Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with A.B. Guthrie, Jr., June 16, 1979

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:11 - Introduction

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Partial Transcript: The following is an unrehearsed interview with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist A. B. Guthrie, Jr.

Segment Synopsis: Narrator introduces the interview between Bill Cooper and A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Keywords: A. B. Guthrie

Subjects: Guthrie, A. B., Jr. (Alfred Bertram), 1901-1991

00:00:43 - Early life

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Partial Transcript: Mr. Guthrie, you arrived in Kentucky in July of 1926 to begin a job as a twenty dollar a week reporter for the Lexington Leader.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie was born in Indiana, and as a child moved to Montana, where he went to school in Sholo. He spent one year at a university in Seattle, where the climate did not please him, and went to Montana to study journalism; he graduated with a BA. He worked as a farmhand in Mexico for a time, and later, for his uncle's feed store. Another uncle arranged for the editor of the Lexington Leader to consider hiring Guthrie as a cub reporter.

Keywords: A.B. Guthrie; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington Leader

Subjects: Childhood; Education, Higher; Employment; Families.; Guthrie, A. B., Jr. (Alfred Bertram), 1901-1991; Higher education; Lexington (Ky.); Newspapers.

00:03:14 - Difficulty making friends in Lexington, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: What were your first impressions of Lexington when you arrived there?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes the class system and veneration of ancestors that takes place in Lexington. People wanted to take advantage of old names. Guthrie made friends with the Lexington Leader staff members, including Dan Bowmar, Sr., with whom he is still friends. The Leader took an editorial position against parimutuel betting. The Leader was the family paper at that time. He notes a dichotomy between a liberal style and a puritan style in Lexington.

Keywords: Dan Bowmar; Friends; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington Leader; Newspapers

Subjects: Bowmar, Dan M.; Lexington (Ky.).; Newspapers

00:07:44 - Guthrie's landlady on Rand Avenue

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Partial Transcript: One of the first people I believe that you met when you came to Lexington was Mary Elizabeth Keating.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie had expected to stay in Lexington for only a year. Guthrie recounts how Mrs. Keating, his landlady, knew all of the old names and influential people in Kentucky. He describes her as a surrogate mother, who always encouraged him and believed in him. She seemed like an old lady, who nevertheless had a young spirit, and influenced Guthrie to stay beyond that first year.

Keywords: Landladies; Landlords; Rand Ave.

Subjects: Landlord and tenant--United States; Lexington (Ky.)

00:11:14 - Kentucky politics in 1927

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Partial Transcript: In 1927, the, Leader printed editorials, uh, in support of the Republican candidate for governor, Flem Sampson.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes the political system of Kentucky in 1927. The Jockey Club was part of the political machine that backed Flem Sampson's governorship. After the election, the editor of the Leader printed an opinion regretting that Sampson was elected. The next day, the editor was fired by the owner of the paper.

Keywords: Bipartisan Combine; Flem Sampson; J.C.W. Beckham; John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington Leader

Subjects: Beckham, John Crepps Wickliffe, 1869-1940; Kentucky--Politics and government; Newspapers--Kentucky.; Politicians--Kentucky

00:16:07 - John Sherman Cooper

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Partial Transcript: One of the people who made his political debut in that session of the legislature in 1928 went on to become really an outstanding--

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes the legislature of that time as composed of "illiterates partly, also of some very sharp and honest guys...along with others whose honesty could certainly be open to question."

Keywords: Illiterates; John Sherman Cooper; Legislative bodies

Subjects: Cooper, John Sherman, 1901-1991; Illiterate persons; Kentucky--Politics and government; Legislative bodies; Politicians--Kentucky

00:19:03 - 1928 presidential election

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Partial Transcript: Do you have any, uh, recollections of the 1928 presidential election in Kentucky?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes Kentucky in 1928 as not being ready for a Catholic president, although this feeling never came out into public debate. Laffoon was elected Governor of Kentucky, and proposed a sales tax, which was not a popular issue. Revenue was needed. Wealthy people supported the sales tax to keep themselves from being taxed more.

