Literacy was not uncommon among early cowboys. While whiskey, gambling, and women are the usual stereotype, accounts of the West show an appetite for reading that also ran deep. Not just dime novels, but anything in print. And that ranged from labels on canned goods to the classics. The Police Gazette was also a favorite, as Charlie Siringo recalled. Even the illiterate could “read the pictures.”
|Bull Durham book list (see larger)|
It’s worth remembering that packets of Bull Durham smoking tobacco came with coupons redeemable for paperbound books. There were, Rhodes says, 303 titles in this library of yellow-backed volumes, mostly fiction, all of them in the public domain. They included Rider Haggard, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, A. Conan Doyle, James M. Barrie, and so on. You can see the entire list here. Since virtually all cowboys smoked, it didn’t take long for a bunkhouse to accumulate its own library.
Meanwhile, Rhodes has said that he grew up in a house with books: Shakespeare, Dickens, Scott, Whittier, Longfellow, Tennyson, Byron, Burns, Poe. And he obviously read them. The framework of his western stories is largely – though not totally– literary. He lovingly embeds the cowboy West into the great tradition of western literature.
There’s also a contemporary feel in them, akin to O. Henry and Twain. Good Men and True has their tongue-in-cheek cleverness in spades. Its plot is improbable and completely believable, because you want it to be, and its down-to-earth characters are thoroughly likable.
|El Paso, 1886 (detail; click here to see entire map)|
The plot. The story takes place in the sister cities of El Paso and Juarez (way out there at the western tip of Texas where the Rio Grande comes romancing out of New Mexico). Our hero is a 36-year-old cowboy by the name of Jeff Bransford. In the opening chapters, he befriends the clerk of a lawyer who owns the ranch where Bransford is foreman. The young clerk’s name, George Aughinbaugh, gets its own sentence.
George has recently arrived from Kansas City and is eager to make a new friend of Jeff. Their familiarity with the classics is quickly evident, and they have an entertaining conversation. Their attention visits for a moment the typewriter that the clerk has been using – that and a typing drill to improve dexterity on the machine: “Now is the time for all good men and true to come to the aid of their party.” Hence the book’s title and its plot in a nutshell.
The plot is set in motion by an attempted murder on the mean and darkened streets of frontier El Paso. Jeff, a witness to the incident, is kidnapped and held hostage in the cellar of a house across the river in Juarez. His captor is no riff-raff, but a wealthy politician and El Paso businessman by the name of Jack Thorpe. There follows a cat and mouse game in which Jeff tries to outwit Thorpe and escape.
|Mac is subdued. Illustration by H. T. Dunn|
The clues are oblique and complex and, not surprisingly, involve the deciphering of literary allusions. But through feats of deduction that would impress the likes of Sherlock Holmes, they finally locate and rescue their friend. It is laugh-out-loud fun. The story was snapped up and serialized by the Saturday Evening Post in January 1910, before its publication as a book.
How western is it? Good question. There isn’t a ranch or a cow in sight. But the remnants of the Wild West that linger in El Paso provide the right ambiance. It’s surely the same El Paso where Pat Garrett hung out at his favorite saloon. In other words, “one awful tough town,” as one character puts it. Still, the story could take place in any city of the time with its share of corrupt public figures.
|U of Nebraska Press, 1987|
They are decent, honest, and good-hearted working men. They’re given to a folk wisdom grounded in cowboy logic, as when John Harding Pringle says, “It’s a long worm that has no turning.” Their observations have the spirit of the West written all over them. As Jeff says of cowboys,
They have to ride and shoot – and speakin’ the truth comes easier for them than for some folks, ’cause if speaking the aforesaid truth displeases anyone, they mostly don’t give a damn.
And there is that attitude in the way the story is told, with its flights of gleeful circumlocution and sudden digressions. Offering a swallow of bottled first aid to George when he falls into excited confusion, J. W. Pringle assures him that it’s
a sovereign remedy for rattlesnake bites, burns, boils, sprains and bruises, fits, freckles and housemaid’s sore knee; excellent for chilblains, sunburn, congestion of the currency, inflammation of the ego, corns, verbosity, insomnia, sleeplessness, lying awake and bad dreams, punctuality, fracture of the Decalogue, forgetfulness, painful memory, congenital pip, the pangs of requited affection, mange, vivacity, rush of words to the head, old age and lockjaw.
And that’s only half the list. You read that comical assembly of mismatched and made-up ailments that range from the frivolous to the existential, and you marvel that it all came from the same mind.
Every chapter begins with a few lines of doggerel or a notable quote reflecting a lifetime of unmoderated reading. At chapter VI, for instance, there’s a snippet from Charles Edward Caryl’s “The Ballad of the Walloping Window Blind” which goes:
The bosun’s mate was very sedate,
but fond of amusement too,
So he played hop-scotch with the larboard watch,
while the Captain tickled the crew.
Characters can speak plainly and profanely, Jeff explains, “with useful words, easy and comfortable, like old clothes and old shoes.” Other times, he says, “my speech naturally rises in dignity to meet the occasion.” And even taken hostage and concerned for his life, he never loses his dignity. Fine language, even on the frontier, is the measure of the man.
Literary? Yes. So let’s call it cowboy lit.
J. Frank Dobie, “A Salute to Gene Rhodes,” in The Best Novels and Short Stories of Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949.
1) Bull Durham book list, digitaldurham.duke.edu
2) Detail of map of El Paso, 1886, wikimedia.org
3) Illustration from 1920 edition, illustrator H. T. Dunn
4) Book cover, amazon.com
Coming up: The first westerns and more on Eugene Manlove Rhodes