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Saturday, November 5, 2016


Leslie Fiedler

Logically enough, since Missoula was deliberately established to be the Humanities university, the UU Fellowship there has had a lot of literary influence, not just buying the house from Leslie Fiedler or the birth of the Montana Gothic genre invented in the basement bedroom of his son.  Fielder was a hell-raiser who appeared just at the beginning edge of the Aquarian Revolution that seemed to have evolved from WWII recovery ending while the Vietnam War became a napalm-powered provocation.

A.B. Guthrie, Jr. told me Fiedler ran off Walter Van Tilberg Clark, a kinder gentler man whose son was the mainstay of the Montana Historical Society’s library until only a few years ago when he died of cancer.  But earlier was Harold G. Merriam who worked hard to find and publish excellent regional writing in a journal that began in 1920, called “The Frontier.”  It closed down in 1939.   Probably this is the primal source of the idea of Montana writers as superior writers.  Grace Stone Coates was a co-editor.  Frank B. Linderman was connected.  But this was earlier than any fellowship in Missoula. 

Merriam was a professor of creative writing at the University and he had also been a professor at Reed College in Portland, an important liberal school that was founded by Unitarians, so Merriam was well aware of the movement.  When I came in 1982, his aged widow — Frances —was a regular attender of the group.  She, like me, had been a very young second bride surviving long after her husband's group had disappeared.  She was far more ladylike than I am, and always lent an air of class to the group.

Merriam was a busy and influential promoter of ideas and writing, so it is a little surprising that the first overview of Montana writing — an early version of “The Last Best Place” — was composed by a Great Falls journalist, Joseph Kinsey Howard, a Metis man who died early, had a cabin up Blackleaf Canyon where a string of old cabins housed a small community of progressive and educated people, including the family of Ripley Schemm, who eventually married Richard Hugo.  This is probably only one key to the ties between Great Falls and Missoula, as Howard and Merriam were happy collaborators.  (Great Falls did not persist as a UU Fellowship, partly because of economic stress when the railroads and refineries left.  Thin population starves fellowships as some estimate that only 2% of any population are suited to the point of view.) 

Richard Hugo represented another renaissance of the idea of Montana literature.  He was a working class poet from Seattle whose alcoholism was redeemed in the eyes of his students by his capacity for love of students, ancient bars, and dying towns.  Ripley Schemm, when she married him, gave him new life and love, but when he and her son by an earlier marriage died of cancer at about the same time, it left a terrible hole in Missoula as well as Ripley.  Her mother was Mildred Walker, a famous Book-of-the-Month writer.

Then William Kittredge came into the picture as an Oregon ranch son writing nonfiction.  Annick Smith was struggling with the early sudden death of her brilliant husband, and she soon struck up an alliance with Kittredge, which is what gave us the massive anthology called “The Last Best Place” and a lot of other good things.  This marriage pulled in a small circle of literary people including James Welch and his wife, Lois

None of these people were explicitly Unitarian and neither had Hugo and Schemm been participants in the fellowship.  I don’t know at what point the Merriam connection ended.  His life would be well-worth some sharp investigation leading to a published biography or at least a Wikipedia entry.  There is one issue of “The Frontier” online as a PDF.  I suspect that what really ended was the Fifties expectation that everyone had to go to church and believe in God.  When the humanist tradition came back through Unitarianism it was simply not seen as religious.  Prairie humanism was expressed in the cooperative economics of granges, cooperative grain elevators and socialism.

Also, as the counterculture hit Missoula hard, anarchism, sex, and drugs began the twisty trail that Jon Krakauer exploits in his book about Missoula.  This did not connect with the fellowship.  The university picked up the reservation connections as indigenous people turned to education, but the UU fellowship did not.  Few UU fellowships depart much from white bread but liberal people, often with kids.  Maybe some nice GLBT folks.  Anyway, recent NA people have become disillusioned with liberals and address their own problems.

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