Choteau-based author A.B. Guthrie Jr. received a letter in 1975 requesting he send an English teacher in upstate New York an autographed copy of his novel “The Big Sky” in exchange for a pair of handmade beaded moccasins. While he agreed, albeit in exchange instead for a few hand-tied wet flies to use on the Teton River near his home, his friendship with the letter-writer Robert Cubbins lasted for almost two decades.
At the Montana Book Festival on Friday, Guthrie’s grandson and stepdaughter held a panel discussion about preserving the hundreds of letters alongside Donna McCrea, the director of archives and special collections at the University of Montana’s Mansfield Library.
Alex Sakariassen, a freelance journalist and Guthrie’s 33-year-old grandson, explained how the two writers used the letters to make each other laugh, encourage their literary exploits, and document day-to-day life on the Rocky Mountain Front. Bud, as his friends and family knew Guthrie, was already in his 70s when the exchange began, and had outlived most of his friends.
“Cubbins became a goad for Bud, encouraging him to write the next five chapters, the next 10 chapters,” Sakariassen said.
The exchanges turned into a game of one-upmanship, with each employing humor and wit to outdo the other. Sakariassen’s mom, Amy, recalled hearing Guthrie snickering and boasting from up in his writing loft about how he was outwitting Cubbins.
The relationship was marked in Guthrie’s 1982 book, “Fair Land, Fair Land,” which he dedicated to Cubbins, his “Friend, promoter, and goad.”
Guthrie’s stepdaughter, Amy Guthrie Sakariassen, said that Cubbins “blew in like a huge wind of energy” for the whole family. She recalled her siblings gathering around to hear Cubbins’ latest pennings when they arrived, often accompanied by cartoonish drawings, and written in his best rendition of a “mountain man dialect.”
“Bob became the best friend Bud could have, because he didn’t need to take time to get coffee with him or anything,” she said. “They just really hit the right notes with each other.”
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She recalled Guthrie’s frustration on days when no new mail came from Cubbins, which was only delivered out to their remote cabin three times a week.
The “volley of silliness” had to be responded to in kind, she said, allowing the interpersonal letters to provide a totally different perspective into Guthrie’s life than a personal journal may have. She proposed her son Alex should work on assembling and archiving the letters so that he could get a glimpse into his grandfather’s adult personality and humor style, as Alex was only 5 when Guthrie died.
In the letters, Guthrie often addressed them to Dear Abby-style nicknames referencing the previous letter’s subject matter, such as “Dear Steamboat,” “Dear Copulating Dog,” and “Dear Heavily Meditating.”
The “copulating dog” reference likely stemmed from Cubbins' hobby of breeding English setters, one of which made its way across the country to Guthrie. It was named Boone after the tragic hero of Guthrie’s book “The Big Sky.”
McCrea, UM’s archive specialist, said that these types of letter exchanges are often used by novelists, screenwriters and others who are looking to emulate a style of speech from a given era. And while letter writing may be less common in the modern era, she said that technology provides a host of different types of communications being archived. In particular, she noted that the Library of Congress has archived billions of tweets.
She also noted that letters like Guthrie’s, or those of other public figures like politicians, were often preserved in the past. But the voices of common people, who especially in those eras were seen as less important, were lost to time.
“Now, we’re more actively seeking out the voices of the average person, or the average family, and where appropriate collecting voices of people of color and LGBT people,” McCrea said.
She encouraged people who wanted to preserve things like emails to back them up in a range of places, as online services where the exchanges took place can come and go.