Author’s note: Sadly, Douglas Heal Thayer passed away just a short time after I had the opportunity to have met him, his wife, Donlu, their daughter Katie and family in person this last summer. Here is his obituary as appears on Association For Mormon Letters web site:
DAWNING OF A BRIGHTER DAY
(WITH 3 COMMENTS BY ANDREW HALL)
We note with great sorrow the passing of author and educator Douglas H. Thayer. Born April 19, 1929 in Salt Lake City, he passed away on Oct. 17, 2017 after a battle with liver cancer. Thayer grew up in Provo, where he spent his boyhood largely running free and hunting, fishing, and hiking in the surrounding Wasatch Mountains. He swam naked in the Provo River and polluted Utah Lake. He later said that swimming in the poisoned lake gave a quick, cheap immunization against every known disease, if you survived.
Thayer dropped out of high school in 1946 to join the U.S. Army, serving in Germany. He came home, attended Brigham Young University for a year, and then returned to Germany for 30 months as a missionary for the Church. While on his mission he was called up to fight in Korea, but was allowed to continue his mission. He later said that while he had no desire to kill or be killed, he felt he missed his war, a great deprivation for a writer who liked Hemingway.
After his mission Thayer returned to BYU, and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English. He applied to law school, but then decided not to attend and started a doctorate in American literature at Stanford. Finding that he had little interest in research, he left the program after finishing a master’s degree.
Returning to Provo from Stanford, Thayer taught in the BYU English Department in 1957-1960, considered studying to be a clinical psychologist, and then started a doctorate in American studies at the University of Maryland. However, still not liking research, he decided that what he really wanted to do was write short stories and novels. He transferred to the University of Iowa, and finished an MFA in fiction writing. During these years, his work experience included helper on a uranium drill rig, construction laborer, railroad section hand, janitor, restaurant dishwasher, insurance salesman, and seasonal ranger in Yellowstone National Park.
After completing the MFA, Thayer returned to BYU, where he taught fiction writing and other classes until his retirement in 2011. He taught at BYU for a total of fifty-four years. He served as Coordinator of Composition, Director of Creative Writing, and Associate Chair in the English Department and Associate Dean of the College of Humanities.
In 1974, at the age of 45, Thayer married Donlu DeWitt, who was then 26. Doug and Donlu had six children in nine years–Emmelyn, Paul, James, Katherine, Stephen, and Michael. They have twenty-one grandchildren. Donlu attended Brigham Young University as an Honors Program Scholar and Karl G. Maeser Scholar, graduating in 1970 as co-valedictorian of the College of Humanities, magna cum laude, Honors Program High Honors with Distinction, with a double major in French and English. She received a master’s degree in American Literature from BYU in 1972. She worked as an editor for BYU Press and was for many years volume editor for the New World Archaeological Foundation. She taught for the Brigham Young University English Department and Honors Program intermittently during 1970–2008. She is the author of two novels, In the Mind’s Eye and The Wall, as well as writing a “Kellie”, a companion piece to Douglas’ short story “Greg”, which was combined into a book and later made into a short movie. In 2004 she graduated from the BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School, where she received the Faculty Award for Meritorious Service. She is a member of the Utah State Bar, and she became a senior editor at BYU’s International Center for Law and Religion Studies.
Douglas Thayer began publishing short stories in the mid-1960s. Later his writing, along with his colleague Donald R. Marshall, came to be recognized as the start of a new stage in Mormon literature, following the “home literature” which appeared largely in Church-owned journals, and the “lost generation” of Mormon and ex-Mormon authors who wrote for the national market in the mid-20th century. Some of Thayer’s stories appeared in non-Mormon literary magazines, including “The Turtle’s Smile” (Prairie Schooner Fall 1970), which was listed in The Best American Short Stories 1971. The majority, however, appeared in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, which began publication in 1966, just as Thayer’s career was beginning. The journal’s founding marked the start of an independent Mormon literature community, which encouraged writing on Mormon themes, but largely without a devotional or missionary goal. The combination of new voices with new publication venues can be seen as the start of modern Mormon literature. Thayer has had at least ten stories published in Dialogue, as well as stories in BYU Studies, Sunstone, and Irreantum.
His first collection, Under the Cottonwoods and Other Mormon Stories (1977), was a key work in the development of a new realistic Mormon fiction. He has had two other short story collections, Mr. Wahlquist in Yellowstone (1989), which contained Western stories without any Mormon references, and Wasatch (2011), which was a mixture of older and newer stories. He saw four of his novels published, Summer Fire (1983), The Conversion of Jeff Williams (2003), The Tree House (2009), and Will Wonders Never Cease (2014), as well as a memoir, Hooligan: A Mormon Boyhood (2007). Thayer had largely completed another final novel, which is scheduled to be published by Zarahemla Books.
While an appreciation of Thayer’s writings has yet to extend nationally, he is highly respected by Mormon literary scholars. Eugene England, the founding editor of Dialogue and later a colleague of Thayer’s at BYU (and a frequent fly-fishing partner), had long been a fervent supporter. He wrote in 1992, “Thayer and Marshall benefitted in their pioneering efforts from two separate influences: they studied modern British and American writers, such as Joyce, Hemingway, Porter, and Flannery O’Connor, and they learned new approaches to Mormon history and culture from the nationally published writers of the lost generation. They also had access to a Mormon audience, critics, and outlets in an expanding intellectual community. They benefitted especially from Clinton Larson, a poet and dramatist who in the 1950s and 1960s became the first Mormon writer to combine excellent contemporary training and natural talent with an informed and passionate faith that he made central to his work . . . As John Bennion has said, “[Thayer] was the first to solve the major problem. He taught us how to explore the interior life, with its conflicts of doubt and faith, goodness and evil, of a believing Mormon.”
