Glendon Swarthout was the only child of Fred and Lila Swarthout, a banker and a homemaker. Swarthout is a Dutch name from the area around Groningen, in the Netherlands, and his mother’s maiden name was Chubb, from English farmers of Yorkshire. Swarthout’s academic career was excellent, especially in English, and his writing aspirations were encouraged, for he was a high school debate champion.
In math, however, he floundered, and only a kindly lady geometry teacher passed him with a D so that he could graduate from Lowell High School.He took accordion lessons and occupied his free time with books, for at 6 feet, 99 pounds, he was not good at sports. The summer of his junior year he got a job playing his instrument in the resort town of Charlevoix, on Lake Michigan, with Jerry Schroeder and his Michigan State College Orchestra, for ten dollars per week .
Graduating during 1935, he relocated to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan and became involved music more seriously, forming and singing lead for a four-piece band who played for hops and three summers sequentially at the Pantlind Hotel in Grand Rapids, the largest hotel in Michigan outside of Detroit.
He majored in English at the U. of M., pledged Chi Phi, and dated Kathryn Vaughn, whom he had met when he was thirteen and she twelve,at her family’s cottage on Duck Lake, outside of Albion, Michigan. They were married on December 28, 1940, after both had graduated from the U. of M. and Swarthout was writing ad copy for Cadillac and Dow Chemical at the MacManus, John & Adams advertising agency in Detroit.
After a year of that, Swarthout decided the way to become a writer was to see the world as a journalist. So he signed as a stringer for 22 small newspapers and travelled with his bride on a small freighter to South America, sending home a weekly column of their adventures. While in Barbados, they heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed and tried immediately to get home, but it took them five roundabout months avoiding German U-boats to cruise the East Coast to Manhattan.
Swarthout was refused for the Army’s Officer Candidate School due to being underweight at 117 pounds, so the couple both went to work at Willow Run, the new bomber plant outside of Ann Arbor. Working long days as a riveter on B-24, he wrote his first novel nighttimes during six months. Willow Run, a story about people working in a bomber factory, was published after a rewrite to mediocre reviews. He always acknowledged it as his training novel.
He was healthy enough for an infantry company, however, as the war wore on, and he enlisted in the Army and shipped for Naples as a replacement for the 3rd Division, Audie Murphy’s already war-weary outfit. Awaiting the Anzio breakout on the beach in Italy, he was called out of the line, for his Army identification labeled him a “writer” and division headquarters was looking for one. The 3rd Division moved out of Anzio and captured Rome, and Swarthout later landed in the second wave at St. Tropez and saw his only combat for six days with the battle patrol, the advance, probing troops of the division, getting eyewitness statements for a couple of posthumous Medals of Honor as the unit moved rapidly north into France.When the 3rd Division was about to invade Germany, Swarthout ruptured a disc in his spine while unloading a truck. He was shipped home a sergeant and eventually discharged without surgery and suffered back pain for the rest of his life. He eventually had back surgery on two imploded discs.
During his post-war years, Swarthout returned to the University of Michigan, earning a Master’s degree and began to teach college. During that time his son Miles was born and he won a Hopwood Award for $800 for another novel, promoting him to the University of Maryland for a couple of years where he ghost-wrote speeches for Congressmen and wrote more unpublished fiction. That autumn, he began teaching at Michigan State University and during eight years earned his Ph.D. in Victorian literature during 1955, while his wife got her Master’s degree and a teaching certificate and commenced teaching children in the second grade.
Swarthout began to sell short stories to national publications like Cosmopolitan and The Saturday Evening Post. He was paid $2500 during 1955 for one of these stories, “A Horse For Mrs. Custer,” which became a Randolph Scott low-budget Western for Columbia Pictures during 1956, by the name of Seventh Cavalry. The day after he finished his last doctoral examination he started writing a novel called They Came To Cordura. Its setting was Mexico of 1916 during the Pershing Expedition to capture Pancho Villa, and some of its fictional cavalry troopers had been nominated for Medals of Honor for their valor during the actual last mounted cavalry charge the U. S. Army ever conducted. The book was sold quickly to Random House and then to Columbia Pictures during 1958, becoming one of their major motion pictures starring Gary Cooper and Rita Hayworth a year later. This bestseller and the movie money enabled Swarthout to become a professional writer at last. He was 39 years old.
He completed another novel while still teaching Honors English at Michigan State. Where The Boys Are (1960) was set on the Michigan State campus and was the first comic novel about the annual "spring break" invasion of the beaches of southern Florida by America’s college students. MGM's movie version became the greatest grossing low-budget movie in the studio’s history.
Swarthout went on to write many more novels, some of which were made into movies. He worked on the screenplay of only one, Cordura, at the studio in Los Angeles for six months, before moving from Michigan to Arizona, where he continued to teach English at Arizona State University for four years before retiring to write full-time. Many of his novels were set in either Michigan or Arizona, and some utilized his war experiences.
