The Pacific Northwest Forum
Volume 3, Number 4, Pages 21-26
Fall, 1978

Western Writers and the River: Guthrie, Fisher, Stegner

By Barbara Meldrum

Barbara Meldrum, Professor of English at the University of Idaho, is a Northwest native and veteran teacher of western American literature. In addition to several publications on Melville, she has published essays on various western writers, including O. E. Rolvaag, S. K. Winther, Conrad Richter, Vardis Fisher, and Frederick Manfred. She is currently editing a collection of essays on realism and myth in western American literature. This past summer she was a National Endowment for the Humanities fellow, studying pastoral literature at the University of Oregon. She is a past president of the Pacific Northwest American Studies Association.

Rivers are crucial to life in the West. From the earliest days of the white man's venture into the wilderness, rivers have been points of reference through uncharted territory, sources of life-giving water, and often-dangerous waters to be crossed or used (at risk) for speedier transport. One might expect that western writers recreating in their fiction an earlier era of exploration and settlement would use rivers prominently in their fiction. At times this is so, though often the rivers seem to be taken for granted, as the many rich natural resources of the West so often are. Perceptive writers of the West have, however, used rivers in ways that illuminate their conception of man's place in nature. I have chosen three novels by prominent western writers to demonstrate some of the ways rivers are used in western fiction.(1) Each writer uses the river in a distinctive way; yet there is a striking similarity in the way themes developed by each writer intersect to form a similar statement about the relationship of man to nature in his quest for a better life in the West.

A. B. Guthrie's The Big Sky includes one section that takes place along the Missouri River as Boone Caudill works with a French crew on a keelboat. Surely here is an opportunity to use the river prominently; but Guthrie does not do so. The reasons may stem from Guthrie's purpose: to portray the life of the courageous men of the wilderness, the mountain men. The Frenchmen are experts with a boat, but are not otherwise adept or courageous in facing the perils of the wilderness. Boone, however, is a neophyte mountain man more interested in learning to hunt than in working a keelboat. The French, who work on the river, utilize it as a potential source of money, for they are pulling and sailing that boat in an arduous journey upstream in order to establish a trading post in Blackfeet Indian country. Their leader says, "'We ascend the river only for the return'" (that is, to make money); whereas Summers, the experienced mountain man and Boone's mentor, joins the enterprise only for the adventure and the sense of freedom one can know under the big sky (p. 70). He perceives that the age of the steamships will soon be upon them, and this new river traffic will accelerate the quest for profit in the West. This section of the book contains little description of the river itself (although the expansive big sky is vividly presented); what we see is a river that must be struggled with as the men toil month after month in a labor conceived by materialistic ambition. Such a purpose does not lend itself to a mythic vision of the river.

There are, however, significant references to the river in relation to Boone's experience. Most often, the river is something to be crossed something threatening danger and also marking a boundary. As young Boone first leaves his home, he crosses the Kentucky River in a borrowed rowboat, then later struggles across the Ohio River at floodstage in a desperate attempt to flee from his pursuing Pap and the law. The river threatens imminent death, yet also provides the means of salvation. Once beyond, with the river behind him, Boone has truly embarked on his new life as an independent adult on his way West. When the keelboat crosses the Platte River, Boone and his friend are initiated into the western wilderness through a ritual of haircutting (a la Indian style). Again, the river is a boundary to be crossed, the entrance to a new phase of experience.

The river is also a means of salvation, a place where one can hide from pursuing Indians. When the Blackfeet attack, Boone escapes death by plunging into the river. The sound of the river drowns out the wild shouts of death, and Boone sinks and swims, sinks and swims, in a death-rebirth experience.

The river also functions in practical ways for the mountain man. Beaver are of course found on the rivers, so the trapper must set his traps in the icy waters of mountain streams. Rivers are also routes through the wilderness. But these uses of the river seem to be givens - understood but not dwelt upon.

Guthrie also uses the river to suggest the inner experience of the mountain man. On the long journey up the Missouri the first full description of the river is of a "boiling" river at floodstage - a devel of a river, wild to get to the sea (p. 90). An image of the wilderness itself, it suggests the reckless spirit of the freedom-loving, physically strong mountain man. When Jim looks at the steaming geysers of the Yellowstone, he concludes that God must be having fun and he feels friendlier toward a God who seems to countenance what is "natural," which he defines as free and easy, like the life of a mountain man (pp. 218-19). Then there are the brief glimpses of a peaceful, murmuring river that coincide with the physical pleasures of making love to a squaw, or the voice of the stream that blends with a sky arching clear and deep so that a man gets lost in it, when Boone and Teal Eye affirm their love for each other (pp.131, 255).