Keywords: Al Smith; Great Depression; Herbert Hoover; Ruby Laffoon; Sales tax

Subjects: Catholic; Depressions--1929; Hoover, Herbert, 1874-1964; Kentucky--Politics and government; Kentucky. Governor (1931-1935 : Laffoon); Politicians--Kentucky; Sales tax; Smith, Alfred Emanuel, 1873-1944

00:27:15 - The "political machine" in Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Let me go back just a minute, you're talking about this combination, what did you call it?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes how Billy Klair of Lexington, Kentucky and Maurice Galvin of Covington, Kentucky were leading the political parties during the time of the bipartisan combine.

Keywords: Beckham, J.C.W.; Billy Klair; Bipartisan combine; J.C.W. Beckham; Jockey Club; John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham; John Y. Brown; Maurice Galvin; Percy Haly

Subjects: Beckham, John Crepps Wickliffe, 1869-1940; Brown, John Young, 1900-1985; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky

00:34:33 - Kentucky's orators

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Partial Transcript: And others, some of them made quite a pretense of being orators in those days.

Segment Synopsis: The Moss brothers represented the mining brothers. John Y. Brown ran for other offices. Guthrie doesn't feel that he was too liberal, but rather, too uncompromising.

Keywords: Eloquence; Orators; Pal Garner; Ray Moss

Subjects: Eloquence; Kentucky--Politics and government; Orators; Politicians--Kentucky

00:37:07 - The Great Depression

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Partial Transcript: What are some of your memories of the Depression in Kentucky, and in Fayette County in, in particular?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes how banks were closing during the Great Depression, and how farmers and city people were having difficulties. Salaries and wages were decreased. Fayette County provided soup kitchens.

Keywords: Fayette County (Ky.); Franklin D. Roosevelt; Great Depression; Soup kitchens; Work programs; Workers Alliance

Subjects: Depressions--1929--Kentucky; Fayette County (Ky.); Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945; Soup kitchens

00:41:35 - Prohibition

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Partial Transcript: Do you have any vivid memories of, of prohibition times in Lexington?

Segment Synopsis: Office holders were prohibitionists, outwardly, at least. Guthrie recounts stories of a lot of prohibitionists before the repeal of prohibition. During all that time, good liquor was hard to get.

Keywords: Augustus Owsley Stanley; Edwin P. Morrow; Prohibition

Subjects: Alcohol--Law and legislation; Prohibition; Stanley, Augustus Owsley, 1867-1958

00:46:13 - Happy Chandler calls a special session of the legislature

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Partial Transcript: Now, to get back just a moment to something you were telling me about a while ago, the, uh, special session of the legislature, uh, which Chandler called in the absence of Governor Laffoon from the state.

Segment Synopsis: Chandler had been a football coach at Transylvania University, and then got into politics. Guthrie describes the political ploy on Chandler's part in calling the special session of the legislature in order to change to a primary law from the conventions. Chandler was a good governor for eighteen months. He was later undone by his ambition. He was popular after abolishing the sales tax. Chandler tried to reduce state spending, and make government in Kentucky smaller.

[Note: the beginning of this segment has somewhat muffled sound quality.]

Keywords: Football coaches; Governor Ruby Laffoon; Happy Chandler; Transylvania University

Subjects: Chandler, Happy, 1898-1991; Football coaches; Kentucky--Politics and government; Laffoon, Ruby, 1869-1941; Politicians--Kentucky; Transylvania University

00:56:39 - Kentucky coalfields

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Partial Transcript: Do you recall the 1937 difficulties in the eastern Kentucky coal fields?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie sent a reporter to Harlan, who said it was dangerous to report on the situation, described here as the 1937 difficulties in the Eastern Kentucky coalfields.

[Note: The situation is not spelled out in the segment directly, as it seems to be very well known to both Guthrie and the interviewer. Historically there had been a great deal of tension as the coal miners tried to form unions and seek safe working conditions in the mines.]

Keywords: Coalfields; Harlan (Ky.); Harry Caudill

Subjects: Caudill, Harry M., 1922-1990; Coal miners; Coal miners--Labor unions--Kentucky; Coal mines and mining--Kentucky; Coalfields; Harlan County (Ky.); Strikes and lockouts--Coal mining

00:59:29 - Happy Chandler's ambition

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Partial Transcript: Do you think that, that Chandler, uh--maybe this is a, a silly question, because he obviously must have thought he had some chance or he wouldn't have taken that step...