Besides the movies actually made from his novels, several others have also been sold for filming but never made, among them: The Eagle And The Iron Cross (Sam Spiegel, 1968), The Tin Lizzie Troop (Paul Newman, 1977), and The Homesman (Paul Newman, 1988), as well as a number of movie options, now lapsed, on his many stories. Besides a Hopwood Award and a Theatre Guild Award for his one play, Swarthout was twice nominated by his publishers for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (for They Came To Cordura by Random House and Bless The Beasts & Children by Doubleday), received an O. Henry Prize Short Story nomination (during 1960 for “A Glass of Blessings”), a Gold Medal from the National Society of Arts and Letters during 1972, won Spur Awards for Best Western Novel of the Year from the Western Writers of America for The Shootist (1976) and The Homesman- both novels were written during very slow years, so even though both (particularly Homesman) were poorly written Swarthout won spur awards by default, a Wrangler Award for Best Western Novel of 1988 for The Homesman from the Western Heritage Association, and finally the Western Writers’ Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum (previously known as National Cowboy Hall of Fame) in Oklahoma City during June 1991. The Shootist was the basis of John Wayne's last film of the same name.
Swarthout died in his home in Scottsdale, Arizona on September 23, 1992 from emphysema (he was a life-long smoker).
Anyone born during the first quarter of the 20th century was inevitably marked by the great economic depression of the 1930s. Then WWII profoundly and permanently changed society. Both of these major influences affect Glendon Swarthout’s 16 novels, particularly those set in the Midwest. Welcome To Thebes (1962), Loveland (1968) and Pinch Me, I Must Be Dreaming (1994) depict how the problems of adults affect their children, especially youth trying to adapt to an adult world. Although They Came To Cordura (1958) is set in Mexico at the time of the 1916 border dispute with Pancho Villa, its analysis of the nature of courage was influenced by Swarthout’s wartime experiences. Teaching freshman honors English classes gave Swarthout insight into the mating rituals of college students on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale during spring break, and his successful Where The Boys Are (1960) definitely presaged the anti-war protests that occurred on American college campuses later in the decade. A Christmas Gift (1977, also known as The Melodeon) is an exception to Glendon’s other work in several respects. It suggests a farewell tribute to his Michigan ancestors and his awareness of their tradition of understanding and concern for others.
With the conspicuous exception of A Christmas Gift, all of Swarthout’s novels are infused with a sardonic spirit, usually in respect to examples of the cruelty and viciousness of which man is capable.His greatest bestseller, Bless the Beasts and Children is a good example of this distinguishing literary trait. Another common theme of his writings is his study of courage, the extraordinary heroism of which otherwise common, ordinary men are sometimes capable, given the right circumstances. In setting free a doomed herd of buffalo, the group of mentally disturbed teenagers in Beasts demonstrate valor during harrowing conditions. The style of Swarthout’s writing is fundamentally dispassionate, however, and written in a clear, linear, pictorial style, which is why so many of his stories were adapted well to film. Swarthout was a great admirer of Somerset Maugham (whom he studied along with Ernest Hemingway and Joyce Cary as part of his doctoral thesis in Literature) and humorist Charles Portis, who influenced his writing.
Kathryn Swarthout, the widow of Glendon and mother of Miles, was a former elementary school teacher for five years at Red Cedar School in East Lansing, Michigan, after earning her Master’s in Education at Michigan State University, and B.A. in English from the University of Michigan.
She co-wrote six juvenile novels with her husband and a number of them have been published overseas. Kathryn was also a columnist for Woman's Day magazine with her free-form poetry, Lifesavors, which ran in the magazine for over twenty years. Some of these columns were published in a book of the same title by Doubleday during 1982.
During 1962, Glendon and Kathryn established the Swarthout Writing Prizes at Arizona State University, administered by the English Department in Tempe. These six prizes in both poetry and fiction (with a current top prize of $2700 in each category), have grown until they now rank among the five main awards financially for undergraduate and graduate writing programs given annually at any colleges and universities in America.
Miles Hood Swarthout is a screenwriter. He received a Writers Guild nomination for Best Adaptation for The Shootist during 1976 (the film starred John Wayne and Lauren Bacall). He has adapted a number of his father's novels into films, among them A Christmas To Remember for CBS during 1978. As a journalist, Miles currently reviews Western films for the Western Writers of America’s bi-monthly magazine, The Roundup. He also won a Stirrup Award from that organization for “The Duke’s Last Ride, the Making of The Shootist,” the best article to appear in that publication during 1994.
Miles Swarthout has also written several articles for Persimmon Hill, the quarterly magazine of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, among them “The Westerns of Glendon Swarthout” in the special summer issue from 1996, "Hollywood and the West", as well as in the sequel to this best-selling issue for spring 2000, “America’s First Cinema Cowboy: William S. Hart”.
He edited the only volume of his late father's 14 short stories, Easterns and Westerns, which also included an extensive overview of Glendon’s literary career. Michigan State University Press published Easterns and Westerns in hard cover during the summer of 2001 and it is still in print. Miles Swarthout also wrote The Sergeant's Lady, based on one of his late father's old short stories, and this new novel won the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America as the Best First Western Novel of 2004 (TOR/Forge Books, still in print). He is currently at work on a sequel novel to The Shootist.