Thornburg, Newton Kendall Jr. (1929-2011)

  • By Phil Dougherty
  • Posted 4/15/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11216

Newton Thornburg was a successful fiction writer who wrote 11 novels between 1967 and 1996, his most notable book being Cutter and Bone (1976). Though seen by many as a crime writer (some perceived shades of Ross McDonald in his style), Thornburg saw himself as more of a novelist. He wrote his best books in the 1970s and 1980s, several of them published after his 1980 move to the Seattle area. He was an edgy and pessimistic man and it showed in his work, but he had a wry wit that was sometimes missed by his critics. He died in 2011 but his books live on, particularly in Great Britain.

Beginnings

Thornburg was born in Harvey, Illinois (a Chicago suburb), on May 13, 1929, and grew up in the Chicago area. His father, Newton Kendall Thornburg (1907-1988), owned a wholesale company that sold items as varied as paper and drugs; his mother, Rhea Martha Mattox Thornburg (1907-2004), was a homemaker. He had an older brother, Robert, and two younger sisters, Margaret and Mary.

Thornburg was raised in a devoutly religious family, but as he grew up he became disenchanted with religion. His son Doug recalled, "He'd go to church and hear a sermon on 'love thy neighbor' ... but when he'd leave church he'd hear the same people slamming their neighbors" (Dougherty interview). By the time he was a young man he had given up on religion, which he later remarked, in a 2003 interview with the British website Tangled Web, probably contributed to the bleak outlook that characterized much of his work: "I believed in all that as I grew up. Then I abandoned it. There really was nothing to fill that void. I'm an atheist and that is certainly a pretty bleak and hopeless outlook" (Cornwell).

After high school he went to Illinois Wesleyan College in Bloomington, Illinois, and discovered he had a talent for writing when he wrote a five-page short story that was published in motive (always spelled with a lowercase "m") magazine, the official publication of the Methodist Student Movement. But his real interest in those years was painting, and he transferred to the University of Iowa, which had a good art school. He kept painting, but he kept finding himself drawn back to writing, mostly small features and sports articles for newspapers. It captivated him enough to briefly enroll in the Iowa Graduate Writers Workshop after college, but he dropped out before long and returned home.

By this time, Thornburg was in love. In 1952 he married Karin Larson (1929-1986) and for the next few years they lived in Chicago and in Manhattan, where Thornburg gave the art world a try. He was a good realistic painter, and he was offered a show in New York City. However, the offer was based on the condition that he paint more abstract paintings, which he also had a talent for, and which by the mid-to-late 1950s were becoming all the rage. This didn't interest him and he turned down the offer -- a decision that decades later he said he regretted. Disappointed and frustrated, he left New York and returned to Illinois.

"Art is the Only Way Really to Express Yourself"

After a stint on Karin's brother's farm, Thornburg went to work as a purchasing agent for his father's company in Chicago, and for a time he followed a more traditional road. He and Karin had three children: Kristen "Kris" (b. 1957), Mark (1959-2000), and Doug (b. 1961), but he still found time to write. He told Tangled Web years later that even then his goal was "to be a writer, to do that and not go to work. Art is the only way really to express yourself, without commercial or even social considerations" (Cornwell).

In 1963 he landed a job as a copywriter, which took the young family to Milwaukee. It was the first of a number of copywriting jobs with various advertising agencies that over the next decade would take the Thornburgs to St. Louis and to Peoria, Illinois, then to Santa Barbara, California, in 1969. Two years later they returned to the Milwaukee area, but not for long; in 1972 they went back to Santa Barbara. Thornburg's first novel, Gentleman Born, came out during these nomadic years. Published in 1967 by Fawcett Publications, the book has some of the hallmarks that would appear in Thornburg's next books: an alienated central character, moving through life with the baggage of failed family relationships and dealing with the hand he's been dealt; searching for a resolution but seldom finding it -- or perhaps more accurately, finding it all right. Just not the resolution he was looking for.