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie says that Chandler's ambition led him to overreach himself when he ran against Alben Barkley. Roosevelt came to Lexington to speak on behalf of Barkley. Chandler was Kentucky governor at this time, and jumped in the back seat of the President's car between Barkley and Roosevelt. Roosevelt was not pleased over this.

Keywords: Alben Barkley; Franklin D. Roosevelt; Happy Chandler

Subjects: Barkley, Alben William, 1877-1956; Chandler, Happy, 1898-; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky; Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945

01:04:23 - Political corruption

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Partial Transcript: So, your overall impression of that 1938 Senatorial campaign, I assume, would be that first of all Chandler made a mistake in, in choosing to run.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie asserts that there was political corruption on both sides of the Senatorial campaign. Chandler, as governor, had excesses that were more in evidence. A swimming pool was built as a gift to Chandler, using materials that were controlled during the war effort.

Keywords: Happy Chandler

Subjects: Chandler, Happy, 1898-1991; Kentucky--Politics and government; Political corruption--Kentucky; Politicians--Kentucky

01:10:25 - Happy Chandler as a Senator

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Partial Transcript: What kind of a Senator do you think Chandler made?

Segment Synopsis: The single thing Guthrie remembers about Chandler being Senator was Chandler's assertion that America would never again send its boys overseas to fight. Chandler also had vice presidential ambitions. Chandler resigned from the Senate to become Commissioner of Baseball, after which, he became Governor.

Keywords: Commissioner of Baseball; Happy Chandler; Senators; U.S. Senate; Vice presidents

Subjects: Baseball commissioners; Chandler, Happy, 1898-1991; Politicians--Kentucky; Politics and government

01:14:02 - Kentucky politics in the 1940s

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Partial Transcript: By the mid 1940s, or even before that, factionalism in the Democratic Party in, in Kentucky had resulted in a Republican governor being elected.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes how Tom Underwood, who was the editor of the Lexington Herald, was a staunch Democrat. When the Herald and the Leader merged to become the Lexington Herald-Leader, Underwood worked with Guthrie. Virgil Chapman was a very popular politician. There is a brief mention of Thruston Morton and John Robsion. Ben Johnson was responsible for a highway plan that resulted in Kentucky not having toll bridges.

Keywords: Ben Johnson; Earle Clements; Happy Chandler; John Robsion; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington Leader; Simeon Willis; Thruston Morton; Tom Underwood; Virgil Chapman

Subjects: Chapman, Virgil, 1895-1951; Clements, Earle C. (Earle Chester), 1896-1985; Kentucky--Politics and government; Morton, Thruston B. (Thruston Ballard), 1907-1982; Newspapers--Kentucky.; Politicians--Kentucky; Robsion, John Marshall, 1873-1948:Johnson, Ben, 1858-1950; Underwood, Tom; Willis, Simeon S., 1879-1965

01:25:12 - Gubernatorial campaign of 1947

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Partial Transcript: Now in, in 1947, in the gubernatorial campaign, on the Democratic side, Clements was running against Harry Waterfield, who was an old newspaper man from--well not an old newspaper man at that time, but a newspaper man from Clinton, Kentucky.

Segment Synopsis: Under Earle Clements, a salary limitation was removed. There had been a salary limitation of $5,000 a year that was enshrined in the state's constitution and had to be changed via a constitutional amendment.

Keywords: Earle Clements; Harry Waterfield

Subjects: Clements, Earle C. (Earle Chester), 1896-1985; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky; Waterfield, Harry Lee, 1911-1988

01:31:14 - Segregation and the 1904 Day Law

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Partial Transcript: We were talking about the Clements administration.

Segment Synopsis: Prior to 1904, Berea College had been educating students regardless of race. In 1904, segregation was instituted via the Day Law, which prohibited the co-education of races in the same school.
[Note: this law was upheld by the US Supreme Court Berea College v. Kentucky 211 U.S. 45 (1908), and subsequently amended in 1950.]

