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William Kittredge: Rancher turned Writer

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By Doug Hare EBS Staff

William Kittredge grew up working on his family’s sprawling MC Ranch in the Warner Valley of southern Oregon, only deciding to pursue a writing career at the age of 33.

“I thought it was about sentences and paragraphs, fashioning elegance out of what you already knew. I didn’t yet see that writing like any art is chancing to know freshly. As such it’s always worth doing; it’s worth finding gestures that suggest understandings,” Kittredge wrote in “Hole in the Sky,” a memoir recounting his decision to leave the ranching life behind.

After studying creative writing at Iowa Writer’s Workshop, “not a discipline anybody ever heard of in our part of the world,” Kittredge wrote, he taught for three decades at the University of Montana and still resides, at the ripe age of 83, in Missoula.

Currently working on a quasi-sequel to “Hole in the Sky” called “Another Summer to Run,” Kittredge has produced a body of work that both dispels the myths of the Lone Ranger American West, and poses profound questions about the future of the last, best place.

Although he changed careers, the author never left his roots behind. His narratives are burnished and tight-lipped much like the ranch hands he worked with and the cowboys he idolized growing up. He is erudite without coming across as a pretentious intellectual critical of the changes he has seen during his lifetime. And as Western culture moves away from an authentic relationship to the land, Kittredge portrays a sort of show-business parody without ever sounding self-righteous.

Like any good writer from this region, his words evoke the sanctity of majestic landscapes and praise the self-reliance and rugged individualism that are still at the heart of the Western experience.

I just finished reading Kittredge’s “The Next Rodeo,” a collection of new and selected essays, which I had trouble putting down. While his nonfiction works, “The Nature of Generosity” and “Who Owns the West?” and his only novel “The Willow Field,” each represent his distinctive voice, the author is most at home writing essays that move effortlessly between the personal, political and philosophical.

“Drinking and Driving” takes a hard look at the author’s battles with alcohol and extramarital affairs, while “Owning it All” is a searing account of the author’s relationship to his father and grandfather.

The namesake piece of “The Next Rodeo” tells the story of a rural Oregon rodeo but ends up revealing how the changing economic landscape of the West reflects an untenable situation for a healthy democratic culture. He writes: “The quandaries westerners face will have to be flexibly resolved by the raggedy and the rich, up-country and downtown.”

Pick up anything by William Kittredge and you can’t help but agree that he has earned his reputation as the Bard Laureate of the American West. We should all be grateful that he left the ranch and that his influence from teaching generations of writers and his many brilliant contributions to Western literature will continue to impact the literary world long after he puts his pen down.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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