The book didn't get much attention, but now Thornburg had a better idea of what might sell. He next wrote Knockover, more of a traditional crime novel, which came out in 1968. He acknowledged in his Tangled Web interview that this was "more of a commercial effort. I was hoping for a movie sale -- and actually it did sell, for a very minuscule sum [though no movie was ever made]. But it allowed me to write To Die in California" (Cornwell).

Published in 1973, To Die in California was Thornburg's first hardcover and his first major success. The book sold to Little, Brown, and Company, a long-established American publisher, and Thornburg got more exposure than he'd had with his prior two books. More exposure indeed: Not long after the book was published the film rights were sold for $100,000 (equivalent to $534,000 in 2016) to Hal Wallis (1898-1986), a high-profile film producer of such classics as Casablanca and True Grit. Thornburg worked on the screenplay for the film, but it was never made.

The sudden wealth allowed him to achieve two dreams. First, he could work for himself. This was a natural for Thornburg, a rather distant man who was not particularly interested in working with others. But the money opened a second door for him, and one that would have a huge, and unforeseen, impact on both his life and his work. When he worked on his wife's brother's farm in the 1950s he discovered he had a taste for ranching. Since then he'd had a dream to buy a ranch and get back to the land with his family. Now he could do it.

Cutter and Bone

Thornburg bought 60 acres near the tiny community of Jane, Missouri, just barely north of the Arkansas state line on U.S. Highway 71. He bought a small herd of Black Angus cattle and embarked on what he thought would be the life of a "gentleman farmer" (Dougherty interview). Then reality set in. He didn't know anything about ranching. He didn't know anything about Southwestern Missouri either. After having lived most of his life in the North and several years in California, he was caught off guard by what he saw as "primitive" rural Missouri (Cornwell). He learned in a hurry, and he didn't make the mistake that many coming from the West Coast would and assume that his new neighbors were all dumb hicks. Unsophisticated maybe, and maybe not many with a lot of book smarts, but he saw that some of them were just as smart and cunning, and in their own ways a hell of a lot more dangerous, than their Coastal counterparts.

Ranching in Missouri left a profound impression on Thornburg, according to his son Doug: "I think Dad learned a lot out there about people which helped him be a better writer" (Dougherty interview). This growth shows in his next and signature book, Cutter and Bone. The story of two buddies from California who hatch a scheme to blackmail a rural Missouri tycoon, it captures the dejected spirit of mid-1970s America in a tale of two lost souls trying to find the big score. Instead they end up in Southwestern Missouri and find "the dark rages of the hill country" (Cutter and Bone, 410).

Published in 1976, the book features Thornburg's trademark cynicism and pessimism, and it follows a theme in many of his books of an average person getting caught up in a crime. Doug Thornburg explained, "It was important to Dad that his characters be believable, just regular guys. He based a lot of his characters on people he met" (Dougherty interview). For instance, one of the characters in Cutter and Bone, George Swanson, is based on a man Thornburg had known in one of his advertising jobs. The book also demonstrates a sharp wit that usually appeared in his work but wasn't always observed by his critics. An example comes in Cutter and Bone, when Thornburg describes Swanson:

"Physically, he reminded Cutter variously of an Armenian rug merchant, the chief procurer for King Farouk, or John Wilkes Booth, wethead ... There were few conversations he would not somewhere along the line try to bend to the subject of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and the other lost ones. Cutter in fact insisted that Swanson's first marriage had broken up because he could not keep from crying 'Zelda!' during orgasm" (Cutter and Bone, 113-114).

The book catapulted Thornburg into the national literary spotlight. According to blurbs printed on its cover, he was described by the New Yorker magazine as "a commanding writer, of unusual power and delicacy" and the book was described in The New York Times as "a class, big league act ... the best novel of its kind in ten years" (Cutter and Bone, back cover). Time magazine called the book "tense, funny and despairing ... credible right up to the last startling sentence" ("Don't Forget ..."). Movie rights to Cutter and Bone were sold, and in 1981 a film titled Cutter's Way followed, but it deviated significantly from the book's explosive ending.

