Thomas Savage’s Queer Country
O. Alan Weltzien, University of Montana, Western
Novelist Thomas Savage (1915–2003) grew up in the lonely world of the northern Rockies during the twentieth century’s first half and in eight of his thirteen novels continually re‑inhabited it as a scene of gender protest. He left Montana, his native state, at twenty‑two, only periodically visiting after that and returning only once after the 1960s. His daughter said he “hated Montana” and wanted to get as physically far away from it as possible, but that’s not the whole story.1 In those eight novels Savage critiques the limited roles available to men and women in the high landscapes between his hometown of Dillon, Montana, and Salmon, Idaho. His novels continually portray an atrophied masculinity, in which same‑sex desire tends to be masked by homophobia. His strong female characters also suggest his deliberate blurring of conventional gender stereotypes. The novels set in Savage country reveal an author struggling with his own complex sexuality. This unpopulated sequence of valleys and passes, which straddles the Continental Divide, becomes his own queer country: an open space of same‑sex desire muted by gender conformity. The high dry landscapes become a liminal site of potentially reconfigured identity even as that potential is denied.
Savage’s fiction has received little attention from western literary critics, and only recently has the queer sexuality of his life or work been the subject of that criticism. Among the accolades greeting Savage’s best novel, The Power of the Dog (1967), only one review, an anonymous note in Publishers Weekly, cited its subject as “a repressed homosexual . . . plotting a homosexual involvement with the boy [Peter Gordon].”2 John Scheckter’s early scholarly article, “Thomas Savage and the West: Roots of Compulsion” (1985), emphasizes middle‑aged identity revision in the fiction rather than gender ambivalence.3 The Western Writers Series booklet Thomas and Elizabeth Savage (1995) makes virtually no mention of Savage’s complex gender life, which insistently leaks into his western‑set novels.4 While the booklet excellently reviews the respective careers of husband and wife novelists, it ignores what I am calling Savage’s gender protest, which constitutes one of the major interests in this semi‑forgotten novelist’s career. In the recent Montana critical anthology, All Our Stories Are Here (2009), Karl Olson and I argue separately for Savage’s significance as a western writer critical of the region’s hostility to queer identities.5 Four of Savage’s eight western novels are in print today, making it possible for readers to discover the queer country of a writer whose work anticipates Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain,” for instance, and deserves to be read alongside it.
Savage had a long career (1944–88), and though his novels never sold well, they received almost uniformly high praise. At Random House, where he published his fourth novel, he was called by some “the new Truman Capote.”6 In his Hudson Review notice of Power of the Dog, critic Roger Sale called it “the finest single book I know about the modern west.”7 A decade later, The New Yorker reviewer of I Heard My Sister Speak My Name (1977) [retitled The Sheep Queen in 2001] gushed, “There are few American novelists now active who have produced a more distinguished body of work.”8 Savage’s most recent champion is Thomas McGuane, who has stated, “In my view, Savage may be the best of all the western novelists, after Cather.” 9
The youth who became Thomas Savage imagined himself a writer by the time he enrolled in Beaverhead County High School: active on the newspaper staff, he penned a column, “Balloni,” that foreshadows his novels’ witty social commentary and sardonic tone. Scattered copies survive in the Beaverhead County Museum. Known as Tom Brenner (his stepfather’s name), Savage spent a few semesters at the University of Montana, Missoula, where he studied writing under Brassil Fitzgerald. In letters from 1936 (in my possession), twenty-one-year-old Savage claimed he loved the family ranch and intended to stay, but in the fall of 1937 he traveled to Boston to be closer to Fitzgerald’s daughter, Elizabeth. They married in 1939 and graduated from Colby College the following year. In the next decade they started their family while Savage worked a variety of jobs (in Massachusetts, Chicago, and back on the Brenner Ranch). When he published his first novel, The Pass (1944), he took his birth father’s name. Savage worked for a few years at Brandeis University and taught at Vassar one year (1958–59), but otherwise he devoted himself to writing.
Although he was married with children, Savage had a conflicted sexual life. According to their daughter, when Savage proposed to Elizabeth he told her he was gay, but she thought she could “cure” him.10 In 1960 Savage met Tomie dePaola, twenty years younger and sharing a first name. They fell in love and Savage essentially left his family for approximately one year. Their daughter later called their passion a “bonfire.”11 The couple even exchanged rings in the Cowley Fathers’ Chapel in Boston’s Beacon Hill.12 By the fall of 1961, feeling deeply torn about his family, Savage ended his liaison and returned to wife, sons, and daughter. His sons never entirely forgave him for the desertion, and his daughter called Tomie “a snake” who “destroyed my childhood.”13 Thereafter, dePaola, who has enjoyed a giant career as a children’s book author and illustrator, saw Savage briefly only three times. Savage began a novel based on his liaison with dePaola, but after his agent, Blanche Gregory, read it and informed him he’d never get it published, Savage threw the manuscript into the Atlantic.14 When such dead ends appear in Savage’s fiction, they signify, in part, his novels’ gender protest. Critic Karl Olson defines this protest as “homothanaticism,” “the tragic consequences of homosexual desire,” as though “homosexuality inevitably leads to disaster” (104).