Monday, September 20, 2010

Rex Beach, part 2

Last week I started talking about the short story collection Pardners (1906) by Rex Beach. It’s a mix of stories, some set in the West and some in Alaska, where Beach prospected for gold. I’m sticking with the western stories, since that’s been the focus here so far.

Rex Beach, wearing a Stetson
I actually don’t know whether Beach knew from experience the West he’s writing about. He spent his early and later years in Florida. We can wonder how much he was influenced by reading stories set in the West. Maybe I’ll find out more as I go along.

“The Shyness of Shorty.” This has to be a one-of-kind story. I’ll come back and change this if I ever find another one like it. The central character is a cowboy dwarf. No comic figure by a long shot, he has compensated for his height by being one tough son-of-a-gun.

Show any sign of amusement in his presence, and you’re looking down the barrel of one or both six-guns. He’s also physically strong and a fierce fighter, with the deepest voice of any man in the room. He is so rounded as a character and so not stereotypical, you have to believe Beach knew someone like him.

The story takes place at a roadside inn, where the innkeeper is friendly with a local gang of brigands. A new sheriff has sworn to bring the gang to justice, and as it happens all of the aforementioned characters converge the same night at the inn – including the sheriff’s new bride.

The bride, nonplussed by Shorty’s size, treats him with the kind regard she seems to have for every living thing. He is utterly disarmed by her and nearly unable to speak above a wheeze. Here at last is his Achilles heel.

And the narrative lingers with him, as he struggles with the one condition of his life that he can’t fight or shoot into submission. He may always yearn for the love of a good woman from afar. And so he drinks to dull the pain, and he gets a little tipsy.

Before the night is over – the sheriff’s wedding night – Shorty finds himself rescuing the very man from the hands of the gang that’s come to do him in. There’s an exchange of gunfire with the gang leader – which Shorty survives, thanks to his height. The shot goes over his head, while his own shot nails the other man in the shoulder.

With the gang under arrest, Shorty is offered the reward for their capture, which he accepts only if he can bestow one half on the sheriff’s wife. Meanwhile, he notes that the sheriff’s regard for him is unmarked by either contempt or compassion. And he swells with gratitude, as “here was one who recognized him as a man, an equal.”

It’s almost a sentimental ending, but not quite. There’s no irony either. Beach simply gives the last lines to Shorty as he calls out a goodbye to the departing sheriff and his prisoners.

Chicago stockyards, c1909
“Bitter Root Billings, Arbiter.” One more story, and then I’m done. This story sets a western character in the big city. Bitter Root Billings chaperones a herd of cattle to the Chicago stockyards and while he’s in the Windy City gets himself involved in a labor dispute.

Seems the dockworkers are on strike for higher wages. Traffic on the river has been brought to a complete stop by a fiery labor organizer, Oily Heegan. It’s not a matter of down tools and picket signs. Heads have been broken and blood spilled.

Billings (I picture Sam Elliott in the role) has a western take on the whole ordeal. He is indifferent to the strikers. It’s not his affair. But that changes after meeting the actual Oily Heegan in a downscale bar, and he gets separated in a back alley from the bankroll he’s been carrying.

Heegan is there to influence the judge when his day comes in court. Instead of justice, Billings gets 26 days in the slammer for drunk and disorderly. Which gives him time to work out a way to get even.

He offers his services to operate a tugboat along the river, and with the help of a couple company men, he tows a freighter out to the lake. Strikers line the bridges and pelt them with paving stones and other heavy objects, but the ship not only gets through. Oily has the misfortune of falling into the tug, where he is roundly beaten. By now the strikers are eager to get back to work, and after the public humiliation of Heegan, the strike is quickly history.

Chicago River, 1905
What you get in this story is the western attitude toward organized labor. Where individualism and partnership are held in high regard, collectivism gets no particular respect. There’s a lot betrayed in Billings’ reference to Heegan as “the Idol of the Idle.”

While there’s no animosity for the workingman expressed in the story, Beach does paint Heegan the labor leader as a villain – a thief and a liar. Given what I’ve read about his novels, Beach likes to defend the self-employed little guy who must fight corrupt government workers on one hand and big business on the other.

We found this same theme in Andy Adams’ cattle drive novel, The Outlet. Power corrupts. And given the interest that western writers have taken in codes of behavior and the building of character, this theme should not be a surprise.

Wrapping up. It’s too early to say what Beach has contributed to the western in its early years. However, these stories do show a gift for setting up a situation somewhere under a western sky and quickly building an adventure where men have to live by their wits. All but one of these stories has a first-person narrator, so they seem to belong to an oral tradition rather than a literary one.

The women in these stories are almost but not quite peripheral. Their absence is felt more often than their presence. The young husband in “Pardners” pines away when he hears no news from his wife. Shorty, the cowboy dwarf, is stricken by the loneliness of his solitary life.

Three Chiefs Piegan, Edward S. Curtis, 1900
As we’ve noted, there have been Indians in a couple of the stories. The accidental death of one in “The Mule Driver and the Garrulous Mute” sends one man into a grim fit of silence. Then he reveals to his partner that his own parents were killed by Indians when he was a boy. The Indians in “The Colonel and the Horse-Thief” are considered easy marks by the boys from Texas, until they outsmart the boys at their own game.

As sometimes happens in western fiction, an Asian man shows up, usually as a cook. This occurs in “The Shyness of Shorty,” and he’s used mostly for laughs. The same is true for any African-American characters – and the stereotyping in their case is pretty egregious. Other characters use the n-word in that off-handed way that’s more casually cruel (and to my mind worse) than racist. Meanwhile, a  favorite word for Mexican, “greaser,” appears in one story.

Some readers find this kind of language so off-putting that you wonder whether writers from this era will ever find a modern audience. This is regrettable, as much of their work makes for enjoyable reading and is worth the effort of reviving.

Huck Finn can for the most part get away with using the n-word. But it’s too bad if we can’t figure out a way to come to terms with the loose language we find in these “lesser” writers. One hundred years hence, they never knew they’d be held accountable for the ethnic and racial biases of the world their characters inhabit.

Picture credits:
1) Beach in Stetson,
2) Chicago stockyards, c1909,
3) Chicago River, 1905, Library of Congress,
4) Three Chiefs Piegan, Edward S. Curtis, 1900,

Coming up:
Four Faces West (1948) and Steward Edward White's Arizona Nights (1907)


  1. A dwarf hero. That's kind of cool. Reminds me of the saying. "God made men. Colonel Colt made 'em equal."

  2. I think the use of the words "Greaser" and the N word, have to be taken in the context of the time. Words then as now invoke an era. When I was at school the N word was commonly used, as was other racial slurs.
    However, getting back to the stories, it is a shame that a younger audience will not find the interest and energy so often hidden in the words of these old books.

  3. Charles, yes Colt evened the odds.

    Cheyenne, sometimes all you can do is put a book into someone's hands and say, you'll like this.