The mountain man seems to live in the present only, with no thought for the future. His greater awareness of the sky than of the river seems to be consistent with his absorption in the present and a sense of time that flows with the seasons. But his existence is impinged upon by change which he cannot avoid, and the river functions appropriately as a paradoxical symbol of constancy and change. After Boone has spoiled his Paradise by killing and repudiating the persons closest to him, he makes the long journey back down the river to visit his family. Twelve years have passed. He senses constancy in that the hills remain with streams fading into them; but the river has changed, gouging out new paths and making it difficult to recognize earlier points of reference. Boone finds it hard to get his bearings; the river seems aimless and cold, like a river lost-just as Boone is dead inside, aimless, lost. Boone begins to realize how much his life has changed, and the river mirrors for him memories that haunt him. Guthrie brings together images of both river and sky in the following passage which captures the evanescent and the permanent in the fate of the mountain man: "It was only the hills that remained, only the river, and it too busy to remember except sometimes at night when the sky lay quiet in it and a man looking down jerked his eyes away, not wanting to see what was pictured from before" (p.346). The river has become a river of memory from which Boone shrinks; it is a river of time and change that carries him downstream to reminders of a past life now marked by changes both personal and historical. Boone cannot escape change which brings an end to the free life of the mountain man.

The river also functions as an indicator of change and as a reflector of personal experience in Vardis Fisher's Dark Bridwell. The setting in this novel is Charley Bridwell's place by the turbulent Snake River of southern Idaho. Because of the single setting, some of the varied meanings of the river in The Big Sky would be inappropriate. Instead, the symbolism is concentrated and relates primarily to characterization. Charley is annoyed by the river. A man who does not value work, he thinks the river with its "silly frenzy, the impetuous nonsense of its blustering journey, [belongs] to another part of the world." It behaves "as if it had work to do between its source and its graveyard of the sea. But it had nothing to do that was worth doing...Over and over, forever changing and forever the same; forever turning the new into the old and the old into the new...It was an absurd thing. It was the stormiest idiot among all the headlong fools of life. Men were like it. They built and tore down and built again. And then they died." Charley prefers the quiet, peaceful waters of a lake that mirrors a serene sky. And he prefers the mountains which are to him "great hulks of philosophy and peace. Instead of rushing around and shaking the earth, they sat on their heels and let time move over them with good things" (pp. 44-45).

Lela, however, embodies the duality of mountains and river. She responds to the quiet beauty that surrounds her in this amphitheatre of the hills, the tranquility linking her with Charley, who nearly convinces her that she prefers the quietness of his indolent life. But she also identifies with the river, and this identification becomes increasingly stronger when Charley's domination of her life allows her creativity no outlet. The anonymous narrator of the novel asserts that Charley's "greatest mistake" lies in his efforts to make Lela into "a kind of idle princess" who is not allowed to work. The river haunts her, makes her aware of her "desire to create, to build her life into a thing of meaning"; although its restless seeking seems to be as unchanging as the "cholorformed seasons of her life" (pp. 270-71), it keeps alive her ambition which is spurred into action by the dark side of Charley's nature. When Lela realizes that she must assert herself and build a new kind of life, she begins to work, and this work provides "her path to freedom. No longer a house-fixture to be adored, sitting with useless lovely hands, she would go boldly into life, even as the river went" (p. 329). Her efforts culminate in an ugly scene of hate and alienation as Lela leaves Charley for a new life devoted to the destiny of her children, a destiny she believes will be fulfilled within civilization rather than in the wilderness haven that Charley has sought to make a Paradise. But the narrator reminds us that in her quest for freedom "she forgot that deeper than ambition, as deep almost as motherhood itself, was her love for Charley Bridwell; and she did not remember until it was too late" (p. 335). The narrator also tells of Lela's sketches which she makes during the idle winter months. One of these is a painting of "the river buried under ice, its waters lost in a black and cold and flowing graveyard. Charley did not like this one. It made him think, he said, of something that had slaved all its life and then got lost, that had entombed itself with labor...'Hang it in the corner by the stove. Mebee it'll thaw out''' (pp.347-48). Then, in the last haunting image of the book, the narrator describes the abandoned and desolate Bridwell place: "Lying behind and under the stove are six empty wine-bottles, deep with silence and age. And above hangs one of Lela's paintings, netted in spider-webs. It shows a mighty river, caught in the power of its own unresting greed, smothering itself with bitter white death" (Epilogue). The ceaseless striving of the river of ambition leads not to life, but to death. Moreover, without love, endeavor is vain.

