Monday, October 4, 2010

Book: The Coming of the Law (1912)

Charles Alden Seltzer (1875-1942) was a prolific western writer, who spent much of his life in Ohio. His stories were inspired by experience on an uncle’s ranch in northeast New Mexico during his teenage years and his early twenties.

Argosy - Seltzer was a frequent contributor
Talk about tenacity. It took over a dozen years of rejection slips before publication of his first short story. The Coming of the Law was his second published novel. And it’s a good one.

Seltzer’s strength in this novel is its plotting. At 378 pages, it’s a substantial effort that never lags or wanders in its focus. It sets up an underlying conflict and then several related complications, building suspense again and again, and resolving everything persuasively by the end. Within the conventions of the western story, hardly any of it seems contrived.

As a storyteller, he’s interested in how character expresses itself through action. There’s just enough depth to everyone to make them believable. But Seltzer doesn’t devote much time to analysis of motives or feelings. As in a movie, he relies on what people do and say to convey all that – showing instead of telling.

The style is much like news writing. It has that kind of sharp clarity, a focus on story, and a second sense about how to cut to the chase and hold the attention of a general audience. He never over-complicates. He is satisfied with the telling detail and knows where to draw the line between enough and too much. (Interesting that his son Louis B., by the way, became the respected editor of the Cleveland Press for many years.)

Seltzer was a blue-collar laborer and an outdoorsman, but he also had an interest in politics. By 1930, he’d been elected mayor of a town on the outskirts of Cleveland. His interest in small-town politics shows through in this novel.

Union County, NM (today)
The story. The basic conflict in the novel is not original. A young Easterner, Hollis, arrives in a small western town in Union County, New Mexico, to inherit his father’s ranch. He discovers that the town and the entire county are controlled by an unscrupulous cattleman, Dunlavey. This guy is a law unto himself, stealing cattle from his neighbors, who are powerless to defend themselves because not only is he a mean bastard – he also owns the local sheriff.

A federal judge has been appointed to the territory. But Dunlavey has so intimidated the citizenry that getting a case to trial and a jury to decide against him is an impossibility.

The twist on this already familiar material is that Hollis also inherits his father’s weekly newspaper. (And you should have seen this coming.) So we get a crusading newspaperman scenario folded into the mix. Hollis takes over the ranch and the newspaper and sets to building both circulation and community spirit. He uses the editorial page to take on Dunlavey.

Democratic-style government doesn’t have much of a chance where the only law is the gun. So Hollis’ objective is to encourage the “coming of the law” to this part of New Mexico. He persuades a man with law enforcement on his resume to run for sheriff against the incumbent who’s securely lodged in Dunlavey’s pocket.

Frontier newspaper office, 1887
A natural politico, Hollis has curried favor with the town’s merchants and the other ranchers in the area. Meanwhile, he’s also used his connections back East to motivate the politicians to take more action. Which comes, ironically, in the form of a more concerted effort to collect taxes and to confiscate property should there be any, like Dunlavey, who refuse to pay.

The election does not come off without a hitch, however. It takes a “citizens’ revolt” from an unlikely contingent of voters to keep Dunlavey from re-electing his man. All of which may not sound all that compelling, but Seltzer wrings the drama out of it. It’s a page-turner.

What I left out. A lot. Here are some of the highlights:

·      Hollis has a romantic interest, Nellie, from a nearby ranch. Though 26 years old, he’s new to affairs of the heart and gradually discovers he’s having softer feelings toward her. Seltzer doesn’t overdo this. He alludes to the moments of growing intimacy between them, truthfully enough, but without going into great detail.
·      Hollis can use a gun, and he wears one, but he is determined on principle not to use it against another man. Instead, he’s lethal in a fistfight and even disarms a couple of assailants who come after him with weapons drawn – disarms them and then beats the crap out of them.
·      The fight scenes are lengthy and detailed. Seltzer gives a harrowing account of a long struggle when Nellie is attacked by a villainous half-breed, Yuma Ed. When Hollis arrives to rescue her, the blow-by-blow description is prolonged and graphic.
·      The rangeland is suffering from a severe drought. Seltzer portrays well the sweltering heat and dust and the drying streams, where cattle die of thirst. Tensions rise as ranchers compete for what little water is left.
·      The range boss of Hollis’ ranch turns out to be married and has opinions about the advantages of married life. The other cowboys on the ranch are single, but it doesn’t prevent one of them, Ace, from writing sentimental verse about women and love. His literary efforts provide some delightful comic relief in the novel.
·      A strength of Seltzer’s style is his consistent use of point of view. We rarely leave Hollis to witness a scene through anyone else’s eyes. He also does not use a narrator, so there aren’t the intrusive comments by the storyteller that we get in other novelists.

Cowboys, New Mexico, 1890 [click to enlarge]
Wrapping up. This is a novel that a kid could read without being developmentally compromised by the violent world of the Old West. Yet an adult reader would not be insulted either. There’s plenty of action and cussing, though the cuss words are all dashes – if you want to figure out what’s been bleeped, just count the dashes. Four dashes? That’s probably SOB.

The romance is nicely suggested for an adult reader who likes a little vicarious love interest, but it’s not all too smoochy for an adolescent. And we have a principled hero who wants to be a good citizen and actively supports the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. He stands for truth, justice, and the American way.

If you faulted the novel, it would be for choosing to avoid ambiguity or irony in the characters or the world of the story. The good people are uncomplicated and above reproach. The bad guys sneer and snarl without let up. The only surprise is when one of them turns out to be not as bad as you thought.

The novel does what the western has done over and over in its history. It offers an optimistic view of human nature and a belief that good, courageous men will eventually overcome bad men. It shows the struggle that paved the way for the peace and plenty readers so fervently assumed was the wave of the future. In 1919, it was made into a film with Tom Mix as Hollis.

Further reading:
Image credits: 
1) Argosy cover, 7 August 1920,
2) Map of New Mexico,
3) Newspaper office, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1887,
4) Photo of New Mexico cowboys, John F. Jarvis, 1890,

Coming up: More cowboy memoirs


  1. A dozen years of rejections. Wow, that is perservernce.

  2. This novel sounds very interesting and might be better than some of Seltzer's other pulp fiction. I have the novel in an omnibus titled, THE GREAT WESTERN SPECIAL: 3 Complete Western Novels by Charles Alden Seltzer. I'll put it on my to be read pile with a note to look up your essay before reading it.

  3. Yep, that is a lot of rejections.

    Btw I really like the Frontier newspaper office. Great old photo.

  4. Charles, 13 years, to be exact.

    Cheyenne, I've read that Seltzer sold his first stories to publications in England. He caught on in the US afterward.

    Walker, this novel did not fit the description of Seltzer's work that's in Tuska's book. So maybe his later work is different.

    Patti, thanks.

    David, I was pleased when I found that pic. I grew up not far from where it was taken. Dusty local towns were full of old buildings like that still being used.

  5. This seems to have the general values of The Virginian. There is a lot of weighing of character, minimal violence, and an effort to include elements of frontier life, like newspapering, country dances, picnics, politics, schools, etc., that largely vanished from later stories when guns took over.