Moving On

Thornburg landed a four-book contract with Little, Brown (which included the already-published Cutter and Bone), and wrote his next book, Black Angus, which came out in 1978. The well-received book incorporated many of his experiences as a rancher in Missouri, but by this time he had lost his Angus herd to Bang's Disease (brucellosis), a bacterial infection. That same year the ever-restless Thornburg sold the ranch and moved with his family to Colorado Springs. There, he penned his next book, Valhalla, an apocalyptic novel of economic collapse and race war that was less-warmly received by critics (the sci-fi angle of the story was a curious change for Thornburg, and the racial strife in it wasn't considered politically correct) and that he considered one of his weakest books. Valhalla came out in 1980, the same year the Thornburgs made yet another move, this time to Kirkland, a suburb on King County's Eastside, across Lake Washington from Seattle.

Thornburg found his Valhalla in the Seattle area. Its unobtrusive coolness was a natural fit for him. Aside from a brief return to Illinois in the early 1980s, Greater Seattle was his home for the rest of his life. He wrote his next book, Beautiful Kate, soon after his arrival, and it was published in 1982. Though considered one of his best books by the time of his 2011 death, its theme of brother and sister incest initially made some uneasy. Whereas Cutter and Bone was an instant hit, Beautiful Kate seems to have grown over time. Uncharacteristically for many of Thornburg's books, Beautiful Kate has a relatively positive ending, perhaps reflecting an inner peace that he seems to have found to some degree once he settled into Seattle. In 2009 it was made into an Australian film directed by Rachel Ward.

Dreamland was released in 1983 and was a bit more conventional, returning to the crime novel theme. It was his last major success. In March 1986 his beloved wife Karin died unexpectedly. Thornburg was devastated and it took time for him to recover, but eventually he began dating again. In 1992 he married Janet Adams, but the two amicably divorced about three years later.

Eventually he began writing again too. It took him a while to get fully back up to par, and it shows in his next book, The Lion at the Door, published in 1990. He dismissed it in his Tangled Web interview as "probably my worst book," but his next book, A Man's Game, was better. Released in 1996, the book is a tale of a father confronting his daughter's stalker -- and slowly morphing into a killer. It's probably the strongest of Thornburg's final three books written after his wife's death, and it even has what he called a "neat little Hollywood ending" (Cornwell).

Thornburg suffered a major stroke in September 1996 -- ironically, while he was having sex; it was an episode that he would have doubtlessly incorporated into one of his books if he'd thought about it. He had already been working on another book, Eve's Men, and even though the stroke left him unable to use the left side of his body, he was determined to finish it. He did, and the book was released in 1998 to mixed reviews.

He lived for more than a decade beyond that, shuttling between various retirement centers in the Greater Seattle area. It wasn't much of a life, and with characteristic bluntness he remarked more than once that it would have been a good time to die when he'd had his stroke. In early 2011 he was diagnosed with cancer and from there the end came quickly. He died on May 9, 2011, in the Seattle suburb of Bothell. His death attracted more attention in Great Britain (where some of his books have been re-released in recent years) than it did in the United States, and at least one British obituary lamented the quiet passing of a "forgotten" writer. This surely would have irked the mercurial Thornburg, because of course he hasn't been forgotten. His work lives on.


Sources: Sam Jordison, "Don't Forget Newton Thornburg," June 23, 2011, The Guardian Books blog accessed March 6, 2016 (http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2011/jun/23/newton-thornburg); Bob Cornwell, "Newton Thornburg," Tangled Web website accessed February 29, 2016 (http://www.twbooks.co.uk/crimescene/thornburginterview.htm); "CPI Inflation Calculator," Bureau of Labor Statistics website accessed March 8, 2016 (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm); "Newton Kendall Thornburg, Jr." Geni website accessed March 6, 2016 (http://www.geni.com/people/Newton-Thornburg/6000000015162792675); "Newton Kendall Thornburg," Prabook website accessed March 7, 2016 (http://prabook.org/web/person-view.html?profileId=354870); Newton Thornburg, Cutter and Bone (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1976); Phil Dougherty interview with Doug Thornburg, March 11 and 28, 2016, Kenmore, Washington.

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