1950 Pulitzer Prize Review: The Way West by A. B. Guthrie Jr.

The decade of the 1950s for the Pulitzer Prize-winning novels begins with a celebrated Western novel about a wagon train traveling overland along the Oregon Trail. The Way West is actually the second book in a series that A.B. Guthrie Jr. wrote about the growth of Montana throughout the 19th century (1830s-1880s). The series contains the following sequential novels: The Big Sky (1947), The Way West (1949), These Thousand Hills (1956), Arfive (1971), The Last Valley (1975), and Fair Land, Fair Land (1982).

Dedicated to Guthrie’s wife, Harriet, The Way West serves as a nice stand-alone novel despite being part of a broader series. It begins in dreary Independence, Missouri circa 1845 where thirty-five year-old Lije Evans (perhaps short for “Elijah”) decides to join a wagon train headed westward toward the Oregon territory. Why make the risky trek to Oregon? Lije’s father once traveled down the Ohio River in a flatboat, and his sage advice to his son was: “there wasn’t any place as pretty as the one that lay ahead.” The impetus to uproot and migrate to Oregon is based on a mix of hopes and dreams, plus a patriotic urge to prevent the villainous British from ever settling in North America. Lije hopes to escape miasmal sickness rampant in the hazy low country of Missouri. He and his friends dream of greener pastures and warm sunshine, a place with plenty of land, blue skies, rich soil, new people, and a new land to cultivate –the Willamette Valley. After all, “a man didn’t make history, staying close to home” (13), says Lije.

“He didn’t guess he would join up for Oregon, for all that he would be proud to have a hand in it, to build up Uncle Sam and stop the British. Missouri was a good-enough country… It was just that he wanted something more out of life than he had found” (4).

In the town of Independence, all the talk is of Oregon. From Mexican hired hands on the Santa Fe trade, to men like Tadlock from Illinois who intends to travel overland by himself without the aid of a company, or Henry “Hank” McBee from Southern Ohio with his large family (including his attractive daughter Mercy), Curtis Mack and his wife Amanda who is reluctant to sleep with her husband in fear of becoming pregnant in the wilderness, and Charles Fairman and his wife Judith who suffers from depression. There is also an amusing preacher named Brother Weatherby. They invite veteran frontiersman Dick Summers to be the pilot of the wagon train. Dick is a rough and tumble outdoorsman with plenty of experience traveling through the country and fighting Indians (Dick Winters previously appeared in A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s The Big Sky). Yet he is also a melancholy man pushing fifty whose sickly wife has recently died, hence why he decides to leave his farm in Missouri and return to the open frontier. Throughout the novel, we are given vague glimpses of Dick’s life –such as the ghostly memories of yesteryear’s trailblazing mountain men who populate his mind, and his young love affair with a beautiful Crow girl. He is one of the more elusive and compelling characters in the novel.

Joined by his faithful wife, Rebecca “Becky” Evans, and their son Brownie (as well as the family dog Rock) Lije and his family make haste for Oregon, despite Becky’s initial reservations. Along the way, they encounter innumerable situations –sickness and storms, pregnancy and stillbirth, indiscretion and impropriety (like the embarrassing problem of defecating in the wilderness without wandering too far from the train), camps along nameless place-markers, signs of civilization like Fort Laramie, buffalo stampedes, rattlenakes (whose poisonous bites kill Toddie), friendly Shoshone (like Dick’s old friend White Hawk), and hostile Kaw, Pawnee, and Sioux Indians. At one point, Brownie stays behind to scrawl his name on a rock and he is then kidnapped by unfriendly Sioux who bargain him for meat, supplies, and tobacco. There is also infighting within the group as some turn back and Lije unseats the headstrong Tadlock as captain, but the conflict is further complicated when an intimacy-starved Mack in unable to control himself one evening and sleeps with Tadlock’s daughter, Mercy. In time, she realizes she is pregnant and quickly marries Brownie shortly before the troupe arrives in the Edenic paradise of the Willamette Valley.