Keywords: Berea College; Day Law; Lyman Johnson; School segregation; University of Kentucky

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; Berea College; Civil rights; Johnson, Lyman T., 1906-1997; Segregation in education; University of Kentucky

01:34:22 - Opinions on Kentucky politicians

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Partial Transcript: This may not be a fair question, and, and, uh, feel free not to answer it if you don't wish to...

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie feels that people have a habit of electing the wrong people, and wonders if anyone has not been elected due to being too honest. Out of all of the politicians discussed, Guthrie feels that John Sherman Cooper was incorruptible. William B. Harrison was a gentleman, but too well dressed for Kentucky voters.

Keywords: Best Kentucky politician; John Sherman Cooper; King Swope; William B. Harrison

Subjects: Cooper, John Sherman, 1901-1991; Kentucky--Politics and government; Politicians--Kentucky

01:37:14 - Women's rights

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Partial Transcript: But, um, I don't know, people have the habit of electing a lot of wrong guys it seems to me.

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie supports a woman's right to choose, but feels that if anyone would say that aloud during an election there would be a strong opposition to the candidacy. There is discussion of a veto that the Lieutenant Governor applied to an attempt to rescind Kentucky's equal rights legislation.

Keywords: Abortion; Catholic Church; Equal Rights Amendment; Equality; Right to Live Group; Women

Subjects: Abortion; Catholic Church; Equal rights amendments--United States; Equality; Right to life; Women's rights

01:39:34 - The nature of news reporting

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Partial Transcript: What were some of your greatest satisfactions as a newspaper man in Lexington?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie derived satisfaction because the newspaper was an organization devoted to the public welfare. Later on in his career, Guthrie noticed that the owners of the newspaper changed so that it would not pursue controversial news.

Keywords: Journalism; Newspapers

Subjects: Journalism; Newspapers

01:41:58 - Memorable people from Lexington, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: Who are some of the unforgettable Lexington characters that, uh, you recall from those days?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie remembers various people over the years who made an impression on him, including some notable police officers, and a person called Sweet Evening Breeze, whose real name was James Herndon. Guthrie also remembers some notable figures from the University of Kentucky, including President Funkhouser. Guthrie recalls that Frank McVey was difficult to talk to, but a good man, although he made financial requests to the legislature at too low an amount. A very bright man, McVey was concerned about the future of the oil supply.

[Note: Guthrie uses the term "colored folk" a few times during this segment.]

Keywords: Dan Bowmar; Doug McClure; Dudley B. Veal; Eddie Young; Illiteracy; James Herndon; Lexington Herald-Leader; Lexington Leader; Mary Lizzie Keating; Sweet Evening Breeze; William Funkhouser

Subjects: Bowmar, Dan M; Funkhouser, W. D. (William Delbert), 1881-1948; Herndon, James R.; Literacy; McVey, Frank LeRond, 1869-1953

01:52:20 - From newspaper man to literary author

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Partial Transcript: Well now if, if, uh--(coughs)--you don't mind I, I would like to ask you some things about your writing career..

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie had thought he would like to be a writer. He became a newspaper man as one avenue to being a writer. Guthrie's father wanted to be a writer, and Guthrie characterizes the writing of his father as of the New England School, like Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau. Guthrie's first book taught him discipline. Guthrie then accepted a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University.

Keywords: "The Scarlet Letter"; Courier Journal; Fiction; Henry David Thoreau; Indiana University; Nathaniel Hawthorne; New England Tradition; Nieman Harvard Fellowship; Paul Hughes; Ralph Waldo Emerson; Theodore Morrison; University of Washington; William Dean Howells

Subjects: Authors.; Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882; Hawthorne, Nathaniel, 1804-1864; Howells, William Dean, 1837-1920; Indiana University; Newspapers.; Thoreau, Henry David, 1817-1862; University of Washington; Writing

GPS: Harvard University
Map Coordinates: 42.374444, -71.116944
02:02:22 - Bread Loaf Writer's Conference

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Partial Transcript: Well then you got an ex--uh, an extra bonus in the summer of 1945 by, uh, being able to attend the Bread Loaf--

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie attended the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference.

