Thomas Savage Biography
Thomas Savage comments:
Nationality: American. Born: Salt Lake City, Utah, 1915. Education: Colby College, B.A. 1940, M.A. 1955. Career: Faculty member, Suffolk University, Boston, 1947-48; assistant professor, Brandeis University, 1949-55. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1980; Northwest Booksellers award, 1989. Agent: Blanche Gregory, 2 Tudor City Place, New York, New York 10017, U.S.A.
The Pass. New York, Doubleday, 1944.
Lona Hanson. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1948.
A Bargain with God. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1953.
Trust in Chariots. New York, Random House, 1961.
The Power of the Dog. New York, Little Brown, and London, Chatto and Windus, 1967.
The Liar. New York, Little Brown, 1967.
Daddy's Girl. New York, Little Brown, 1970.
A Strange God. New York, Little Brown, 1974.
Midnight Line. New York, Little Brown, 1976.
I Heard My Sister Speak My Name. New York, Little Brown, 1977
Her Side of It. New York, Little Brown, 1981.
For Mary with Love. New York, Little Brown, 1983.
The Corner of Rife and Pacific. New York, Morrow, 1988.
Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell, is one of the best novels I ever read. I was influenced by John Steinbeck, Robert Benchley, and Dorothy Parker. I was a history major, read little fiction, chiefly biography and history. I read S.J. Perelman.
I believe all organized religion is based on myths and is responsible for most of the horror in the world now and in the past. I think nothing will change much because of continuing, probably atavistic, superstition, ignorance, and greed. It's frightening that human beings continue to need scapegoats in order to justify themselves. I once made a speech somewhere and said, "The more education you have, the less money you need." I still believe this. And if you don't have much education you'd damned well better have money.
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Despite having spent most of his life on the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, "within sight of water," he says, Thomas Savage returns to the Montana valley of his youth as the setting for more than half of his novels. The people who settled and live in the geographic center of Savage's West (southwestern Montana and Idaho's Lemhi Valley) face hard work, harsh weather conditions, isolation, and rugged terrain. Against such a backdrop, Savage's western characters struggle to attain, maintain, or retain their individuality, family pride, love, success—and sometimes the land itself. One might expect people tested by such landscape to toughen themselves, both physically and emotionally, in order to survive; and though such characters do appear in Savage's work, he tends to focus most often on the more vulnerable citizens of his western ranching communities—the young and sensitive "outsider," the woman who cannot cope with her circumstances, the man who fails himself and everyone else in his life through what Savage identifies as "an inability to face unpleasantness."
Although Savage says he writes fiction and not autobiography, he acknowledges the role that memory plays in his western fiction. As a youngster, Savage "boarded out" in Dillon, the town closest to the family ranch, while he attended school. In several novels, Dillon is transformed into Herndon or Grayling, and the experiences of the protagonists mirror those of the creator. There are also some "stock" fixtures in Savage's fictional household and domestic arrangements, such as the grandfather's clock that is ceremoniously wound once a week by the proprietor of the ranch or the home; the large cars (a Rolls-Royce; a Roamer) that Savage's businessmen and ranchers drive; the rings that wives of successful husbands wear as symbols of the family prosperity.
Several themes also resurface in many of Savage's novels, including that of the "unsolicited kindness" that is rewarded (sometimes years after the fact) at a time when the characters are most in need of the financial or emotional boost that is offered. Many of his female characters, be they located in the West or the East, lament the changes taking place in their lives or their surroundings; "nothing's the same," Norma Reed says in A Strange God (1974), an eastern-setting novel. Her comment echoes the sentiments of a woman speaking her mind in Savage's first novel, The Pass, published thirty years earlier: "All the new things, all the new ways, spoiled something." That "something" is the quality, the texture of life enjoyed by the characters before changes—what Martin Levin called "the accidents of success and the accidents of failure" in his New York Times review of A Strange God (25 August 1974)—occur. These changes can also sometimes be counted as losses, and loss is another familiar element in Savage's novels. Redemption or restoration is also possible for Savage's characters, however, and most of his novels do end on an optimistic note.
For Mary, with Love ends unhappily, it is true, but the novel—a tale of a social climber told by a childhood friend, Mary Skoning—is in part a morality tale, and thus the punishment of wrongdoing makes sense in this context. Likewise The Corner of Rife and Pacific involves a great deal of misfortune and injustice, as a kind and generous couple are dealt a hard blow, but again the underlying moral purpose in Savage's writing comes to the fore: kindness, he seems to be saying, is its own reward.
Savage identifies Her Side of It, the novel he wrote as a Guggenheim recipient in 1980, as his best work. (Ironically, his most commercially successful books, Lona Hanson, set in the West, and A Bargain with God, which takes place in Boston, are the two he feels least positive about in terms of artistic achievement.) The main character in Her Side of It, Liz Phillips, is a novelist, and Savage's narrator is able to comment on both the working life of a writer and on the achievement possible in that field of endeavor. In words that critics might apply to Savage's own work, he says that Phillips's novels "promote a reader to search for answers … and to find them. The search makes of life a sharper pleasure."
updated by Judson Knight
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