August 14, 1932 – December 4, 2020
NOVELIST. Essayist. Teacher. Mentor. Dean of western literature. Raconteur. Critic. Filmmaker. Legend. Monolith. Friend.
When Bill Kittredge died on December 4, word passed quickly among his many friends in the nature writing community, especially in his beloved West. Bill arrived at the University of Montana in 1969, and helped create the “Paris of the West” by joining a writing community that included Richard Hugo, Jim Welch, and Annick Smith, who would become Bill’s longtime partner. Bill’s ability to teach and encourage others would jump-start dozens of beginning writers who studied with him, including Andrew Sean Greer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for his novel Less.
Some of the adulation directed at this powerful teacher and writer has been compiled here by author Janisse Ray, who studied with Bill from 1995 to 1997, and remained a lifelong friend, and Phil Condon, former chair of the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, and director of the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer program.
Bill Kittredge’s 1999 Keynote Speech at Orion’s Fire & Grit Conference.
I arrived at the University of Montana just as Bill was retiring, 1995, and I consider it a stroke of incredible luck that I got to study with him. He brought to class a great love of story, a deep working knowledge of the process of writing, an insatiable appetite for reading, and powerful affiliations with other writers. What I learned from him was transformative and would forever change the narrative arc of my life, a life which I have enjoyed and am enjoying; a life where dreams have come true; a life where I have been able to pursue my deepest longings and to watch at least some of them materialize. Bill set me on my path. I am forever grateful that he read my feeble attempt at a first book and handed it back to me, staggeringly crippled as it was, with hope in his voice. As he did with so many writers, he found something to praise. The debt I owe him is unmeasurable.
Besides long being inspired by his writing, early on I was moved by the strong, and at the same time profoundly graceful, level of respect he brought to his relationships with the world at large. He was rock, and he was feathers. And in the end, he was a guiding star that led me into both the inner and outer landscapes of home. I offer endless thanks, my friend.
He wasn’t afraid to care about things.
Bill was my teacher when I was an MFA student in Missoula in 1978 to 1980. I was so young. He modeled a life in which writing was at the center. He was also kind. Both aspects of his teaching became part of who I am as a writer and writing teacher. I’ll always be grateful. I can still hear now, after so many years, his voice and that sudden deep laugh.
For years before I actually met Bill, I was aware of him because of his extraordinary early essay collection Owning It All. The title essay from that collection, in particular, was very important to me, and especially the section where he’s talking about “mythology.” He argues that “A mythology can be understood as a story that contains a set of implicit instructions from a society to its members, telling them what is valuable and how to conduct themselves if they are to preserve the things they value.” He went on to bitterly criticize the teaching of mythology currently active in the American West as “a racist, sexist, imperialist mythology of conquest,” and to argue that “we are struggling to revise our dominant mythology and to find a new story to inhabit.” The idea of exposing the ongoing story of conquest and finding a more just and sustainable new story is, I think, one of Bill’s most important contributions to environmental literature and to our lives in the American West and beyond.
Since the day I left Missoula with my MFA in 1997, I have heard Bill’s voice. He was, after all, the one who said to me, leaning against the wall outside his office, “You want to be a writer, Amanda? Move to where your best friend is, get some dumb job to pay the electricity, and write.”
I wanted to be a writer. I wanted it so much. And I wanted it, I think, because of Bill. He showed us the sheer joy of spending our hours talking about sentences. Bill conveyed to us the vital importance of being a writer. From his teaching, I grew to believe it was the most important job in the world.
I hear Bill at least a dozen times a day, critiquing kindly, pushing me to get to the heart of my stories. So much of his wisdom has stuck with me, including the time I handed him the tenth draft of a story I desperately wanted to fix. It was called “Three Who Would Not Marry Maurice.”
“Listen,” said Bill, of that story, “this is an OK story. Hear me? It’s fine. It’s never going to be great. Move on. Stop kicking a dead horse.”
Inside his office, after reading my disastrous attempt at a first novel, he grabbed a yellow pad and drew how the book could be beautiful. With his red pen, he sketched circles, a three-act structure, action and grace. “You see it?” he said.
I didn’t, but now I stare at that yellow page, framed above my desk, every damn day.
Bill somehow saw what your work could be, which is the greatest gift.
“Hey,” he said to me, late one night after workshop at Charlie B’s, “Ward? You’re going to make it.” I am the child of a dad who’d never spoken to me this way. These words, in particular, saved my life.
When I first came here, eastbound toward the West, Hole in the Sky rode shotgun. The book traveled with me as I worked my way from ranch to ranch, and now it is so worn that the middle pages fall out.
Ever since I’ve been in this beautiful, difficult, compromised, inimitable landscape, Bill Kittredge’s words have been ringing in my ears. I’ve argued and agreed with him. I’ve appreciated the conviction, precision, and craft of his writing. I’ve aspired to the clarity of his vision.
