My friend Happy Jack Feder lived in Missoula, Montana, in the early 1980s in the same neighborhood as the writer Dorothy Johnson, who lived in a small house on Dearborn Avenue. Johnson was retired from teaching by then, but had worked in the English Department at the University of Montana. Happy Jack knew of her reputation, had read some of her work, and sometimes encountered her on the street. He remembers her as “just a nice little old lady.”
There was a time (the 1920s through the ’50s) when it was possible for American writers to make a living writing short stories. Writers as different as Irwin Shaw, J.D. Salinger, John Cheever, Jean Stafford, and Truman Capote left behind a rich legacy by cranking out stories for popular magazines. Kurt Vonnegut financed the composition of his early novels this way. During this Golden Age Americans had an insatiable appetite for short fiction to be enjoyed on a commuter train, at the beach on summer vacation, or in one’s easy chair. The New Yorker, Esquire, Life, Argosy, Cosmopolitan, Harper’s Bazaar, Collier’s -- the list is long. The last was a weekly that published five stories per issue. At the height of the Great Depression, the financially pressed F. Scott Fitzgerald commanded $4,000 per story from the Saturday Evening Post, for stories that today are not considered to be among his best.
Another of these writers was the aforementioned Dorothy Johnson (1905-1984), who pursued a formula in her work that attempted to reconcile realism and Western myth. This attracted New York editors and readers, and Hollywood producers. Johnson’s West was geographically unidentifiable, therefore giving the stories a more universal appeal. They were more about human conflicts than places. Three of her stories: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1949), “A Man Called Horse” (1950), and “The Hanging Tree" (1957), were made into movies, the first a classic 1962 Western with an all-star cast including John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles and Lee Marvin, and directed by John Ford. Johnson wrote the screenplays for the last two movies. This was also a halcyon time for writers to sell their fiction to a content-hungry Hollywood. Imagine a mere 17-page short story like “Liberty Valance” rating such a cast in a blockbuster film today. All three movies had “star quality.” The Hanging Tree (1959) starred Gary Cooper near the end of his career; A Man Called Horse (1970) featured Richard Harris.
Dorothy Marie Johnson was born in McGregor, Iowa, to Lester and Mary Johnson, and while she was still a child her family moved to the rowdy railroad town of Whitefish, Montana, in the mountainous western part of the state. Dorothy was already a newspaper stringer in high school, covering Whitefish for the Daily Inter-Lake of nearby Kalispell.
After graduation from the University of Montana, Johnson moved to New York for a 15-year stint in magazine publishing, with a break when she served in the Air Warder Service in World War II. While on a vacation home to Whitefish in 1950 she accepted an offer for an editorial position at the Whitefish Pilot, her hometown weekly newspaper. In 1953, Johnson returned to her alma mater in Missoula for a job as an assistant professor in the School of Journalism.
She had begun writing short stories in New York after breaking into the Saturday Evening Post with a non-fiction piece. The fodder for the stories was absorbed in her Montana youth in Whitefish. The town, with its mix of cowboys, rough railroad workers, and local Indians, was a rich source for her fiction. The pieces she wrote in New York mostly failed, as did a short-lived marriage. Personal considerations aside, the western stories she first penned there must have affected her decision to come back to Montana. The Whitefish newspaper job was the best excuse to do so.
The stories are realistic, yet tinged with a mythical melodrama as if written for the screen. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” tells of a man who owes his good fortune in life to another man, who at a critical moment acted for the good. “A Man Called Horse” reflected Johnson’s vast knowledge of Plains Indian culture. A white captive rises from degradation to political power within the Crow tribe, only to abandon it and return to the white world. In “The Hanging Tree,” a doctor saves an innocent man from a hanging, only to exploit him for financial gain. The film version stars Gary Cooper as the doctor, one of his few roles where he’s cast as a villain.
Dorothy Johnson published five short story collections, two forgettable “juvenile” novels (Farewell to Troy -- 1964; Witch Princess -- 1967), the two screenplays mentioned above, but unfortunately, no serious adult novel. But her reputation is secure. In a foreword to A Man Called Horse (the collection originally titled Indian Country), Jack Schaefer, the author of Shane, wrote that Johnson’s stories “….breathe the same spirit, the spirit that grew out of the bigness and reaches of the American West and gave a new dimension to what we now call the American heritage. They face forward. They affirm life.”
Johnson’s legacy was the result of hard work. She also had a cynical side. At her insistence the epitaph on her gravestone in the Whitefish cemetery reads simply: “Paid.”