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Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage
Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage

Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage

by O. Alan Weltzien

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Thomas Savage (1915—2003) was one of the intermountain West's best novelists. His thirteen novels received high critical praise, yet he remained largely unknown by readers. Although Savage spent much of his later life in the Northeast, his formative years were spent in southwestern Montana, where the mountain West and his ranching family formed the setting for much of his work.

O. Alan Weltzien's insightful and detailed literary biography chronicles the life and work of this neglected but deeply talented novelist. Savage, a closeted gay family man, was both an outsider and an insider, navigating an intense conflict between his sexual identity and the claustrophobic social restraints of the rural West. Unlike many other Western writers, Savage avoided the formula westerns— so popular in his time— and offered instead a realistic, often subversive version of the region. His novels tell a hard, harsh story about dysfunctional families, loneliness, and stifling provincialism in the small towns and ranches of the northern Rockies, and his minority interpretation of the West provides a unique vision and caustic counternarrative contrary to the triumphant settler-colonialism themes that have shaped most Western literature. Savage West seeks to claim Thomas Savage's well-deserved position in American literature and to reintroduce twenty-first-century readers to a major Montana writer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781948908870
Publisher: University of Nevada Press
Publication date: 10/06/2020
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 300
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

O. Alan Weltzien is an author and specialist in American and western American literatures. He worked forty years as a full-time academic, 29 of which were at the University of Montana Western, in Dillon Montana.  He has published dozens of articles, two chapbooks, and nine books, including studies or collections of writers Rick Bass, John McPhee, and Norman Maclean.  He lives in Montana.

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The Emergence of Tom Savage: The Early Novels, 1936-53
By the summer of 1937, age twenty-two, Tom Savage (then still known as Tom Brenner) busily corresponded with a pen pal, Elizabeth (“Betty”) Fitzgerald (1918-89), the daughter of his favorite professor in Missoula. She had moved back to New England with her parents and enrolled at Colby College in Waterville, ME. Betty’s father, Brassil, had encouraged both her and Tom, who soon became romantically involved with her, in their writing careers. Savage was interested enough that he decided to follow Betty to New England and, specifically, Colby College, where she’d matriculated. From a Boston Irish family, Betty grew up in Utah and then Missoula, which she loved, and she judged herself a Westerner.

When Savage boarded that Greyhound Bus in Butte, MT at summer’s end in 1937, he made a fateful decision to turn his back on his native state. Thereafter he returned with his own family, primarily to visit relatives. For over forty years he would be an adopted New Englander though he maintained a split regional identity, in part because he persistently returned to the northern Rockies in his fiction. He left behind rodeo and ranching and turned himself into the sophisticate latent inside him. He played the social host as easily as he did horse wrangler or backcountry shepherd. Savage switched identities as easily as he did clothes, and these contrary lives, both native to him, competed for attention.

He also brought along his intense ambitions as a writer as well as his sexual orientation, which he’d shared with no one. Rather, his Missoula seasons yielded more than one girl friend (one named Lila) and common heterosexual interests in the opposite sex. He crowed in one letter “A number of the girls seem to think I’m OK.” (3/22/1935) He also boasted of his familiarity with at least one Dillon, MT whorehouse in another: “[Alma] is dandy. And was she glad to see me! She appreciates me more than my other girls. I certainly do know the best people.” (4/4/1935) That final sardonic comment, vintage Savage, typifies the generous attitude towards prostitutes that recurs in his novels set in Dillon. And Savage honored Alma by making her proprietress, name unchanged, of the “Dixie Rooms” in Lona Hanson. 

Of course, this bragging likely served as the best camouflage for his homosexuality, his own closest secret revealed, as far as I can find, to no one in his youth. Savage, like most sexual minorities, kept counsel in his psychic closet, the safest retreat for so many generations. To my knowledge, he made no references to being gay until his deepening relationship with Betty, whom he married after their junior year in 1939. Many years later, Betty told their daughter she’d known about Tom being gay since “the Missoula days.” 

According to Sarah Pruitt, in the 1930s “LGBTQ culture and community began to fall out of favor,” and because of “newly enforced laws and regulations” as well as a series of sensationalized sex crimes wherein the sex criminals were equated with gay men, “homosexuality seem[ed] more dangerous to the average American.” (www.history.org) While gay and lesbian communities thrived in New York’s Greenwich Village and in Chicago, Missoula was a long ways away. Tom locked his gayness precisely as gay Phil Burbank, in Power, guards his bathing hole: “The spot was precious, and must never be profaned by another human presence. . . Even now as a grown man, he never failed to leave it without a sense of innocence and purity; the brief communion there with himself made his step lighter and his whistle as gay as a boy’s. “ (p. 171) In the fiction, Phil is spied upon, found out; not until his forties did Savage come out.

