Celebrated writer Ivan Doig was the author of 16 books of such significance that when he died last April at the age of 75 his eulogists called him a presiding figure in the literature of the American West.
Books aren’t the only thing Doig composed. He also created content that filled dozens of storage cartons: reams upon reams of typewritten notes, scores of neatly filled dime store notebooks, enough neatly annotated 3x5 cards to fill dozens of file boxes, enough clearly labeled folders of clippings, photographs and correspondence to line 100 linear feet, nearly all about his beloved Montana.
That archive, recently acquired by Montana State University, is now being sorted, labeled and prepared for digitizing and public access by the staff of the MSU Library’s Special Collections. As part of the acquisition, the MSU College of Letters and Science will integrate the collection into university teaching and research, including a scholarly conference named for Doig.
Doig, who grew up in White Sulphur Springs and Dupuyer, was a writer of international acclaim who died in April of multiple myeloma. His first book, “This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind,” a poetic memoir published in 1979, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Doig then turned to writing fiction that perennially hit best-seller lists. His final book, “Last Bus to Wisdom,” which was published in August, is still on national bestseller lists.
Although he had lived in Seattle for many years, the lives of his characters more often than not shared Doig’s Big Sky roots. In his obituary, the New York Times wrote that Doig “created a body of work that helped shape our understanding of rural working-class life in the postwar American West.”
“He (Doig) was an old-school author,” said Kim Allen Scott, head of MSU Library’s Special Collections and university archivist, who recently drove to Seattle with fellow librarian, Jim Thull, in a rented van and picked up the Doig collection. “He enjoyed typing on a typewriter… He kept a journal from 1971 until the last week of his life... He prepared his archive for this kind of work.”
Indeed, Carol Doig, Ivan’s widow, recently quoted in a Seattle Times article about her decision to send her husband’s papers to MSU, and back to his native Montana, said that Ivan had “the soul of an archivist.” Certainly, that wouldn’t surprise anyone who has read his carefully plotted, metered prose. Nor would it surprise those who knew Doig, including Mary Ann Gwinn, the Seattle Times’ book editor and a friend of the Doigs.
Gwinn explains that once Ivan died, “(Carol) never wavered in her conviction that Ivan’s work should live on “What I want is to have it globally available so anyone — student, scholar, freelancer — will have it to use,” Carol Doig is quoted in Gwinn’s story,” Ivan Doig’s treasured archives going to Montana college.”
Gwinn notes that Carol considered proposals for accepting Ivan Doig’s archives from three universities — the University of Washington, Stanford University and Montana State.
“In the end, Carol chose Montana State University to take Ivan’s papers. While all three proposals had their merits, Bozeman, home of MSU, is close to where Ivan grew up. It offered the most complete proposal, essentially offering to digitize Ivan Doig’s entire archives,” Gwinn wrote.
Scott said that it is apparent from his careful archiving and annotating of his papers that from the mid-1970s when he began writing short articles for magazines, Doig believed that one day there would be people interested in his papers and in his writing process. Prior to his death, the Doigs contracted with Betty Mayfield, a librarian friend who has worked with several private archives, including Paul Allen’s, to catalog the Doig papers. Mayfield prepared the collection for acquisition.
Shortly after Carol Doig contracted with MSU in September, Scott and Thull drove over to the Doig’s home and picked up the archive. In all, there were 86 archival boxes, 15 bankers boxes, 30 boxes of file cards and much more, including two typewriters (one Royal manual and one classic Olivetti electric portable) that Doig used up until the time of his death and his diplomas from Northwestern (bachelor’s and master’s in journalism) and University of Washington (doctorate in history).
“Ivan used this model of Royal typewriter all during his career as part of the writing process,” Carol Doig wrote in a note that accompanies the Royal typewriter. “It’s a sturdy machine, and when one would wear out, he’d have another ready to go.”
She also detailed her husband’s disciplined writing routine that included research in the field or libraries, details “culled from pocket notebooks,” some relevant details transferred to file cards, then drafts written double-or triple-spaced on the Royal.
“Then he’d go over the page, changing words or phrases, trying them out between lines of the original draft, until satisfied. These pages look more like poetry, and many are to be found in the Collection,” she said.
Scott said that three to four members of the staff are working on processing the collection and sending portions off to be digitized while the remainder will be scanned in house. It will be available to the public in about eight months with the exception of Doig’s journals. Scott said according to Doig’s will and the contract, Ivan Doig’s journals may only be available at MSU Special Collections until Carol’s death, when both of their journals will be digitized and made available to the general public.
A writer until the end, Scott said “Ivan died a couple of days after his last entry.”
“And, Carol added a coda at the end that is quite touching.”
Kenning Arlitsch, dean of the library at MSU, has said the Doig archives are important to MSU because of Doig’s Montana focus in his writings.
“What really struck me was that you could see the whole process of his writing, from the title to the number of words, to the advance he would get,” Arlitsch told Gwinn.
Scott said the Doig collection is also important to MSU because it “allows us to expand our offerings to the work of humanist scholars” – particularly those interested in arts, history and literature.
“Soon, this literally will be available for scholarship around the globe,” Scott said.
Kim Scott (406) 994-6978, firstname.lastname@example.org