Once again, I was lucky enough to read a first edition copy of this book, courtesy of my local library. Later editions apparently included a foreword by Wallace Stegner which I wouldn’t mind reading in the future. Needless to say, I thought this was a wonderful installment in the pantheon of Pulitzer Prize winners –certainly a breath of fresh air after the 1949 winner Guard of Honor by James Gould Cozzens. Clifton Fadiman, the distinguished book reviewer and public intellectual, once dubbed The Way West “the finest novel on the subject in existence.” A Hollywood film was released in 1967 starring Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark.

The following are some notable quotations I came across while reading:

“The day dawned clear, but it had rained the night before, the sudden squally rain of middle March” (1 -opening lines).

“Each stick and splinter of this place was built by Lije, each little touch of prettiness put there by her or him. Everything had something in them in it. They had come here young and sure and seen the years pass and known trouble and happiness. It was, she thought again as she worked her broom, as if the house had shared their time and feelings, as if, quiet in the walls, sad in the empty rooms, was the memory of their doings, was the dread of strangers come” (36-37, Rebecca Evans reflecting on departing from her home in Missouri).

“Summers sat on his horse and watched, thinking how things had changed. This country was young, like himself, when he saw it first, young and wild like himself, without the thought of age. There wasn’t a post on it then, nor any tame squaw begging calico, but only buffalo and beaver and the long grass waving in the Laramie bottoms. The wind had blown lonesome, the sound of emptiness in it, the breath of far-off places where no white foot had stepped… Now there wasn’t a buffalo within fifty miles or beaver either –the few that were left of them—and the wind brought words and the hammer of hammers and the bray of mules and the smells of living under roof” (136).

“Evans knew this time would pass. He was right to try for Oregon. He had been all along. It was just that the country overpowered the mind” (276).

“Here, from Boise to the Dalles, was the windup of the trail, the finish of the test, the yes or no Oregon. Here by slow wheel tracks at last was being written the answer to a question raised years ago last spring, raised so long ago a man lost its beginning across the plain-peak, sage-tree, sand-rock field of time. He lost it along with places, people and doings remembered from before, so that none of them came real to him and he asked himself is sure enough there was an Independence, a Missouri and a spot he once called home, or were they vapors in his mind” (306).

About the 1950 Pulitzer Prize Decision

The 1950 Fiction Jury was composed of the prior year’s returning trio: David Appel, Joseph Henry Jackson, and Frederic Babcock. As far as I can tell, David Appel was a book editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the author of several children’s books; Frederic Babcock was a journalist and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune; and Joseph Henry Jackson was a longtime editor of The San Francisco Chronicle where he penned a daily column “A Bookman’s Notebook” and he also helmed a popular radio program entitled “The Reader’s Guide.”

Interestingly enough, the musical play South Pacific by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Joshua Logan won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950. James Michener’s novel of the same name had also won the Pulitzer in 1948.

About A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Alfred Bertram “A.B.” Guthrie Jr. (1901-1991), known to his friends as “Bud,” was born in Bedford, Indiana, where his father was a newspaperman, before the family relocated to the small town of Choteau, Montana. Here, Guthrie was raised to love the high country of the Mountain West. Upon entering adulthood, he studied at the University of Washington before transferring to the University of Montana. Later, he attended Harvard University under a Neiman Foundation scholarship where he started writing.

Guthrie first entered the newspaper business as a devil’s printer for the Choteau Acantha newspaper. He worked a variety of odd jobs –the Forest Service, an irrigation project in Mexico, Western Electric in California, and even in a grocery store, before moving to Lexington in 1926 where he began working as a reporter at the Lexington Leader. He married Harriet Lawson, they had two children, and after his books became bestsellers, he began teaching writing courses at the University of Kentucky. Following the successes of The Big Sky and The Way West, Mr. Guthrie relocated his family back to Choteau, Montana where they typically split their time between Choteau and Great Falls, Montana. He also dabbled in Hollywood scriptwriting after penning the Academy Award-nominated script for Shane (1953), and he also wrote the script for The Kentuckian (1955).

Mr. Guthrie died in 1991 at the age of 90 at his ranch near Choteau, Montana.

Guthrie Jr., A. B. The Way West. William Sloane Associates. New York. 1949.

Click here to return to my survey of the Pulitzer Prize Winners.

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