Nonetheless, his gayness undoubtedly tinctured his ranch youth, creating an insider-outsider double perspective he would put to fictive use. His hearty protests about Horse Prairie being the best place anywhere, which he soon enough discarded, belie his sense of isolation and detachment, as do his boasts about girls. Perhaps he even felt affinity on some level with weird Uncle Bill Brenner, clearly the odd duck at the Ranch: an affinity presented in the changing relationship between Phil Burbank and Peter Gordon in Power. Savage could and did ‘pass’ with ease—an indispensable safety net.
Savage scrupulously kept his homosexuality under wraps; he was quite public about his writing ambitions, however. Correspondence in 1936-37 reveals his increasing preoccupation with writing. Enrolled at “Montana State University” in Fall quarter, 1936, Savage tells his close friend, Bess Carlson, he’s bought a “noseless Remington” typewriter: “I have spent hours and hours everyday writing, and some of the things are good. My style if you can call it that is getting better and better all the time.” He claims, “I am sticking to the old things [i.e. humorous pieces] that I can do,” which includes “some 70 poems,” and he boasts, “I think I might be able to sell them.” (11/12/1936) Savage fancied himself a protégé of the Algonquin Wits and thought he might become another James Thurber or S. J. Perelman. He wouldn’t.

At Thanksgiving, 1936 Savage confides that for the past month he’s been “working working working on the Book. . .called Geography of the World, and Other Jokes, which is very good, being a parody of all Geographies of the world, and very funny.” He claims two professors endorsed it, and he plotted its success: “I will give Doubleday-Doran or some other company the copyright of this book, and they will publish it, and I will get 15% royalties, and the book will take, and I will make more than a thousand dollars, I hope.” (11/26/1936) In this and subsequent letters Savage described this book as a done deal. The aspiring writer expressed great self-confidence in a variety of breezy, satirical wit he’d first displayed in his high school “Balloni” column. 

He’d more recently worked a light humor vein in a piece, “Find the Orchestra,” published the following summer (1937) in Frontier and Midland; a Magazine of the West, a respectable literary journal edited by H. G. Merriam, a foundational name in Montana letters. In this toss-off Brenner salutes what he calls the “Traveling Ghost Orchestra,” the artfully hidden orchestra accompanying actors or actresses moved to song in movies. Perhaps he subliminally recognized an analogy between his hidden orchestra and his hidden queer self. He speculates about its cold location in a romance between a RCMP and a woman in the Canadian Rockies and flaunts his amateur wit: “But hazarding guesses as to how the orchestra gets where it does is merely confusing, and is not leading to anything but the end of this article.” (v. 17, no. 4, p. 276)
Even in his juvenilia, Savage worked nights. He’d already developed the nocturnal writing habit he would maintain, “up until four or five in the morning, working” (2/4/1937) on this manuscript. 

Geography of the World, and Other Jokes, which occupied him in 1936-37, ultimately came to naught, though apparently he thought it was in the can. He brags to Bess Carlson, “My book is already for publication. I heard from Harpers and Brothers but have written to Simon & Schuster in hopes that they will be interested. They push a book much better than H. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt about people liking it. . .Most people have hysterics when they read it. It ought to sell--according to professors—about two hundred thousand copies, then that means fifteen percent to me, or about thirty thousand dollars, enough to live on for a year, anyway.” Savage reveals detailed knowledge and brash self-confidence about publishing yet he’s a complete greenhorn. Missoula helped prop his glowing castle in the air: “Great interest in writing has of course been aroused because of my success and professors and people are trying to start up the old national literary fraternity again—Sigma Upsilon. I am head of the bunch.” Missoula faculty, especially Fitzgerald, had puffed up his ego and convinced him he had a future in glib satire. He desperately wanted the publication for self-validation, unsurprisingly. He dreamed of buying an L-29 Cord, a luxury car.

Table of Contents

1 Childhood and Adolescence, 1915–1936
2 The Emergence of Tom Savage: The Early Novels, 1936–53
3 Gay Family Man (1953-67)
4 The High Tide Years (1968–75)
5 Savage at Zenith (1976–81)
6 Limelight and Obscurity (1982–2003)
The Novels of Thomas Savage
Family Resemblances, Partial Representations

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