Taking Owen Wister’s lead, Coolidge helped create this new genre. So did Zane Grey, whose first western novel, The Heritage of the Desert was also published in 1910, while Riders of the Purple Sage came two years later. Wister might have joined them, but he didn’t. After adapting his novel as a stage play – also well received – he seems to have lost interest in the West.
Coolidge and Grey represent two different impulses within the western genre – the wish to record the West as it really was and the irresistible romance of the Western myth. Coolidge leans toward historical accuracy, Grey toward myth. Given the greater appeal of myth, it’s not hard to understand why Zane Grey is remembered today and Dane Coolidge has been forgotten.
It’s worth mentioning western writer Andy Adams, also writing at this time. His Log of a Cowboy (1903) falls on Coolidge’s side of the equation. It’s a realistic portrayal of a cattle drive that some say was the inspiration for Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1986). Adams knew the West as a working cowboy and wanted it remembered as it was, not as it was being romanticized in Wild West shows and dime novels. Alas, Adams has been mostly forgotten, too.
So, as he worked in the shadow of Owen Wister’s achievement, it’s interesting to see Coolidge creating his own kind of western novel. It certainly borrows from Wister, but it has another kind of story to tell.
Plot and main characters. The plot is what would come to be known as the “range war.” Here we have cattlemen vs. sheep men in what was then present-day Arizona. We are west of Tucson and not far from the Mexican border. It’s desolate, arid, sparsely populated.
Cattlemen have enjoyed free run of the open ranges, but they are being invaded by sheep herds being driven across their grasslands, devouring everything down to the bare earth and rock. Coolidge doesn’t use the modern-day language of environmental impacts, yet as a naturalist, he makes clear the disastrous effects of this kind of overgrazing. Can it be stopped? That’s the central plot line of the novel.
As in Wister, two men meet and become friends. One of them, like the narrator of The Virginian is from “the city,” in this case San Francisco. Young Rufus Hardy is educated and has refined sensibilities; he writes poetry. Unlike his counterpart in Wister’s novel, he’s not a tenderfoot. He has already cowboyed for another outfit and has gentled the horse he rides. Groomed by his Army officer father for a military career, he unfortunately failed to meet the height requirement. Too short, his mother deceased, scorned by his father, and rejected by a girlfriend back home, he is a lost soul trying to achieve manhood.
The other man, Jeff Creede, is a fully certified cowboy, unschooled, unpolished, but of full stature, as such things are measured in the West. The two team up as foreman and superintendent for the absentee owner of a ranch called Hidden Water. Creede is the counterpart of The Virginian, handsome, generous, a top cowboy. There is the expected male bonding between the men, but Coolidge makes them equals in their partnership. Wister’s narrator is so awed by and enamored of his cowboy opposite, some readers have sensed an undercurrent of homoeroticism. That’s far from the case here.
Villains and conflict. Wister’s villain Trampas has his counterpart as well, in the form of two brothers, the sheep men Jim and Jasper Swope. They are undisguised adversaries, though never stepping outside the law. They have full rights to graze their sheep anywhere on public lands, regardless of the cost to the land or the livelihood of the cattlemen. While Trampas is sly and devious, these two guys make no bones about their intentions.
The conflict in both novels is played out as a competition of strategies to gain the upper hand without using firearms. Guns are brandished, but the first man to shoot another becomes an outlaw, and with Tom Horn as a recent example in Wyoming, that’s a step no one is willing to take. Law enforcement may be tenuous, but it’s not the Old West anymore.
All comes to a final confrontation between two men fighting it out on a riverbank – just as there’s the final gun duel in Wister’s novel. In this case, both of our heroes, Hardy and Creede, get to act heroically. It’s not just the cowboy’s show.
Continued . . .
Picture credits: Book cover and illustrations by Maynard Dixon, from the 1910 edition
Next time: The love story and politics