely difficult situation. They had found a way to make life in that hard place work, and they were not about to change anything. They didn’t talk to strangers. They were not about to reveal their secrets. They were not about to even tell family stories that had any taint of weakness or failure connected to them. They told an official, stainless-steel story about progress and success, which was what the family was about, what the community was about. If you told any other kind of story, you were regarded as a traitor.

I think in Warner Valley, to this day, there are people who regard me as a traitor. I betrayed the guys I went to that grade school with all those years ago, some of who now are about seventy years old, getting old, dying. I’m sure I’m an abomination to those people because I’ve tried to suggest that there are other ways to go about things in the world.

But I really think that the way the community wants to wrap its arms around itself and close the doors around its success accounts for a lot of terrible bitterness and anger in the West today, as the West changes so rapidly. Old lifestyles are passing away, and people have to recognize that they can’t preserve them.

Ferris: The South, where I come from, has always been known for its loquacious storytellers, while the West has the image of the stoic, the independent man of few words. Does this make for a difference in the art of storytelling in the West?

Kittredge: I think storytelling in the West -- the good storytelling, what there is of it, resembles the wonderful storytelling out of the South. It mostly comes from people who don’t feel emotionally drawn to promulgate some socially approved line of thought. You get in the mills, you get in the woods, you get out with the ranch hands, and they tell great stories -- funny, ironic, heartbreaking, heartening -- down to brass tacks.

I’m working on a draft of a novel right now. I’m sixty-eight years old, thirty years away from ranch life, and if there’s one thing I regret it’s the distance, the fact that I was so ill-educated when I lived there that I didn’t recognize the value of that talk, the talk I heard in the Caterpillar shop among the mechanics who were banging away at something or other, that I didn’t recognize the value of listening as closely as I might have.

Ironically, I spent a lot of time escaping, getting educated, and now I want to go back into that really grounded underlife. The West, of course, has good stories, but as I said, because of the official mythology, they mostly never got told. Nobody thought stories involving failure, difficulty, and heartbreak were stories you were supposed to tell.

Ferris: You’ve been designated by critics as one of the best Western writers today. From your teaching and your work on anthologies of Western literature, what do you believe makes a writer a Western writer? Is it more than geography?

Kittredge: It’s one of those questions you get and can’t answer. I don’t really know. It’s a little bit to do with geography, a little bit to do with location and lifestyle. If you write about horses, you get identified as a Western writer.

One of the things we don’t have enough of is urban writing -- not much about these strange metropolitan places like Phoenix and Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

We have a lot of traditions -- Native American culture, ranching culture, mining culture, Mormons, Hutterites, agribusiness farmers, hippie enclaves, immigrants from Mexico and Southeast Asia. There’s a full-scale Russian community in Missoula now. Those worlds have never had a literature either. When we were editing The Last Best Place, we went high and low trying to get first-rate writing about Butte, which was the empire city of the northern Rockies for a long, long time. But there was just nothing about underground mining that’s of any consequence. Huge aspects of Western experience exist only in folk stories, most of which have not been collected.

Ferris: Right.

Kittredge: The work you did in the South needs to be done in the West. It’s a project sitting there waiting to be done. There’s a whole wonderful tradition of northern plains Native American storytelling that nobody but tribal people know much about. For a long time the American West was a colony, an emotional and intellectual and economic colony. It was a place to invest European and eastern money and reap great profits. It was also a mythological place, a Garden of Eden, which drew wagon trains and homesteaders.

People in the wagon trains were well established, economically. It cost something like five thousand dollars, which was big money in those days, to outfit a wagon. People sold stores and farms in order to go to Oregon or California. They were seeking a promised land.

What’s happening now -- in a very tumultuous difficult way -- is that the West is beginning to become its own country. It’s beginning to have its own traditions. The West is beginning to take responsibility for itself. The number of environmental groups in Missoula, for instance, is staggering. In lots of places around the West, people have decided to take care of their own neighborhood, and not just for personal gain. Western society is beginning to grow up.

I wrote a book about the Klamath Basin two or three years ago that the University of California published. The Klamath Basin is where I went to high school. They are having stunningly difficult times as a result of poor planning. But the Klamath Basin is also beginning to solve its own problems, meet its responsibilities, both local and national.

There are all kinds of people in the West who are flat broke. There’s another whole lot of people -- twenty-five thousand people in towns of seventy thousand -- who are very well off. We’re developing a class system -- and that’s a bad idea. The West has also become a tourist haven, a place to escape, a getaway. Montana gets everybody from anarchists to the very wealthy, all of them hiding out.

Ferris: The Endowment is currently funding projects that will become regional centers for ten distinctive regions of the nation, and they will provide a central resource for information about each region. If you were putting together a center for knowledge about the American West, what do you feel are the essential ingredients?

Kittredge: I guess two things. Thirty-five years ago you could count the good writers in the West on both hands, and now there are a couple hundred anyway, many with social and environmental interests -- like Gary Paul Nabhan, Terry Tempest Williams, Richard Nelson, David James Duncan, Pattiann Rogers. There are also really good historians, Richard White and Patricia Limerick, for instance. You need to get the writers and intellectuals increasingly involved with what’s going on outside their enclaves, outside academe, outside the official culture. You need to encourage them to be politically involved with the future of the West -- like Bernard DeVoto, for instance, or Wallace Stegner.

Ferris: The myth of the American West in the nineteenth century was defined by cowboys, Indians, and wagon teams. What would you guess will be the lingering image of the West of the twentieth century?

Kittredge: I think it will be confusion. I think the West is in a process of growing up. My grandfather was primarily interested in owning property. Some guy like me is very much in another tradition. I am more interested in taking care and preserving. We have generated at least some capability for self-reflection, seeing ourselves in the mirror much more accurately than we did seventy-five years ago. I think that will continue to grow.

The changes happening now are very rapid. Montana is extremely right-wing at the moment, a huge change from thirty years ago. At the same time, Missoula County, I think, in the recent election, had the second largest percentage of Nader voters in the United States. We’ve got to learn how to deal with and control corporate power. Montana is broke. If anybody comes and promises money, why, they’re regarded as a kind of blessed savior.

Ferris: There are a lot of terrible things that happened in the settling of the American West that are more and more acknowledged. Similar to the scar of slavery on the South is the destruction of the American Indian in the West. I think a question for all of us as Americans is, how do we best live among the ghosts of an unsavory history?

Kittredge: The best thing we can do is bring tribal people into society in a just, fair way, offering them economic opportunity without any attempt to assimilate them or destroy their cultures. Their cultures must be preserved.

Some tribes are gaining power. As the West becomes increasingly hard up for water, the Klamath, for instance, have increased clout because they’ve got water rights. The Klamath are a landless tribe. Their reservation lands were taken in the fifties. Now the Klamath are saying, “Hey, we might trade some of this water if we can get some land back.” Suddenly the old ruling-class white guys in the Klamath Basin are giving a big gulp and swallowing and saying, “Yeah, you might.” The white society, the ruling class society, has to make a moral effort to include the disenfranchised, not just because it’s good for disenfranchised people, but because it’s good for the whole society.

Ferris: That is a wonderful vision. I want to just say how grateful I am, Bill, for your taking time to talk about your personal life and the life of the world in which you live in the American West. I hope that our work here can be a partner to what you’re doing.

Kittredge: Bless you and the NEH for the work you’ve done. All I can say is I’m very, very complimented you took the time to talk to me.