For starters, he grew up in the West, among the orange groves of Riverside County in Southern California. He was educated at Stanford University. And as a young man he did two (I think) cool things. He dropped out of Harvard graduate school because he found New England too dreary, and he married one of his Stanford professors he’d obviously taken a shine to.
Working as a field naturalist and photographer for museums, he knew the Southwest from firsthand experience. He knew flora, fauna, climates, landscapes, and the people who lived and worked in far-flung parts of the deserts, mountains, and ranch country. With his wife, a sociologist, he studied and wrote about Indian tribes. He had a similar interest in prospectors and mining.
He especially knew cowboys, from having worked around them. In addition to his novels, he wrote three nonfiction books about them, one of which is still in print: Texas Cowboys. You can find the other two at used booksellers: Arizona Cowboys and California Cowboys. His ear for language and his observation of social behavior make his books about cowboys richly detailed time capsules of the period.
Read a novel like Hidden Water and you are witness to the way cowboys talked, thought, and behaved in those years right after the turn of the last century. If you’re curious at all and not just reading for the plot, you’ll find yourself looking up words and idioms that crop up in their speech: coon-can, white ribbon boy, hello girl, sandsoap, congress shoes, Keno!, Digger Injun.
Being comfortable in polite company is called being parlor-broke. A man taking a risky swim across a river may say, “Born to be hung and ye can’t get drowned.” You may be surprised to discover that buttinsky is already being used in 1910 for an interfering person. Making hair bridles in Yuma meant doing time in the Territorial Prison – the same prison Ben Wade is headed for in 3:10 to Yuma.
A reference to The Virginian and O. Henry won’t throw you, but Wolfville? And after a quick search you discover a once-popular writer you’ve never heard of, Alfred Henry Lewis (1857-1914), who specialized in western stories and tales of the New York underworld.
Coolidge’s cowboys come in all kinds: “the men that could rope, the men that could ride, the quitters, the blowhards, the rattleheads, the lazy, the crooked, the slow-witted.” The sudden appearance of two marriageable females on a remote ranch get the roundup cowboys all dressed up and competing for attention, “some with a foolish grin, some downcast and reserved, some swaggering in the natural pride of the lady’s man.” Meanwhile, letting a woman handle a man’s gun is a sure sign of having surrendered to her.
You may come across unexpected social customs. At a frontier-town bar in Arizona, it’s expected to offer a round of drinks to all the patrons upon one’s arrival. If a man declines a drink, you offer him a cigar. It’s polite to take the cigar, even if you don’t smoke. If you decline the cigar, you’re declaring yourself an outsider, and someone may offer you a glass of milk, which of course is a putdown.
Cowboy justice may come in the form of being “shapped,” a punishment administered for camp misdemeanors and, in this novel, for sheepherders who have ventured into cowman’s territory. It meant getting bent over and licked across the backside several times with a pair of leather chaps. Cowboys also use their chaps to carry weapons, such as a pistol.
Not all of historical interest is so entertainingly interesting, however. A novel like Hidden Water assumes as given a certain social order considered outdated today. You don’t have to be politically correct to feel uncomfortable with the frequent assumption of white superiority and the ethnic and racial slurs freely expressed by the characters and the narrator.
You’ll find the n-word being used, though there’s not a single African American in the novel. Mexicans, of which there are many, are scorned as “greasers” and regarded with disdain as “low and brutal.” LDS readers may feel less than sanguine about the two villains of this novel. A pair of Mormon brothers, they are shown to be greedy, ill tempered, devious, and unconcerned about the environmental impact of their over-grazing sheep herds.
On the other hand, Indians have been safely cleared from the land and raised to the level of myth and romance. A story is told of how a party of Comanches once rode off into the Superstition Mountains and were never seen or heard from again. This romanticizing of Native Americans as a “vanishing” race is in keeping with the Indian photography of Edward S. Curtis, a contemporary, and the Navajo paintings of Maynard Dixon (who, by the way, designed the cover for Hidden Water and provided four illustrations).
For better and worse, all this is what I mean by “time capsule.” A novel like this gives you not only a lot of historical detail, much of it fleeting and ephemeral, but you get this self-portrait of the country at a specific point in history. In this case, Teddy Roosevelt’s America. This is who Americans thought they were 100 years ago.
That fascinates me. And it makes Dane Coolidge worth reading.
Picture credit: Photo of Dane Coolidge, maynarddixon.org
Coming up: Review of Maynard Dixon, Hidden Water, (1910).