Keywords: Bread Loaf Writer's Conference; Robert Frost

Subjects: Bread Loaf Writers' Conference of Middlebury College; Frost, Robert, 1874-1963

GPS: Bread Loaf Mountain, Vermont
Map Coordinates: 44.002167, -72.941333
02:10:50 - Pulitzer Prize

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Partial Transcript: Then in 1949, you, you continued your, um--oh, shall we call it an epic of the west, or do you like that, that term, in, at any rate, a, uh, another historical novel...

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie describes what happens in the mind of an author once he has finished writing a work of fiction. He does not write for prizes, although he likes them. Guthrie was not pleased with the movie versions of his books. He describes his successful work as a screenwriter, including the movies "Shane" and "The Kentuckian." He characterizes screenwriting as tedious. He did not feel much creative pride in writing screenplays. With screenwriting, an author is burdened all the time with the present tense.

Keywords: Burt Lancaster; Copyright royalties; Film adaptations; Films; Movies; Pulitzer Prizes; Screenwriters

Subjects: Authors.; Copyright--Royalties; Lancaster, Burt, 1913-1994; Motion picture authorship; Pulitzer Prizes; Writing

02:16:31 - "This Rebel Breed"

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Partial Transcript: Now did you not also, uh, in collaboration with another person, write a movie script for, uh, something called "This Rebel Breed," which was a, a, a movie about teen gang wars and racial prejudice, or do I have bad information?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie does not accept any credit for writing this screenplay. He mentioned giving a little bit of help to the author, but makes no claim to the work.

Keywords: Collaboration; Copyright royalties; Film adaptations; Films; Movies; Screenwriters; Screenwriting

Subjects: Artistic collaboration.; Authors.; Copyright--Royalties; Motion picture authorship; Writing

02:17:09 - Moving back to Montana

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Partial Transcript: In an article for Holiday Magazine on Kentucky in 1951, you wrote, "Any man who had a chance would be a fool to live in any other state."

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie feels that he was quoting someone in Holiday Magazine, and always felt a strong tie to Montana. While in Montana, Guthrie published a book about Montana, to uneven reviews. Guthrie feels that reviews are often contradictory. "These Thousand Hills" did not sell as well as Guthrie would have liked, nevertheless, every book he writes is written as well as he was able to at the time. In 1960, Guthrie published a book of short stories, some of which had been rejected by various magazines. The short stories were published to very good reviews.

Keywords: "These Thousand Hills"; Montana Territory

Subjects: Authors and publishers.; Authors.; Montana; Publishers and publishing.; Writing

02:22:53 - Fiction and character

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Partial Transcript: Your, um--now in between, uh, "The Big It" and, and "Arfive," you published, uh, an autob, biographical, uh, thing called "The Blue Hen's Chick."

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie got the idea for the Arfive and the principal from his father. He does not say that the character Ben Collingsworth is his father, but rather, inspired the character. You can't write fiction and stay true to a real person's character, because the character in the book assumes a life of its own. Guthrie's father came to Montana to become the first principal of the first high school. Guthrie also published a children's book, which was a collection of stories that he had told his own children and other children over many years.

Keywords: "Arfive"; Autobiography; Characters; High schools; Principals

Subjects: Authors.; Autobiography; Characters and characteristics in literature; High school principals; High schools; Writing

02:26:10 - Guthrie discusses his own work and the work of others

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Partial Transcript: Now, in '75, your, your last major novel, uh, uh, about the northwest from, what, 1925 up to the mid '40s or so?

Segment Synopsis: Guthrie does not feel that he will continue writing the story that his last book has left off. He states that he doesn't have any ideas right now. He feels that his best book is the last one written; other than that he does not have a favorite. He does feel that "Arfive" will come to be recognized as one of the better ones. "The Big Sky" was the most difficult. He does not have fun in the actual writing, unless that fun is in having written something well. Guthrie reads a great deal. He does not enjoy all writing, including Faulkner, whom he accuses of lack of discipline. He does not prefer Bellow or Joyce, and finds poetry incomprehensible. Guthrie believes that New York reviewers create fads in literary fiction.

Keywords: James Joyce; Norman Mailer; Poetry; Robert Penn Warren; Saul Bellow; William Faulkner

Subjects: Authors.; Bellow, Saul; Faulkner, William, 1897-1962; Joyce, James, 1882-1941; Mailer, Norman; Poetry; Warren, Robert Penn, 1905-1989; Writing