Thursday, August 21, 2014

Stephen Crane, The Western Writings of Stephen Crane (1979)

It’s been too long since I read The Red Badge of Courage—if I can say that I really read it the first time. (Literature gets wasted on the young.) I remember the irony of the novel’s premise, but I have no memory of Stephen Crane’s mastery of style, tone, and narrative flow. 

This collection of his western writings, compiled in 1979 for the New American Library, awakened in me both an appreciation for him as a writer and a deep sorrow that his creative life was cut so short, by consumption, at the age of only 28.

The handful of stories (nine, depending on how you count them) are wonderfully told, bright with wry wit and a sensibility that finds dark humor in the lives of ordinary people wading without knowing it into big trouble.

Themes. “The Blue Hotel” is the finest example of that, as four men gather by a stove to play cards in the parlor of a hotel during a fierce Nebraska blizzard. One of them, a Swede, behaves strangely. New to what he believes is the Wild West, he fully expects to be killed by one of the card players.

Emboldened by his fear he accuses the hotel owner’s son of cheating. After beating the boy soundly in a wind and snow swept fistfight outdoors, the Swede leaves the hotel and finds death waiting for him instead at the hands of a gambler at a nearby saloon.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Patricia Grady Cox, Chasm Creek

Fans of historical western romance should find enough to like in this novel set in an Arizona mining camp. The central character, Esther Corbin, has been abandoned by her unreliable and, we learn, faithless husband, leaving her with four children on a hardscrabble farm.

Plot. We quickly learn that this story is a romance because we are soon introduced to a man much kinder and gentler than the run-of-the-mill males who populate the immediate vicinity, the Chasm Creek of the book’s title. Morgan Braddock has been deeply wounded by life on the frontier, and when we meet him, he is a wanted man—wanted for the bloody killing of another man in a fit of rage. 

Cox does not reveal the circumstances of that rage until much later in the novel. By then he has won the heart of the heroine, Essie, who would give both heart and soul to him if she were not already married.

Character. Cox takes an unusual step in her characterization of Braddock by giving him a close friend, a Navajo kidnapped in boyhood and raised in Mexico, where he has grown up with a Spanish name, Rubén, and adopted the Roman Catholic faith. He is now an old man and Braddock’s mentor and traveling companion. They are deeply bonded in their loyalty to each other.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Ruth Roland, The Sheriff of Stone Gulch (1913)

Ruth Roland
Ruth Roland (1892-1937), along with Pearl White, was the queen of the early movie serials. She came from a show business family, and had been a child vaudeville performer when she began a movie career at Kalem Studios in 1909. Over the following two decades, she appeared in more than 200 films and was especially good in westerns and comedies.

In 1915 she had the lead role in a 14-episode adventure serial titled The Red Circle (a birthmark, on the hand of the heroine, noticeable only in times of stress and excitement, forces her to steal, leading to multiple complications and intrigue). After the success of this series, she formed her own production company, making six more multi-episode serials that also proved to be moneymakers. She continued in the movie business until 1930, when she made the first of two talkies before retiring from the screen.

In the following one-reeler, she plays the sweetheart of a man (Pat Hartigan) wrongly involved in a robbery. Her father (Vincente Howard) is the sheriff of the film’s title, and her sweetheart—with a little help from her—has to act fast to clear himself of the crime.

Sunday, August 17, 2014


Summer morning clouds
I do not speak of God in this cancer journal because I know the word is problematic for a lot of readers—as it is for me. Yet I have to admit that reading the words of others, who have given a lot more thought to this subject than I, has helped me come to terms with my mortality and the cancer itself.

A little background: I was brought up in a conservative branch of American Lutheranism I have long characterized as 95% law and 5% gospel. It fostered in me an image of the Almighty as not just a bearded old man in the clouds, but a nearly featureless block of clear ice, aloof and floating in the stratosphere.

