The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Power of the Dog’ author Thomas Savage died in obscurity. It’s time to honor his work.

The Montana-raised writer is barely known, even in his own state. Let’s hope Jane Campion’s film changes that.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog.” (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix/AP)
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Jane Campion’s outstanding adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel “The Power of the Dog” — which won three Golden Globe Awards and has been nominated for a dozen Oscars — finally spotlights a first-rate novelist who never received much recognition in his lifetime, or even well beyond it.

Savage, who died in 2003 at age 88, was, for the most part, ignored — even in his home state. Montana’s famous state literature anthology, a fat book arrogantly titled “The Last Best Place” (1989), made no mention or inclusion of Savage or his novelist wife, Elizabeth Savage. That’s inexcusable, given the quality of their fiction.

I’ve lived in Thomas Savage’s hometown, Dillon, for three decades. A generation ago I was advised by a literary friend to read Savage, whom I’d never heard of. I’ve not looked back.

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Over many years I’ve published several articles about Savage, taught him to college freshmen, led tours through what I’ve called “Thomas Savage country,” and talked him up whenever possible. Last year, I published a biography about Savage that explores this complicated man and his work. In my mind, Savage ranks among the best 20th-century novelists from Montana. Over the course of 44 years, he published 13 novels — all received kudos from local and national reviewers. Critics such as Doris Grumbach and The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley consistently hailed his work, regarding Savage as one of the country’s first-rate novelists.

Savage was a PEN-Faulkner Award finalist (1989) for his final novel, “The Corner of Rife and Pacific.” That’s about the only recognition he received other than glowing reviews. During his lifetime, exactly one scholarly article was published about him. At the close of a Publishers Weekly interview in 1988, Savage acknowledged the limitations of his audience, saying: “I’m writing for rather highly educated people, and I think my writing is only going to appeal to people who have extreme sensitivity. This can come by birth or it can come by education. And if you don’t have it … you’ll never understand me.

His books never sold well. Currently only a few of his novels are in print, including “The Power of the Dog” and “The Sheep Queen.” Emily Salkin Takoudes, the assistant editor at Little, Brown, who oversaw the publication of Savage’s two best novels, estimates that when “Power” was first published in 1967, it sold 1,000 copies at most.

Savage’s obscurity became part of reviewers’ copy. The author claimed to know almost nothing about marketing his novels or about other Montana writers. In his day, a book launch consisted of one Manhattan cocktail party. With Campion’s film (in which I had a small consulting role), perhaps Savage will finally get the rousing toast he deserves.

Campion became obsessed with the novel when her stepmother lent her a copy in 2017. It was not the first time Hollywood took interest in “The Power of the Dog.” The novel had been optioned multiple times, with Paul Newman and Gérard Depardieu in mind for the role of Phil Burbank, the book’s complicated protagonist, according to Deadline. But Campion’s tenacity paid off. Her film captures the harder, harsher human landscape of Savage’s brilliant book.

Savage’s idea of the West was unlike that celebrated in most popular cultural portraits of the region. He knew a different reality from the inside, and though he left Montana at 22 (but for periodic visits), his imagination remained there. He owned southwest Montana (and Idaho’s Lemhi River Valley) in ways that only writers do. He possessed a photographic memory and re-created Dillon, the Beaverhead Valley and Horse Prairie, Mont., from the coast of Maine, where he and his family lived for 30 years and where he wrote most of his novels. Eight of his novels are set in his home ground of Montana’s southwest corner. The other five all have Montana connections.

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Annie Proulx, long a Savage fan, wrote about him in the afterword to a new edition of “The Power of the Dog”: “Something aching and lonely and terrible of the west is forever caught on his pages.” Savage’s nephew Sandy James wrote a short verse that captures much of Savage’s world: “Of mountains and valleys / of cold and cruelty / of stony silence / writes Thomas Savage / queerly.”

Savage was gay, though he married a woman and had three children. He loved family more than anything. But in Adrienne Rich’s immortal phrase, he was “split at the root,” and the sexual and gender tensions infused his life and fiction. Savage’s West is also a queer West. His plots don’t feature happy endings. He tended to mask his gay self through self-accusation and self-condemnation. Though he claimed to never write autobiography, he wrote deeply autobiographical fiction. He kept rewriting his home ground and town, as well as family members.

Phil Burbank is based on Savage’s step-uncle, eccentric William “Bill” Brenner, who died of blackleg just as Phil dies of anthrax. A mechanical wizard, Bill bathed rarely, avoided gloves, didn’t go to town and played excellent banjo. Rose Gordon and George Burbank represent versions of Savage’s mother, Beth, and his stepfather, Charlie Brenner. Peter Gordon poses the first clear self-representation of Savage, also a stepson on the Brenner (Burbank) cattle ranch. In the next half-dozen novels, Savage fictitiously grows up, and in “Sheep Queen,” the protagonist narrator is a middle-aged novelist named Tom Burton.

When Campion visited me in 2018 in preparation for the film, she took dozens of photos of Savage’s home ground. When she left the ranch, she looked back and saw the dog formation in rock that she’s said felt like a blessing from Savage to make the movie. She and Benedict Cumberbatch have repeatedly saluted Savage’s “Power” as a classic in American literature. I hope the movie brings him the recognition he deserves.

Alan Weltzien is a professor emeritus at the University of Montana Western and the author of 10 books, including “A Father and an Island” and “Savage West: The Life and Fiction of Thomas Savage.”

The Power of the Dog

By Thomas Savage

Little, Brown. 228 pp. Paperback, $16.99

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