Wallace Stegner also uses water imagery and references to rivers to develop characterization and theme in Angle of Repose. There is, however, a more intriguing use of the river in this novel: the river as something to be tamed by man and harnessed for his use. Susan is married to Oliver Ward, a mining engineer who combines a creative vision of progress with the practical aspects of his profession. He has a plan for a canal system that would utilize Snake River water for irrigation in the Boise area. During several years of negotiations with potential financial backers for his project, he and his family live by the edge of that river, combining hope with disappointment. Stegner provides an image comparable to the one Willa Cather portrays in My Antonia (the image of a plow silhouetted against the setting sun) in the following passage: "Through the nights of five years their campfires threw red light on the lava cliffs and touched the moving river with the mystery of transitoriness, and framed the triangle of the tent against the dark in an assertion of human purpose. Even in low water, the rapid below was a steady rush and mutter on the air .... Much planning went on around their fires, much hope went downriver and was renewed from upstream. This was the place where for a while [Oliver] had everything he had come West looking for - the freedom, the active outdoor life, the excitement of something mighty to be built" (p. 383). Oliver envisions a Promised Land of fertility, civilization, progress through man's control of the water. He gets enough backing to begin his task and begins digging the Big Ditch, which is really a man-made river (p. 477). But others do not share his vision, his financial backing is withdrawn, other complications develop, and Susan (who never has had the imagination to share his vision fully) even Susan is unfaithful to him in a complex scene which indirectly results in the accidental drowning of their daughter in the canal Oliver has built.

The irony of the daughter's death in her father's grand project underscores the ambivalence toward "progress" which Stegner incorporates into this novel. His narrator, grandson of Oliver, appreciates the idealistic vision of his grandfather; but at the same time he comprehends what that innocent idealism was actually doing to the land - paving it with concrete, gouging out new rivers controlled by man, taming the wild rivers with dams, making it possible for hords of people to live in and pollute this wonderland of nature. Oliver paradoxically destroys that which means most to him: like Boone and the other mountain men, he enjoys the process, but the end result of that process is at least partially inimical to the process itself. Boone tries to live in the present only, but finds that he himself is a part of change; the mountain man destroys his own Paradise by being what he is. Unlike, Boone, Oliver always works toward a future goal and tries to promote change in the direction of what he conceives as progress. But that concept of progress contains within it a self-destructive element. Both Boone and Oliver lose their western Paradise by trying to live it or achieve it. The wild western river is eventually tamed by the archetypal westerner whose spirit is most like the river itself; but this taming of the river is suicidal. (2) He entombs himself in his own labor. He is like the mighty river in Lela's painting, "caught in the power of its own unresting greed, smothering itself with bitter white death."(3)


(1)Page references noted in the text are to the following: A. B. Guthrie, Jr., The Big Sky (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1947); Vardis Fisher, Dark Bridwell (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1931); Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1971).

(2)Vardis Fisher explicitly linked the frontiersman and the taming of the wild river with the transition to modern civilization in an essay recalling his childhood in the Antelope Hills country of Idaho (the setting for Dark Bridwell). He observes: "Those old frontiersmen were a great race. There were giants in the earth in those days. But the last of them will soon be gone and there will be no more men like them - at least none on the farms." Likewise, the rushing, wild Snake River, so terrifying at floodtime, is now tamed by reservoirs, and a giant tree Fisher remembers from childhood is now "shrunken, and dying." These he sees as "symbols of that monstrous and mysterious infinite which the neurotic fancies of two frightened lads built of everything around them. Man may conquer his environment, but he hasn't yet conquered the ignorance in him which almost destroys his sons." Fisher is "happy" to have known the western frontiers which are no more, "for in having known them I am better able to understand the world that has been built out of them." Fisher's non-fictional comments are more sympathetic to the modern age than are his novels. Perhaps this is to be expected: the irreconcilables are fit themes for literary tragedy, but a person who continues to live in this world learns to come to terms with it. See Vardis Fisher, "Hometown Revisited: The Antelope Hills, Idaho," Tomorrow, 9 (Dec. 1949), 18-23.

(3)Portions of the discussion of Dark Bridwell are quoted from my essay, "Vardis Fisher's Antelope People: Pursuing an Elusive Dream," published in Northwest Perspectives: Essays on the Culture of the Oregon Country, edited by Glen Love and Edwin Bingham (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1979).