Joseph Kinsey Howard, Greatest Fellow from Great Falls

Joseph Kinsey Howard, Greatest Fellow from Great Falls

Joe Howard 1

Joe Howard in his apartment in Great Falls, sometime in the 1940s.

 

The best history book about Montana was not written by an historian.

Instead, it was written by a journalist. This has ever since caused much rancor, outrage and gnashing of teeth among more toothless competitors.

The newspaperman was named Joseph Kinsey Howard and the book he wrote in 1943 is Montana High Wide and Handsome. It has remained in print ever since, which is a real accomplishment, given that 50% of most  books disappear about ten years after their publication and 99% within ten years of their author’s death.

Howard wrote Montana High Wide and Handsome while working as an editor for the long-defunct Great Falls Leader, the evening paper in Great Falls, Montana. At that time Great Falls was the second biggest city in the state, with a population of about 50,000 people.

The book is categorized as Montana History because that’s where it fits on the bookshelves. But in fact, it is not strictly a history book, as Howard himself explains in the Acknowledgements and Bibliography in the back:

I have not attempted in this book to write a “definitive history” of Montana, whatever that would be. I am a newspaper man, not a historian. Some incidents which seemed to me to be significant, or perhaps just fun to tell about, have been selected for discussion; others, perhaps equally important in a full history, have been merely touched upon or even ignored.  

And so Montana High Wide and Handsome is witty, charming, attentive to detail, and above all, stupendously readable. Howard was a gifted writer who worked both as a stringer for Time magazine and regularly sold fiction pieces to the popular magazines of the day, including Collier’s, Coronet, Look, and Life. (Magazines, for all you young ’uns out there, were the disposable reading materials people liked to look at and share before Mr. Al Gore invented the Internet.)

Joe Howard was a famous character in his time, even in Great Falls. As a young man in the 1930s he organized The Great Falls Newspaper Guild, the first successful union for newspaper writers in the Rocky Mountains and the only one in Montana. More than half of the 14 “big” newspapers in the state were owned by the Anaconda Copper Company (The Company), the Great Falls papers stood apart for their size and influence. The Company kept a tight leash on information about its operations in Butte and its political shenanigans in Helena and did not appreciate nosy newspapermen with their radical ideas about paying fair wages along with good working conditions.

Yet criticizing The Company in his newspaper and in Montana High Wide and Handsome became one of Howard’s hallmarks. (His skills as an analyst and writer scored, because, shortly after the book’s success, Howard’s friends witnessed a sizable check sent to him by The Company. There was no letter or note of explanation attached; it was clearly a taste of Things that Might Be if he were ‘nicer.’ Howard laughed and  tore it up.)

Howard enjoyed socializing with other writers in Great Falls, including his fellow Tribune editor Alfred Bertram “Bud” Guthrie, who would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for his novel The Way West, as well as later authoring the screenplay for the 1953 classic western Shane, with its immortal line that “a gun is nothing but a tool.” He was also friends with the author Mildred Walker, wife of Dr. Ferdinand Schemm, the parents of Ripley Schemm (Mrs. Richard) Hugo, who would influence another generation of Montana writers in turn from their home in Missoula.

A slight man who drank and smoke much more than he should have, Howard succumbed to a massive heart attack in 1951 while working on the roof of his rustic cabin nestled along the Teton River west of Choteau. He was 45 years old.

About twenty years after Montana High Wide and Handsome came the first “definitive history” of Montana, written by Howard admirer K. Ross Toole. After him came the even more definitive Montana: A History of Two Centuries by Michael P. Malone, Richard B. Roeder and William L. Lang.

Howard’s legacy continues to be important enough to be disparaged. I have twice personally witnessed the wrath of his detractors. In 1990, as a cub reporter in Havre, I heard Richard Roeder give a lecture at the H. Earl Clack Museum. He took time out in passing to sneer at Kinsey as a “so-called historian.”

In 1999 the Montana Historical Society arranged a conference devoted to Kinsey’s legacy. There, a right-wing University of Montana history professor named David Emmons came out with a full-fledged assault on Howard, asserting bizarrely that Howard “didn’t give a damn about working people.”

When I challenged Emmons to prove his thesis, he stalked off-stage in an how-dare-you sulk. More than a month later, I received an insulting letter from the offended doctor. He’d tracked down my personal address in Roswell, Georgia where I was working at the time. Emmons presented a list of union strikes that occurred in Montana as “evidence” of the deficiencies in Howard’s character. His organizing a newspaper guild didn’t count, Emmons sniffed, because they were “just a bunch of scriveners.”

Trolls have existed for as long as they’ve built bridges to hide under. The works of great men cover them over.