Through his work, Bill has long been one of the good ghosts who haunt this place. That his stories will endure is some consolation, but I wish I could have known him as a man, as well as a masterful writer.
This much is certain: when I stop alone and listen to the wild, fragile vastness we call the West, his words will keep me company. When I stand in a field, wondering if I should plow, Bill Kittredge’s good hard questions will be on my mind.
I was a sophomore in college, moored in Michigan and pining for a West I’d yet to set eyes on, when I came across Bill’s books in the school library. I stacked them up like a row of Lombardy poplars and relished each word. But one line left its brand on me like no other. Some context: he was talking about how the making of art, even surpassing art, doesn’t give the artist an excuse to behave badly in the non-art-making portions of their life; he admitted that his own suspect behavior had led him to this discovery. “No one act undoes another,” he wrote, and I paraphrase. “Every act stands on its own.” Throttled me all the way to Missoula, that line did. And I sit here tonight, twenty-some years later, typing just a few blocks from his house, full of gratitude for his lasting work and beautiful spirit, humbled that I got to spend some time with him, let alone teach as the Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. In the words of his dear Rossie Benasco, I miss you already, Bill, “like a blanket.”
He needs to be celebrated for the way he encouraged the western voice and writing about Montana at a time when it wasn’t the most popular thing to do. He was committed to demolishing the myth that kind of kept this strength and beauty of the West from being evident.
Our dear friend and fellow writer in the West has passed away. His voice, his tough and tender presence—I loved him so much. He was not only a great writer, but a great teacher at the University of Montana. I remember calling him up one day and asking him how to write an essay (I had just submitted an essay to the Georgia Review and they sent it back saying “What you have written is not an essay.”) Bill’s response — after he talked about Montaigne and how an essay is “an attempt” or “could be a series of examples or stories exploring or interrogating a particular idea”—he paused and said in his booming voice, “Terry, an essay can be whatever you goddamn want it to be!” Best advice ever. I really adored him. Many nights shared telling stories, gossiping, talking about the truth of our lives, books read, questions asked, and always laughing. He was smart and wise with common sense. It was a very rich time in the 1990s and 2000s. We all traveled a lot together in those days. His book Hole in the Sky (1992) is a beauty. I could go on and on. He and his partner Annick Smith edited the classic anthology of Montana literature, The Last Best Place. They made us all proud to be westerners—and we all shared a deep commitment to protecting wild lands and wild lives. Bless you, dear Bill, you taught us all well. Here’s a glass raised to our river trip down the Grand Canyon, to days shared in eastern Oregon, Alaska, Walden Pond, Missoula, Pack Creek Ranch, et al. And to you, a life well lived and stories well told of how one can change one’s life and still hold on to one’s roots in the land that raised you. Heartfelt embraces to Annick and their families and this beloved community of friends.
I feel as though western American literature has lost its Jefferson Memorial or some other monument of gleaming magnificence. In my personal pantheon, there was nobody else remotely like Bill. For starters, I never heard anyone talk about the process of writing with his clarity and depth. He painted writing as a steep climb up an equal-opportunity mountain. Adults only. Put on your boots and let’s go. I never took a class with him, but I loved that there was no coddling in what he said but no discouragement either. Few get the balance right. He did. And even more important, he inspired. I always left his presence looking for pen and paper. He never seemed to doubt (though I bet he actually did) that good writing was a high calling. He made people like me believe that it was one of the highest. And that helped a lot when the inevitable dark times came. I will never forget him.
Bill’s magic as a teacher was that every time I left class, I always wanted to go immediately home to write. It’s a spell I have been trying to figure out how to cast ever since, but I suspect it had to do with deep generosity and appreciation for beauty and decency on the page and off. It was a privilege to be his student.
I first heard Bill on NPR, reading from Owning It All the year it came out, his deep voice like an echo across the whole Warner Valley he described. Later that same year I was in his MFA class in Missoula, soaking in his wisdom and humor, which always felt inextricable. One night that fall, in a downtown bar, he gave me an editor’s name to try with a story, and that was the beginning of 20 years of his encouragement and help. Now, in twenty years of my own teaching, I’ve tried to live up to him.
What a true treat it was to travel, teach, read, walk, watch, and now and then bend an elbow with Bill, in so many places. It was one of the great honors and delights of my life to be a Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. But maybe the best was when he and I together founded Project HeavyHawk at Klamath Lake! We never did achieve lift speed. Maybe we’re getting there now. “Out, away to the world with hope”—Hole in the Sky.
No one ever modeled more elegantly than Bill Kittredge how you could recognize your own complicity and still reach for your own idealism and celebrate your deep love of place. That and the sheer beauty of so much he’s written—a beauty that lies in depth of thought as well as grace of prose—has made him one of the West’s great writers, in my eyes.
I was lucky enough to attend the University of Montana in the days of Annick Smith, Richard Hugo, James Welch and, of course, William Kittredge. William’s memoir, Hole in the Sky, is maybe the most painful and honest piece of writing I have encountered.