England wrote in Dictionary of Literary Biography, soon before his death in 2001, “Douglas Thayer conveys the tragic in American experience that comes from what people and the wilderness have done to each other as well as any contemporary Western writer. From his early story “Red-Tailed Hawk” [England’s favorite Thayer story] through two collections and a novel, and into his latest stories and essays, he displays insight into the particular history of the destructive relationship between mankind and the wilderness in the West, from the arrogant, self-defeating mountain men of the 1830s, intruding into lands and cultures they could not comprehend, to modern men and boys who try, at great cost to themselves and others, to recapture the primitive and merge with wilderness.”
Bruce W. Jorgensen, another BYU colleague, tended to be a bit harder on Thayer than England had been. He wrote in the 1987 article “Romantic Lyric Form and Western Mormon Experience in the Stories of Douglas Thayer” (Western American Literature, 1987), “Thayer’s craft is severe, his style deliberate, chiseled, almost mannered, his tone almost never humorous before the cowboy tall-tales of Summer Fire; his protagonists in the novel and stories alike are upward-mobile Provo boys or men nearly fanatic about righteousness and perfection. As a short story writer, Douglas Thayer seems to have adapted, consciously or otherwise, a major form of Romantic lyric poetry to western Mormon experience and consciousness, but in ways that also question and undercut this form. Thayer’s characteristic strategy in the stories of Under the Cottonwoods, which is to follow the introspective and retrospective processes of a male protagonist through some brief, decisive interval in his life, seems to me a fairly clear translation of what M. H. Abrams has called “the greater Romantic lyric” into the terms of the short story, usually handled in a third-person limited-omniscient or “central consciousness” point of view. This strategy, which may derive most directly from such a story as Irwin Shaw’s “The Eighty-Yard Run” (which Thayer admired and often taught in short story courses in the sixties), so consistently operates in Under the Cottonwoods as to become a sort of signature or hallmark that some readers have found irritatingly repetitive—here’s another “Thayer story.” Insofar as all the stories in the volume do play variations on that strategy, such a response is valid; but perhaps it is also rather like a partially-trained listener’s reaction to a series of string quartets: large similarities of structure and treatment may seem to outweigh subtle differences in texture, key, motif, which only patient re-hearing may disclose . . . Thayer’s later-published stories in Mr. Wahlquist in Yellowstone explore the seductive American myths of “wilderness” from a perspective implicit in LDS theology.”
In his work Thayer treated such topics as pride, grace, redemption, war, hunting and fishing, perfection, materialism, and religious conversion. His stories focused overwhelming on men, particularly young men coming of age, frequently with the backdrop of the Western outdoors. MacEvoy DeMarest has written, “The mountains, rivers and elements of [Thayer’s stories] are maybe more accurately described as characters than as settings. They shape and challenge his protagonists, and in some cases give them their very purpose.”
In recent years, Scott Hales has become one of Thayer’s strongest proponents. In 2012 he wrote, “Thayerian heroes [are] boys who learn all too quickly that the seemingly ordered and secure world around them can also be hostile and unforgiving—even with a loving God in heaven . . . [The stories collected in Wasatch] explore the fragile psyche of Mormon men—arguably Thayer’s uber-theme—through the author’s trademark concise, understated sentences. Absent, however, are the heedless, domineering patriarchs, those stereotypical brutes . . . so prevalent in fiction about Mormons. Thayer’s men feel largely inadequate, wearing their prescribed gender role like an ill-fitting shirt. Or, they feel out of place and time, as if the most important part of their life has somehow slipped away from them, passed unnoticed, leaving them disoriented and nostalgic for the person they once had been . . . Thayer—eighty-three years old and counting—remains a vibrant, relevant force in Mormon fiction. Indeed, I recently had the opportunity to attend a reading where Thayer read and spoke about “Wolves,” one of his finest stories. Hearing him speak about his work, listening to his insights, left me little reason to doubt why he enjoys the reputation that he does. He is twentieth-century Mormonism’s greatest literary chronicler, and the Mormon people–particularly the men he so earnestly and honestly portrays–are better because of him.”
When asked where readers new to Thayer should start, Hales commented, “I’d recommend starting with The Conversion of Jeff Williams, which I think is Thayer’s most accessible and contemporary work–and possibly his best work overall (if it isn’t The Tree House). Hooligans has its moments, but it really is not his best work. The Tree House is excellent, but it has a slow start. Summer Fire is also worth reading, although some readers are put off by the self-righteous narrator. If you haven’t yet read the short stories ‘Wolves’ and ‘The Locker Room,’ I strongly recommend them.”
Thayer’s prizes and awards for his work include numerous Dialogue prizes for the short story and essay, the P.A. Christensen award, the Karl G. Maeser Creative Arts Award, the Utah Institute of Fine Arts Award in the Short Story, a 2011 Whitney Award Lifetime Achievement Award, and six awards from the Association for Mormon Letters. The six AML awards included a 1977 Short Story Award for stories that appeared in Under the Cottonwoods, a 1983 Novel Award for Summer Fire, a 2003 Novel Award for The Conversion of Jeff Williams, and a 2011 Short Fiction Award for Wasatch. He also was given an AML Honorary Lifetime Membership in 1988, and the Smith-Petit Foundation Award for Outstanding Contribution to Mormon Letters in 2008. Thayer’s papers were deposited in the BYU HBLL Special Collections in 2006.
The Deseret News reports that Thayer was diagnosed with terminal lymphoma and given six months to live in November 2015. He defeated the disease but was diagnosed in May 2017 with liver cancer. He passed away at the age of 88.
Lineage: Douglas Heal10 (Edward Allen9, William Shafter8, David7, Ellis6, Jeremiah5, Ebenezer4, Isaac3, Ferdinando2, Thomas1) THAYER.