I understand that this is as much from biblical teachings absorbed in eight years of parochial school (“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God…”), as a projection of my own excesses of hubris and judgmental disconnection from most of my fellow beings. I even persuaded myself that I was so superior in my perfectionist brand of faith that I planned to go into the ministry myself. Thank God, though I waited for it, I never felt the call.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Glossary of frontier fiction: XYZ
(Yale Mixture – zanjero)

Below is a list of mostly forgotten terms, people, and the occasional song, drawn from a reading of mostly frontier fiction, 1880–1915. Each week a new list, progressing through the alphabet, “from A to Izzard.”

Yale Mixture = a smoking tobacco sold by Marburg Brothers of Baltimore, Maryland. “He preferred Yale Mixture in his pipe.” Frank Norris, McTeague.

yap = a simpleton; a contemptible person, irrespective of class or background. “That yap up there at the top of the hill could have done this for you long ago.” Caroline Lockhart, Me—Smith.

Yaqui = an Indian tribe originally in northern Mexico and now also in Arizona. “My Gosh, he can eat! And a complexion like a Yaqui.” Henry Herbert Knibbs, Overland Red.

yarder = a winch or system of winches powered by an engine and used to haul logs from a stump to a landing or to a skid road. “The yarder came snorting grotesquely down from the dip behind the first ridge.” Vingie Roe, The Heart of Night Wind.

yeggman = safe cracker, burglar, thug. “Observe, the gentleman still keeps his sawed-off yeggman’s delight in his pocket.” A. M. Chisholm, Desert Conquest.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

B. M. Bower, The Phantom Herd (1916)

Novels about the early days of western movies are few and far between. B. M. Bower more than makes up for that in this story of a Hollywood filmmaker, much like William S. Hart (see this week’s BITS review of his Wagon Tracks).

In Bower’s novel, director Luck Lindsay wants to make a film about the real West of the open range days, not the shoot-em-up “bunk” currently being released to the public. As Luck explains:

            For film purposes, the West consists of one part beautiful maiden in distress, three parts bandit, and two parts hero. Mix these to taste with plenty of swift action and gun-smoke, and serve with bandits all dead or handcuffed and beautiful maiden and hero in lover’s embrace on top. That’s your West, boys – And how well I know it!

Scenes, he complains, are shot on cheaply built sets and in scenery no grander than nearby Griffith Park.

Plot. Luck has a script for a feature-length film about real cowboys herding cattle and invites the cowhands from the Flying U ranch in Montana to be his cast, but the studio turns down his script and puts them all to work on another western instead, which they trash by making a farce of it. Thoroughly enjoyed by the usually jaded viewers in the studio screening room, there’s little doubt it will be a moneymaker with the public.

Monday, August 11, 2014

William S. Hart, Wagon Tracks (1919)

Thomas Ince. When he came to Los Angeles from New York in 1911, Thomas Ince (1882-1924) was a 29-year-old actor and aspiring filmmaker. He was hired on by the Bison Life Motion Picture Company to make one-reeler westerns. The Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West show was wintering in Venice, California, when he arrived. Ince hired them, and in one stroke had himself an entire stock company. Next he acquired an acreage in the Santa Monica Mountains for shooting pictures.

Production expanded to the making of two-reelers, the first of them War on the Plains (1912). In Ince’s hands, the scope of the western expanded as well. He wanted to portray the drama of westward expansion and in particular its impact on the native populations. He had empathy for what he saw as the tragedy of the red man. It was an attitude he would share with William S. Hart, a fellow actor he had known in New York.

William S. Hart. In 1914 actor William S. Hart (1864-1946) joined Ince’s company to make westerns of his own. By this time, the market was already becoming glutted with westerns, and Ince had lost interest in them. But he let Hart make two two-reelers, The Bargain (1914) and On the Night Stage (1915). Both did well at the box office, and at the age of 40 Hart began a career as a cowboy actor in the movies.

Hart is often given credit for bringing a depth of new realism to the western. But film historian Jon Tuska argues that Hart’s western setting is little more than a backdrop for a morality drama. We get an example of that in his feature-length film Wagon Tracks, released in 1919.