Ed Abbey and I met Bill at the same moment at a bar in West Glacier. It was grizzly bear time and only Ed failed to see a single “alleged” grizzly though I dragged him up to the Grizzly Hilton. Bill hiked up to Huckleberry Lookout where we watched the lunar eclipse. My kids spent a lot of time at Bill and Annick’s place up the Blackfoot. Billy wrote up this story for Outside—it was a long time ago. How I miss them both.
Bill Kittredge, beloved teacher of generations of graduate students (like myself) at the University of Montana, died recently in Missoula. Not only was he one of the preeminent western writers in America, defining a particular moment and place with his anthology The Last Best Place, he was a personal supporter of mine. It is hard to take our minds back to 1994 in Missoula, Montana. But imagine that moment when the state legislature was considering adding all homosexuals to the “sex offender” list, and I, as a grad student, was told not to reveal my sexual orientation to my students and had my car vandalized with the word FAG scratched into the hood. That time. And now imagine a rancher raised in rural southern Oregon, weary of decades of teaching graduate students, with only a few years left before his retirement. He asked me to come to his office hours. He took out a story I had brought to workshop (“Come Live With Me and Be My Love” in my first collection, How It Was for Me) about a gay man and a lesbian in the 1960s who get married as covers for one another. He gave me a long baseball metaphor I did not understand about a famous left-handed pitcher who was forced to pitch with his right hand, I believe, but insisted on pitching with his left (some reader will know). I had written experimental fiction until this story. And Bill said, “Pitch with your left.” He meant: this is what you’re good at; do this. He meant: write with emotion, not cleverness. And I have done that ever since. He sent the story to his friend Richard Ford, who was editing Ploughshares magazine, and a few weeks later I came home to my tiny cold apartment (whose bathroom could only be reached through the closet) and saw a message on my answering machine (yes, an answering machine). “This is Richard Ford, and I want to publish your story.” It is hard to describe what hearing those words meant to me. And what it meant to me for a nearly retired rancher to see, in a gay man telling gay stories at that awful time, something worth finding the energy to pursue, to support, all the way to ensuring my publication for the first time. Miss you, Bill.
Bill Kittredge will remain among the giants of fiction and nonfiction writing in American West, up there with McCarthy, Hugo, Welch, Silko, McGuane, Austin, Ehrlich, Cather, and Harrison in our pantheon of poetic voices from rural America’s scrappy, roughed-up, and wildly imaginative towns and ranches. But anyone who conversed, traveled, ate, or drank with Bill no doubt remembers his unswerving warmth, hilarious humor, poignant commentaries, and deep commitment to make life in the boonies more memorable, compassionate, morally fierce, and ultimately, culturally richer. He gifted us a New Story for the West, one most of us are still trying to live up to, and in. In the last three decades of his life, he also took on the voice of a prophet and sage, as stunning in his place-based pronouncements as Wallace Stegner, Wendell Berry, Charles Wilkinson, Terry Williams, John Nichols, Annick Smith or Winona LaDuke. He made you feel deeply comfortable, but he also challenged us to think beyond the horizon of our own messy lives to forge a West that would be more inclusive, reflective, and refreshing. The twinkle in his merry eyes will never die, but will arch over us like a meteor of hope.
I first became acquainted with Bill Kittredge during my two teaching residencies at the University of Montana and by travelling with him and others on reading tours and at summer conferences. I was always impressed by his readings, his strong vernacular, and his rapport with students and audiences. I admired the marvelous authenticity in his writing and his presentations, his bold perspectives, his unique background. Bill Kittredge’s strong and steady devotion to teaching and writing was an essential element of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Montana for many years and a gift to literary and creative writers and readers across the country.
Bill Kittredge had the courage to renounce the Western myths he’d learned while growing up, and the decency not to scorn the people from whom he’d learned them. The myths were as old as the European invasion of the continent—the belief that land exists to be owned and exploited, that among all living beings only humans have moral value, that manhood is defined by a code of violence. Bill knew better, and generously conveyed that knowledge through his writing and teaching and personal presence.
When I first came to Missoula, I was such a straight journalist. Bill taught me, among other things, that it was okay to have a distinct voice, and for that voice to declare emotion. Without vulnerability, don’t bother. I remember he once said, “If it doesn’t make your palms sweat, it isn’t worth it.” Bill had been something of a cowboy, but it was easy to forget that by the time I knew him. He was playing golf and living in a townhouse. But he sent me a note once about being hospitalized from polio as a little kid. “Horror scene,” he wrote. Kids in iron lungs all around. But I was in a bed beside a window that looked out on a great lawn roaming with peacocks. Mysteriously, according to my mother, I got better. The doctors didn’t seem to know why but they released me and not many months later I was riding around on a pinto mare named Lulu.” It was Classic Bill! Great details, a lot of heart, and a little bit of mystery. O