|Charlotte Perkins Gilman, c1900|
It plays a part in the plot as a pocket-size turquoise figurine carried by Jeff Bransford. Its role is occasion for a verse that gets quoted in the novel:
Said the little Eohippus;
“I’m going to be a horse!
And on my middle fingernails
To run my earthly course!”
The lines are from a poem, “Similar Cases,” by American sociologist and writer, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), an early feminist.
You can make a little or a lot out of all this. The oddness of a small horse with toes reflects something of Rhodes himself, the book-reading cowboy with two years of college and a head full of ideas. He also shows no discomfort putting the words of a feminist writer into the mouth of his cowboy hero.
Romance. All of which brings us to the role played by Ellinor Hoffman, the young woman who falls for him and gets him into so much trouble. Of all the early western fiction I’ve read so far (and I’ve still got a ways to go), Ellinor fits most easily into a cowboy world.
|Young Woman in Green, William Glackens, c1915|
She is intelligent and resourceful – in ways we don’t fully appreciate until the end of the novel. She’s also “finished,” in the way that word used to mean. Pretty as a picture, clever, witty, and a match for Bransford. She falls in love with him at first sight, as he does with her.
The nearest thing like them is B. M. Bower’s two sweethearts in her Chip of the Flying U. Only her story is more of a ranch romance. Bertrand Sinclair, in Wild West, also has this kind of love-story somewhere in mind, but the sweetheart of his cowboy hero is a marginal character. Added value, but not central to the story.
Owen Wister may also have been trying for this kind of romance. The Virginian has a similar chivalrous respect for a woman’s honor. Just as he lights into Trampas for an ungentlemanly remark about the schoolmarm, Jeff defends Ellinor. After an ungracious remark by a companion, he says, “If you slur that girl again I’ll not shoot you – I’ll naturally wear you out with this belt.”
But Wister’s romance is weighed down under class differences and the old East vs. West debate. His schoolmarm Molly is hard to like, and the Virginian’s affection for her hard to fathom. When she finally agrees to marry him, it’s only after he’s exhausted all her defenses.
I’m guessing we’re seeing two influential women from Rhodes’ life in his fictional Ellinor. One is his mother, a woman well educated by nineteenth-century standards and something of a free-thinking activist during her lifetime. The other was his wife, a widow with two sons, who first came to know him through his poetry.
|The Real Thing, 1900|
They fell in love at long distance through the U.S. mail. From the evidence, she was also no shrinking violet, but a force in his life that got him to leave New Mexico to live near her family in upstate New York. She also stood by him through what must have been difficult years of marriage – Rhodes was no great provider. And she’s remembered as a generous keeper of his literary legacy after his death.
The romance between Bransford and Ellinor is greatly idealized, but it reveals a lot about Rhodes’ view of women. They can be both disarming and irresistible, yes, but Rhodes doesn’t just idealize them. If Ellinor is any example, they are easily the equal of men in intelligence and courage. Maybe even a little more than equal.
More fun. Rhodes apparently has long had a following among readers familiar with the cowboy West. Hard to put your finger on it, but it surely has something to do with his kind of ironic, tongue-in-cheek humor. With his love of language, he can surprise you with where he’s going with a sentence.
When Jeff and Ellinor first meet, the “delicious intimacy” quickens his pulses “to a pleasant flutter” and causes “a certain tough and powerful muscle to thump foolishly at his ribs.” The organ under question goes unnamed there, but you understand that his physical reaction affects not just his heart.
|Photo by Erwin Smith, 1909|
Rhodes’ narrator occasionally interrupts the telling of the story to chime in, reminding us of ourselves, his readers. After Jeff persuades her to sing him a song, Rhodes declines to describe the sound of it:
No, you shall not be told of her voice. Perhaps there is a voice that you remember, that echoes to you through the dusty years. How would you like to describe that?
By that question, I think we are invited to participate in imagining the scene ourselves. Later, when Billy, a young rival of Jeff’s affections, makes an extra effort to arrest Jeff after the robbery, the narrator playfully butts in again:
How old are you sir? Forty? Fifty? Most actions are the result of mixed motives, you say? Well, that is a notable concession – at your age. Let it go at that. Billy, then, acted from mixed motives.
Later again, when Jeff is giving the prospector’s camp a lived-in look, the narrator remarks:
He took the little turquoise horse from his pocket and laid it in the till of the violated trunk. Were you told about the violated trunk? Never mind – he had done any amount of other things of which you have not been told.
Talk about withholding information. And Rhodes pulls a fast one as Jeff befriends two of the men who are part of the search party looking for him. After he presents himself as a prospector by the name of Tobe Long, the point of view shifts to Griffith, one of the two men.
For pages, we observe Jeff only through the eyes and gut feelings of Griffith, who is torn first this way and that by his suspicion that this prospector is really the Jeff Bransford they’re looking for. Dramatic irony is often fun, and this is a cleverly entertaining example.
The narrative voice in Rhodes stories reminds me a lot of Baxter Black and any number of modern-day cowboy poets who are masters of ironic storytelling. They use the same verbal flights to pump drama into humorous accounts of everyday western life. Here a horse named Goldie throws Jeff Bransford/Tobe Long:
Mr. Long sat in the sand and rubbed his shoulder: Goldie turned and looked down at him in unqualified astonishment. Mr. Long then cursed Mr. Bransford’s sorrel horse; he cursed Mr. Bransford for bringing the sorrel horse; he cursed himself for riding the sorrel horse; he cursed Mr. Griffith, with one last, longest, heart-felt, crackling, hair-raising, comprehensive and masterly curse, for having persuaded him to ride the sorrel horse. Then he tied the sorrel horse to a bush and hobbled on afoot, saying it all over backward.
Details. Despite the adventure and romance in the story, it has a lived-in feel as well. The landscape is so meticulously detailed, readers today say they can pick out the views of the Tularosa Valley Rhodes is describing. His description of the mining camp reveals a photographic memory for detail as well. Right down to the miner’s supper of canned corn fried in bacon grease.
I’ve got a bunch more post-its sticking out of my copy of this novel for details that want to be included here, but I’ll end with this one. I think it sums up Rhodes perfectly. As Jeff is crossing the Rio Grande, he takes a book from his pocket and puts it under his hat, to keep it dry. The book is Alice in Wonderland.
W. H. Hutchinson, “The West of Eugene Manlove Rhodes,” Arizona and the West, 9,.3 (1967), 211-218.
W. H. Hutchinson. A Bar Cross Man: The Life and Personal Writings of Eugene Manlove Rhodes. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
Image credits: All images from wikimedia.org
Coming up: Rex Beach and more early western movies