The Missoula School
The University of Montana at Missoula has had a seminal effect on serious writing in the state. In 1919 a writing program was established by Professor H. G. Merriam at the university, only the second such program in the nation. Merriam, who had left Colorado to attend Oxford University in England, returned west determined to promote regional Montana writing. He began the literary journal Frontier and Midland. His writing program flourished, soon growing to offer a Master of Fine Arts degree. Students have included A. B. Guthrie Jr., author of The Big Sky, and Dorothy Johnson, author of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and other popular Western stories.
The program has continued to attract many talented students and nationally recognized faculty. Poet Richard Hugo inherited the directorship of the writing program from Leslie Fielder in 1964 and remained until his death in 1982. Hugo had a tremendous influence on the development of Northwest regional literature. His poems speak of disappointment and abandonment in both life and the physical world, sometimes ending with a wry glimmer of hope. Joining Hugo at the U of M at one time or another were Madeline DeFrees, Patricia Goedicke, William Kittredge (who with Annick Smith edited The Last Best Place), William Pitt Root, and Tess Gallagher.
Missoula has also attracted writers whose connections with the writing program are more tenuous. Rick DeMarinis (Under the Wheat) did a stint as a mathematician before becoming a full-time writer. James Crumley, whose hard-boiled detective novels are frequently placed in the Northwest, still lives in Missoula. Norman Maclean, who wrote A River Runs Through It, an idyll to fly-fishing and the spirit, grew up in Missoula. James Welch, who spent his youth on the Blackfeet and Fort Belknap reservations, studied with Hugo. Welch wrote several fine contemporary and historic novels of Indian life, including Winter in the Blood. Another Missoulian by way of the Hi-Line is Deirdre McNamer, whose novel Rima in the Weeds is set among the missile silos of northern Montana. Malta-area native Judy Blunt has written Breaking Clean, a vivid memoir of growing up female on a traditional cattle ranch. Debra Magpie Earling writes of her upbringing on the Flathead reservation in Perma Red.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition