Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Book: Heart of the West, part 2

Yesterday, I started this commentary on some O. Henry stories that were set in the West. Today I’m talking about his use of realistic detail and his portrayal of romance in these stories. 

Realism. Don’t get the idea that O. Henry is just spinning yarns with no regard for the actual West they take place in. They are full of flourishes that come from direct observation. 

For one example, here’s his description of a rattlesnake-infested prickly pear flat in “The Caballero’s Way.” Texan folklorist J. Frank Dobie says there’s never been one described better.
With dismal monotony and startling variety the uncanny and multiform shapes of the cacti lift their twisted trunks and fat, bristly hands to encumber the way. The demon plant, appearing to live without soil or rain, seems to taunt the parched traveler with its lush gray greenness. It warps itself a thousand times about what look to be open and inviting paths, only to lure the rider into blind and impassable spine-defended “bottoms of the bag,” leaving him to retreat, if he can, with the points of the compass whirling in his head.
Prickly pear cactus
You can’t make this stuff up.
For more examples, there’s a collection of utterly believable cowboys in “The High Abdication,” in which a tramp is discovered to be a ranch owner’s long lost son. The story is improbable, the turns of plot likely only in a comic universe. But it’s grounded in realistic details of a sharp-eyed observer with a photographic memory.
Homeless and broke, his tramp Curly wanders along in a “drizzling, cold Texas rain,” described by O. Henry as “an endless, lazy, unintermittent downfall that lowered the spirits of men and raised a reluctant steam from the warm stones of the streets and the houses.”
Curly gets in out of the weather and finds a warm, dry place in a wagon. The wagon delivers him while he sleeps to a ranch far from town, where six desperate cowpunchers are waiting impatiently at the ranch store for a delivery of tobacco. “The boys were smokin’ cut plug and dried mesquite leaves mixed in when I left,” one reports.
Illustration for "The High Abdication"
Meanwhile, the storekeeper “stood in the door, snapping the red elastic bands on his pink madras shirtsleeves and looking down affectionately at the only pair of tan shoes within a forty-mile radius.” When he explains that what he thought was his last case of tobacco “happened to be” something else, one of the cowboys says, “You’ve sure got a case of happenedicitis.”
The desultory conversation goes on as the cowboys wait, lounging on the front step and watching the road from San Antonio for a sign of the supply wagon. To pass the time, they order up cans of fruit to eat, which the storekeeper opens with a hatchet. “For a while,” we are told, “the only sounds to be heard at the store were the rattling of the tin spoons and the gurgling intake of the juicy fruits by the cowpunchers.”
At moments like this, O. Henry lets his horses graze while we simply absorb the local color. The real world rushes in to fill the narrative space with sweet detail. Then, as when the supply wagon finally arrives, we’re off again into improbable turns of events that entertain us with their contrived conflicts and unexpected resolutions.
As Curly is put to the test as a new hand on the ranch, he gets hazed by the other cowpunchers. They give him their version of the silent treatment for three days. Then they roughly wake him from sleep with gunfire and dragging a saddle over his bedroll, giving him a chapping when he protests. After an hour of this, they finally welcome him as a “stirrup brother.” You can tell that O. Henry was fully familiar with the rules of fraternal camaraderie on the range. 
Lt. Sandridge from "The Caballero's Way"
Romance. Many of the stories are, in fact, about courting. We have already mentioned the tender love that springs between ranger lieutenant Sandridge and his Mexican sweetheart in the Cisco Kid story, The Caballeros Way.” Hearts are deeply bruised, however, by an outlaw’s cunning. One, in fact, stops beating forever.
In “The High Abdication” there are separated lovers who meet half way between the ranches of their long-feuding families. Their secret meetings are related in a high dramatic style. Alas, loyalty to family trumps the desires of the heart. She will always be his “halfway” girl. It could be opera – well, horse opera anyway. “Ride carefully over them badger holes,” he says as they part.
Normally in these stories, the romance is occasion for far broader comedy. In “The Pimienta Pancakes,” a chuck wagon cook competes with a sheep man for the affection of a local woman.  Whenever he tries to persuade her to surrender the secret of a pancake recipe, she demures. She’s been told, he finally learns, that he’s mentally unstable and talk of pancakes can bring on a psychotic episode. She swiftly marries the other suitor.
In another story, “The Handbook of Hymen,” two friends vie for the affections of a woman, promising that whichever of them she chooses, they will remain best friends. Their “dates” are thus always three-somes, so that neither of the men gets an unfair advantage. (We’re already beyond the realm of probability, you may have noticed, but this is O. Henry, and you say, “OK, then what happens?”)
One of the men tries to impress her by waxing poetic without letup. The other recites facts to her from a reference book he’s memorized. A starry sky occasions a lecture, for example, on the time it takes for starlight to reach Earth. Finally, when he saves her from a burning house and gives her the wrong remedy for smoke inhalation, she doesn’t seem to mind. You get the sense that she’s been partial to him all along – facts or no facts.
Making room for romance in his stories, O. Henry creates a comic world that’s different from the Wolfville of Alfred Henry Lewis. Similar in many other ways, their stories diverge on this subject of gender relations. O. Henry’s men may do it clumsily, but they make an effort to meet women half way. Lewis’ men prefer their exclusive male fraternity.
"Last of the Troubadours" published July 1908
Wrapping up. This is not meant to be the final word on O. Henry. The man wrote over 300 stories (one source says 600), most of them during a single decade. They were published in newspapers and magazines, such as Munsey’s Magazine, Everybody’s Magazine, and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World magazine. Some appeared again in ten published collections. Amazingly, he achieved this despite being a serious alcoholic and dying at the age of 47. (Lewis’s was a similar story.)
Proper evaluation of his work and his contribution as a storyteller would go far beyond the cursory reading I have given to a handful of his stories. But he needs to be included here as an early writer about the frontier West.
How he fits in is hard to say. He did not contribute to the outpouring of novels about the West after Wister’s The Virginian. His stories seem more a part of an established tradition of journalistic writing. But to be honest, I’m just guessing. I need to do some more reading about him.

Further reading. O. Henry’s stories are in the public domain today and many can be found online. A selection of 70 stories is available here. A selection of 271 stories can be found here.

You can read the original of “The Pimienta Pancakes” as it appeared in McClure’s Magazine, December 1903, illustrated by Frederic R. Gruger.
Picture credits:
1) Prickly pear, alexandgregory.com
2) Story illustrations, 1993 edition of Heart of the West
3) Magazine cover, philsp.com

Coming up: Review of The Left Handed Gun (1958)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Book: Heart of the West

O. Henry
O. Henry was the pseudonym of short story writer William Sydney Porter (1862-1910). Given a casual acquaintance based on “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief,” you may not think of him as a writer of westerns. In a way, he was.

A good many of his stories are set in the West. Though a native of North Carolina and at the end of his life a New Yorker, he lived in Texas for health reasons for fourteen years during his twenties and early thirties (1882-1896). After two years there on a sheep ranch, where he learned to ride and shoot, he settled in Austin, working as a pharmacist, draftsman, and bank teller.

The bank job led to a turn of fortune straight out of one of his stories. History remains unclear about the facts of the case, but after an investigation, a federal court found him guilty of embezzlement. He then left Texas to serve three years of a five-year sentence in the Ohio pen. There he began publishing stories under various pen names – among them the one that remained his nom de plume, O. Henry.
Ohio State Penitentiary, Columbus, Ohio
Style. A collection of his stories set in the West appeared in 1907, called Heart of the West. Imagine Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville yarns (reviewed here a while ago) read aloud by W. C. Fields, and you’ll get something of their spirit.
Like Lewis, O. Henry loves wordplay. He will put together a long shopping list of things that would not normally end up together:
Me and Mack would light our pipes and talk about science and pearl diving and sciatica and Egypt and spelling and fish and trade winds and leather and gratitude and eagles, and a lot of subjects that we’d never had time to explain our sentiments about before. “The Ransom of Mack”
It doesn’t have to be a long list either. Here he makes a point about how lapses in conversation are not unusual among Texans:
In Texas discourse is seldom continuous. You may fill in a mile, a meal, and a murder between your paragraphs without detriment to your thesis. “Hearts and Crosses.”
Like Lewis, he can freely mix regionalisms, slang, and occasional flights of inflated diction for humorous effect. Clarity is flung to the winds when a simple insult, for instance, must surrender to this kind of expression:
I never exactly heard sour milk dropping out of a balloon on the bottom of a tin pan, but I have an idea it would be music of the spears compared to this attenuated stream of asphyxiated thought that emanates out of your organs of conversation. “The Handbook of Hymen”
Here one of his characters explains to his friend how he’s never really understood women:
I never had the least amount of intersection with their predispositions. Maybe I might have had a proneness in respect to their vicinity, but I never took the time. I made my own living since I was fourteen; and I never seemed to get my rationcinations equipped with the sentiments usually depicted toward the sect. I sometimes wish I had. “The Ransom of Mack”
After all that verbal meandering, I love the directness of those last five words. They are the unvarnished expression of a simple, poignant truth.
The characters in his stories reach for phrases from Latin and other languages, as well as classical allusions, often maladroitly. We’ve already seen “the music of the spears” above. As a further example, Homer’s Scylla and Charybdis come out as Squills and Chalybeates. The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam gets mangled into Ruby Ott and Homer K. M.
As characters reach for more elevated language, the malapropisms multiply. A lady friend tells a man that his friend is no gentleman, then objects when he tries to raise a defense. “It’s right plausible of you,” she says,” to take up the curmudgeons in your friend’s behalf; but it don’t alter the fact that he has made proposals to me sufficiently obnoxious to ruffle the ignominy of any lady.”

Friday, August 27, 2010

Casual Friday

Goodbye, summer. This pic of the desert sky was taken on August 1 from my side yard. It will be one of my memories of the summer that was. Today I’m looking back over the last three months as I started this blog.

In that time I’ve become acquainted with many of you through your posts, your fiction, and your pictures. I’ve enjoyed your enthusiasm for writing and storytelling and the introduction to the world of pulps – which I knew almost nothing about until I read Laurie’s book about her grandfather back in May.

That book, in fact, was what got me here in the first place. I came across it browsing through the LA public library’s online catalog. And, lo, there was even a copy of it on the shelf of my local branch. Google then led me to Laurie’s blog as the summer began. Then, as if it had been waiting to happen, there I was starting Buddies in the Saddle.

Three months later, this is a big thank you to everybody who welcomed me here. It feels sometimes like having joined a fraternity – without the hazing and the beer, of course, but happily coed and communal.

This blog started out as daily comments about the cowboy West as I’ve found it in books and movies. It has evolved into something I didn’t expect.

During the summer, I learned there were not three or four but many short story writers and novelists writing “westerns” in the first years of the last century. It’s easy to see them as working with that same burst of enthusiasm for storytelling that a visitor can feel here among all of you 100 years later. The prospect of getting one’s arms around all that wild and woolly creative activity began to have an irresistible appeal for me.

Then a chance remark by one of you commenting on a post of mine was the jolt that got the penny to fall in the slot. I realized that these blog entries were becoming the early rough drafts of what wants to be a book.

So I’m committing here today to that objective. It’s going to be a big job, and it is going to compete with the other big job I have, teaching writing to college students. But as I add to this blog, you’ll know I’m making progress.

Thanks, again, to everyone who has helped this whole project come into being. It has been fun so far, and I hope some of that pleasure comes across in my posts here for you to enjoy as well.

Coming up: O. Henry's Heart of the West

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Old West glossary

Montana cowboys, c1910
I’ve been collecting words and phrases again from these books I’ve been reading from 100 years ago. As I’ve got a wheelbarrow full, I’m going to empty it here and go back for more. Credit for assistance in this linguistic sleuthing once again goes to Ramon Adams’ The Cowboy Dictionary, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang and dictionary.com. Two words I never ran down were jookalorum and zizzaparoola. They’re both from O. Henry, and my hunch is he made em up.

For a consolidated list of all BITS Old West glossaries, click here.

See also:
Old West glossary of strong drink
Old West cuss words

A to Izzard = A to Z. “One man who don’t know nothin’ about prospectin’ goes an’ stumbles over a fortune an’ those who know it from A to Izzard goes ’round pullin’ in their belts.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

all wool and a yard wide = genuine, not fake, honorable. “‘I never denied you much,’ he looked down at her. ‘But the man that gets you’s got to be all wool an’ a yard wide.’” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

arnica = an herbal remedy for muscle aches, inflammation, and wounds. “Some men grab at it so much like they was going to set a dislocation of the shoulder that you can smell the arnica and hear ’em tearing off bandages.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

asafetida = a foul-smelling medicinal herb used as a remedy for variety of complaints from stomach pains to flatulence. “Some take it up like a hot horseshoe, and hold it off at arm’s length like a druggist pouring tincture of asafetida in a bottle.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

beard = to confront boldly. “He felt that Mark would not risk bearding both himself and Dan Mayne on their own ground.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

botts = a parasitic infestation of the intestines of animals, especially horses, by larvae of the botfly. “Why, once over on Snake River, when Andrew McWilliams’ saddle horse got the botts, he sent a buckboard ten miles for one of these strangers that claimed to be a botanist.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Branding cattle, South Dakota, 1888
buck and wing = a kind of tap dance. “In the center of the room was a large man dancing a fair buck-and-wing to the time so uproariously set by his companions.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

buck at faro = probably a reference to the phrase “buck the tiger,” associated with the game of faro played in frontier saloons. “What’ll we do – take in the Niagara Falls, or buck at faro?” O. Henry, Heart of the West

bump of location = in phrenology, the ability to recognize place and find one’s way. “MacRae’s bump of location was nearly as well developed as Piegan’s.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

burn powder = fire a gun. “For a breath Robin thought Shining Mark meant to burn powder at last and he stiffened in his tracks, half turned, ready.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

cañada = (Spanish) a sheep camp or ranch. “. . . just the logical disclosures in the case of me and that pink-eyed snoozer from Mired Mule Cañada. O. Henry, Heart of the West

cap-a-pie = head to foot, complete. “In a week the J7 was cap-a-pie – fourteen cow-punchers, two horse wranglers, a capable cook, wagons stocked with grub.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

chaffing = teasing, bantering (also chaffering). “I was prepared to hear a good deal of chaffing about getting lost.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

cocktail = the short watch on herd between supper and dusk. “That evening Steele assigned him to ‘cocktail’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

coma mott = small grove of trees. “I used to see her in that coma mott back of the little horse corral.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Colorado-claro = light brown (said of cigars). “She made a good, mild, Colorado-claro wife.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Frederic Remington, 1895
crack-loo  = a form of gambling in which coins are tossed high into the air with the object having one's coin land nearest a crack in the floor. “Then they would order three or four new California saddles from the storekeeper, and play crack-loo on the sidewalk with twenty-dollar gold pieces.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

cut ice = be important, carry weight. “But you cut a lot of ice in this country, or your dad does, and it’s the same thing.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

cut up didoes = play pranks. “But you ain’t a-helpin’ yourself a-cuttin’ of didoes like this.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

dragging the long rope = “a range euphemism for stealing other men’s cattle, specifically unbranded calves.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

galley-west = askew, confused, lopsided. “That scheme was knocked galley-west and crooked.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

gazabo = a fellow, a guy (derogatory). “‘That long, stoop-shouldered gazabo’s got the stuff on him,’ he growled.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

heeled = armed, wearing a gun. “Maybe he’d ’a’ got me if I’d been heeled.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

hop the twig = make a hasty exit. “If I catches Birdie off of Mired Mule again, I’ll make him hop the twig.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

Ishmael = an outcast. “Months in a strange country had taught Robin that he was not the stuff of which an Ishmael is made.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

Cowboys in the Badlands, Thomas Eakins
jacal = (Spanish) a small house or shack built by driving vertical stakes into the ground and filling in walls between the stakes with adobe. This quarter of the town was a ragged edge; its denizens the bubbling froth of five nations; its architecture tent, jacal, and 'dobe.O. Henry, Heart of the West

kalsomining = applying a whitewash to ceiling or walls. The bartender rounded the bar in a casual way, looking up at the ceiling as though he was pondering some intricate problem of kalsomining.O. Henry, Heart of the West

megrims = depression, unhappiness. “Overtaken by the megrims, the philosopher may seek relief in soliloquy.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

oil of bergamot = an ingredient of perfume extracted from bergamot oranges. “In a few minutes Paisley drops around, with oil of bergamot on his hair, and sits on the other side of Mrs. Jessup.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

opodeldoc = a camphorated liniment of soap mixed with alcohol. “‘I’d assault a bear that was annoying you,’ says Paisley, ‘or I'd endorse your note, or rub the place between your shoulder-blades with opodeldoc the same as ever’. O. Henry, Heart of the West

orchestrion = a mechanical music-making device. I see in St. Louis once what they call a orchestrion.O. Henry, Heart of the West

perdu = hidden, concealed. “Until after the noon hour we laid perdu in the hollow, no wiser for our watching.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

Picketwire = Purgatoire River (River of Lost Souls) in southeast Colorado. John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance claims to be the best gun south of the Picketwire. See legendsofamerica.com.

play hunk = get even. “‘Th’ wall-eyed piruts,’ he muttered, and then scratched his head for a way to ‘play hunk’.” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

Texas Jack Omohundro
pound one’s ear = to sleep. “Gee whiz, I’m sleepy! I’m goin’ to pound my ear again.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

put the skibunk on = impose, defraud. “I couldn't let him put the skibunk on you.O. Henry, Heart of the West

seidlitz powder = a medication made by mixing powders of sodium potassium tartrate, sodium bicarbonate, and tartaric acid, used for its laxative effect or to treat hangovers. Him and me seen the elephant and the owl, and we had specimens of this seidlitz powder wine.O. Henry, Heart of the West

saleratus = sodium bicarbonate (or sometimes potassium bicarbonate) as the main ingredient of baking powder. “It is not to be expected that a guest should put up with wheat coffee and biscuits yellow-streaked with saleratus for longer than that.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

shebang = hut, house, home, quarters. “There was a kind of sheebang – you couldn’t call it a hotel if you had any regard for the truth – on the outskirts of Walsh, for the accommodation of wayfarers.” Bertrand Sinclair, Raw Gold

singlefoot = a rapid gait of a horse in which each foot strikes the ground separately. “By the time he gets half a mile out of Pimienta, I singlefoots up beside him on my bronc.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

skypiece = brains. “If you only got a twice-by-two skypiece all the schoolin’ in the world won’t land you on top of the heap.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

snoozer = sheep or sheep man. “He’d been raised a cow pony and didn’t much care for snoozers.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

spite house = a building constructed or modified to irritate neighbors or other property owners. “'Twas a ranch country, and fuller of spite-houses than New York City.” O. Henry, “The Hiding of Black Bill”

steam piano = calliope. “Too chivalrous to surprise and capture a town by silent sortie, he paused at the nearest corner and emited his sloganthat fearful, brassy yell, so reminiscent of the steam piano.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

stirrup cup = a last drink before leaving. “They would ordinarily have found some of the outfit, perhaps have played stud poker an hour or two, taken a stirrup cup and departed.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

strangler = killer. “I don’t want no strangler work on this range, nor shootin’ – unless deputy sheriffs do the shootin’.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

XIT cowboys, 1891
sudaderos = saddle blankets or pads. “We stopped in San Antonio long enough for Solly to buy some clothes, and eight rounds of drinks for the guests and employees of the Menger Hotel, and order four Mexican saddles with silver trimmings and white Angora sauderos [sic] to be shipped down to the ranch.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

tanglefoot = whisky. “‘Yu ask Buck where yore tanglefoot is.’ ‘I’d shore look nice askin’ th’ boss if he’d rustled my whisky, wouldn’t I?’” Clarence E. Mulford, Bar-20

under the rose = in secret, privately, in a manner that forbids disclosure. “Tommy had started it, and he might conclude that it wasn’t worth following up – or at least inaugurate his private war under the rose, so to speak.” Bertrand Sinclair, Wild West

wear the willow = mourn the loss of a lover. “It seems to  me it’s time for you to wear the willow and trot off down the hill.” O. Henry, Heart of the West

For more, click on "Old West glossaries" under "BITS topics" in the left sidebar.

Picture credits: All images from wikimedia.org

Coming up: O. Henry’s Heart of the West

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book: Wild West, part 2

More about Bertrand Sinclair’s 1926 novel Wild West. Today we are looking at the role of romance in the story and the portrayal of cowboy life on the open range.

Romance. Instead of male companionship, what Sinclair offers his hero Tyler is the less certain support of a romantic interest. In Raw Gold, romance was hardly a long suit for Sinclair. And in 1926 his romancing cowboy is still an uncomfortable fit with the rest of the story.

When we first meet Tyler, he has a kissing and hugging acquaintance with his boss’s daughter, Ivy. Almost from the start, it’s hard to like her. She’s a clinger (and aptly named) and also emotionally volatile, ready to fall into a jealous fit at the drop of a hat. Manipulative, she tries to play the villainous Steele against Tyler. You wonder how Tyler has the patience to put up with her. Dane Coolidge’s hero has similar female problems in Man From Wyoming. Could be that ranchers’ daughters are thin on the ground, and a working cowboy takes whatever he can get.

Sutherland’s daughter May also takes an interest in our young hero, but in a wait-and-see, almost platonic way. You like her because she’s independent and intelligent, not in a big rush to get hitched to a man. Tyler realizes that he likes her, too, but is promised to this clinger Ivy. So he’s got himself a situation with a good set of conflicting feelings going. Meanwhile, you’re looking at the options and thinking, this should be a no-brainer.

Romance in the movies, 1926
You’re not going to read this book anyway, so I won’t bother with a spoiler alert. While Tyler is off feeling miserable in Seattle, Ivy is seduced, abandoned and “in trouble” thanks to Steele. By this time, he and May have become an item. And by the end of the novel, they seem to make a good match.

But romance still seems shoe-horned into the more compelling central story. It’s nice that our hero gets to indulge a few warm feelings about a girl now and then. And he can get his back up when Steele literally steals Ivy away. But romance remains mostly window dressing in the novel. As it draws attention to itself, it seems more an intrusion than added value.

The cowboy West. I got into this whole business of reading these post-Virginian novels from an interest in the actual rather than mythical cowboy. Sinclair’s knowledge of open range ranching and being a working cowboy makes this an appealing read for me. Details drawn from first-hand experience of the cowboy West play a part in the plotting, the characterization, and the realism.

Charles Russell, Men of the Open Range, 1923
He describes the little town of Big Sandy, “a huddle of unpainted buildings” in a “great, gray stretch of sagebrush” (p. 29). He notes how as the autumn weather turns colder, cowboys “grumble and wipe the hoar frost from the seats of their saddles before mounting” (p. 78).

A dance held in a schoolhouse brings together cowboys and local rangefolk. Even as the plot moves forward, Sinclair takes time to fully set this scene. We know the fiddler is OK, but not great. Starved for this kind of social gathering, nobody seems to mind. Cowboys compete for the attention of the available dance partners. The women put together a meal of sandwiches and coffee, and the music stops for a while as everyone takes supper.

Outside in the summer night, there are buggies, spring wagons, and horses waiting for the return trip home. Beyond them in the shadows men are sipping from bottles of alcohol. There might be a fistfight, and as the night wears on, some of the women may leave as cowboys get drunker and rowdier. It is dawn before the dance is over. All this has the vividness of lives once lived.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Book: Wild West

At some point a while back these blog entries began to look more and more like book chapters. As the saying goes, if I had more time I’d have written them shorter.

I wrote last week about Canadian novelist Bertrand Sinclair, who burst on the scene in 1908 with Raw Gold. Resembling Wister’s The Virginian (1902) in maybe a few too many ways, it was a little wobbly in places. I was curious how a later Sinclair novel would compare and picked his Wild West, published in 1926.

Before he turned to writing, Sinclair had been a working cowboy around Big Sandy in north central Montana. This novel draws from that experience. His central character is a young cowboy, Robin Tyler, working for a small ranch owner, north of the Missouri River and within sight of the Bear Paws and the Little Rockies. In chapter one, he discovers by chance that the wagon boss of a neighboring rancher is rustling cattle. So the plot is quickly set in motion.

Shining Mark Steele has an MO that takes a while to be unraveled by our hero. Steele, with the help of a partner, is killing mama cows with unbranded calves and then putting his own brand on the calves. In winter they round them up and move them south across the frozen Missouri River to roam free and fatten there, far from their home range.

The brand, meanwhile, is registered to a saloon-keeper in Helena. So there’s no suspicion that Steele is really building a herd for himself from the cattle of his employer and other ranchers. Tyler pieces the whole scheme together. But with only circumstantial evidence, there’s no way to bring charges against Steele. It takes the length of the novel to get the truth out into the open.

Charles Russell, Worked Over, 1925
While the cattle-rustling plot is common in the pulp and B-western, Sinclair gives it some twists. His villain, Steele, is a smooth operator. As the wagon boss of the biggest rancher in the area, he’s at the top of the local pecking order, and he enjoys his privileges. He’s both contemptuous and contemptible. Animosity between Tyler and Steele builds quickly.

Tyler starts out as a mild-mannered guy who doesn’t carry a gun. But before long he’s acquired a .45 and is practicing his fast draw, with plans to use it on Steele when he’s got a fighting chance. By this time, a partner of Tyler’s is killed as the two men go sleuthing in the Bad Lands, and Steele has moved in on Tyler’s girlfriend.

At the mid-point of the novel there comes a sudden turn when the two men meet in an isolated line camp. In a struggle over a revolver, Steele gets shot. Tyler leaves him for dead and flees by train to Seattle, suddenly a fugitive.

Seattle doesn’t work out. He hates the weather. He hates city life. And instead of trying sunnier Los Angeles, where he might have wound up working as an extra or doing stunts in western movies (I’m making that part up), he decides to go back to Montana and face the music.

The story plays out from there in surprising ways that keep you turning pages. I haven’t yet read enough early western novels to compare this one to, but I found Sinclair’s particular spin on the cattle-rustling plot unpredictable and original.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Cowboy songs

Cowboys in the early days made their own music. They sang, and there were a lot of songs. Sadly, maybe 90% of these songs have been lost, never written down by anyone with the sense to realize they were worth saving and would die with the cowboys who sang them. Today I’m writing about four collections of cowboy songs, two by folklorists and two by performers today who’ve made a career of passing them along to the next generation.

Nathan Howard Thorp, Songs of the Cowboys
Nathan Howard "Jack" Thorp (1867-1940) was the pioneer collector of cowboy songs, publishing the first edition of this book in 1908 and then expanding it in 1921 to its present length of 101 songs and poems, a quarter of them authored by Thorp himself.

Thorp was born and educated in the East but cowboyed as a young man in Nebraska and the Southwest, eventually settling in New Mexico, where he owned his own ranch. From an early age he began transcribing the songs he heard sung by cowboys. Although cowboy poetry thrives today, these early examples of this oral tradition would have surely disappeared without the efforts of Thorp and a handful of other collectors.

The songs capture the spirit, humor, and language of working cowboys. The sentiments range from youthful boasting and celebration of cowboy life to complaints about the hard work to nostalgic reminiscences about old trail pals to mournful laments about loneliness, misfortune, and death ("Oh, bury me not on the lone prairie"). Thorp's own contribution to the tradition, "Little Joe, the Wrangler," became popular and was widely recorded. It tells of a brave young wrangler killed in a cattle stampede. Hear Justin Bishop sing it below:

Read accounts of cowboys in the early days, and you discover that they loved to sing, and it didn't matter much if they were any good. The cattle on the trail drives got sung to by the night herders. Sometimes cowboys burst into song for no particular reason except excess energy and sheer delight in being alive. A song about the outlaw “Sam Bass” was apparently a favorite. Here's an old 78rpm recorded version, with the words so you can sing along:

After decades of western novels with maybe a stanza of a song sprinkled in here and there as a kind of interlude in the story, it took the sound movie to give the cowboy back his singing voice. Soon we had Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, and the Sons of the Pioneers. John Wayne even gives it a try in an early B-Western. These were all the right idea, maybe, but not the real thing. Thorp's collection of songs literally gathered in the field opens a window with a more authentic view of the hearts and minds of that fraternity of young horsemen who were the first cowboys.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Casual Friday

Back in the saddle again. I started a two-day seminar for incoming freshmen on Thursday afternoon. It’s one of 55 of these, no credit, just kind of “added value” for the class of 2014, and a taste of being up close and personal with a prof for a couple days before getting thrown in at the deep end of university undergraduate classes.

I could guess what they’d be like. Bright, talkative, full of ideas. Behind the appearance of confidence, they’d be nervous and maybe unsure of themselves. As for me, I had my own nerves as I always do before the first day.

Thursday, opening scene from The Cowboys
The seminar is called “The American Cowboy: Hollywood Myth and Reality.” I waited until the last couple of days to decide what to do for them. I settled on The Cowboys with John Wayne for Thursday and Open Range, with Costner and Duvall for Friday.

We’d look at the first scenes, and then rewatch them a couple times, stopping to peel away the layers of myth and history and what seems to lie in between. I have DVDs, my laptop, and the video projection system in the classroom.

I wore my Levi’s, a Lucky western shirt, a very old pair of Tony Lamas, and a straw cowboy hat. The hat was mostly for the shade. We’re having the usual August heat wave in LA.

I was given an initial roster of seven students. I was told there might be more. Fourteen showed up. About half guys and girls. I always ask students where they’re from on the first day. These kids were from all over – North Carolina, Chicago, Providence, Houston, Austin, various places in California. One was from Germany. Two were brothers. “We’re triplets,” they told me, their third brother at another school.

The video system worked beautifully, and I was able to get the room dark enough. There was a handout with a bunch of questions as a fallback in case discussion was slow. I never had to consult it.

Today, Open Range
They all seemed to have something to say and should have been pleased with themselves as they were making all kinds of nifty observations.

They observed how there’s a melancholy tone in the opening scenes of The Cowboys and commented on the vast, flat, empty landscape behind Wayne as he talks to the hands who are leaving him for the gold fields. They saw in this the theme of the isolated individual who has to make it on his own. One student characterized this as “American” in a way I’m not used to hearing my students use that word.

Not to mention their unexpected connections. One student recognized Slim Pickens in the film but didn’t know his name. “He’s the guy who rides the bomb in Dr. Strangelove,” he said. So here is an 18-year-old familiar with a film from 1964. These days, you never can predict what students will know. Here they all are:

As usual, 90 minutes flew by, and when it was done, I felt like we’d covered maybe 10% of the material.

And so passed day one. Back in the saddle.

Picture credits:
1) John Wayne, videodetective.com
2) Open Range, hollywoodjesus.com

Coming up:  Bertrand Sinclair's 1926 novel Wild West

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Book: Raw Gold, part 2

Didn’t mean to get so long-winded, but here’s more about Bertrand Sinclair’s novel, Raw God (1908). Like I say, I read old books so you don’t have to. Illustrations today are by Clarence H. Rowe, from the first edition.

Lyn pleads with MacRae
Sinclair and Bower. We know that Sinclair read B. M. Bower’s Chip of the Flying U as she wrote it. It’s hard to say what he learned from it. There’s nothing resembling a ranch romance in the almost perfunctory relationship MacRae has with his girlfriend, Lyn. In a brief back-story, we learn that they were once engaged to be married, but they have since drifted apart.

Sinclair keeps it that way. There’s one scene of potential intimacy, but it takes place out of sight and hearing of the narrator. So we learn nothing. At best, the former girlfriend’s main reason for being in the plot is to get kidnapped and rescued.

One time that Lyn appears, she plays the stereotypical role of women in westerns – the one that tries to speak reason in the face of violence. She pleads with MacRae to give up chasing the villains: “There’s been too much blood shed over that wretched gold already. Let them have it. I know something dreadful will happen if you follow it up” (p. 212).

MacRae, of course, stubbornly insists that a man does what he has to do, and she relents. Bower’s heroine wouldn’t have given up so easily.

By contrast with Bower, this story takes place almost completely out of doors. Sinclair’s appreciation of heat and wet and cold and sleeping rough, sometimes without meals, seems to be genuine. His characters don’t drink, but they smoke endlessly. He’s also familiar with horses – how many hours of riding are in one, when it needs rest, what and when it eats or gets fed. Sinclair would have known all this from experience, and the details add to the realism.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Book: Raw Gold

Central Los Angeles Public Library
I have this funny habit when I hold an old library book. I wonder how long it’s been sitting on the shelf in the stacks untouched, then of the different hands that have turned its pages over the years. Then how often it’s been taken home and read and by why sorts of readers.

This particular 102-year-old copy of Bertrand Sinclair’s Raw Gold came from the LA Public Library downtown (above), and I picked it up at my local branch (below). The book looks and feels pretty good for its age. It has been rebound in a stiff yellow binding, now scuffed and smudged. The author’s last name and the book’s title have been stamped in black capital letters on the spine. The pages themselves are soft with much handling, many of the corners creased from being folded over. The  old check-out punch card is still in its pocket inside the front cover.

My local branch - Westwood
There’s also the evidence of previous ownership. On the first page of chapter 1, the words BOOK LOVERS LOAN LIBRARY LOS ANGELES have been embossed into the paper. The date NOV 25 1977 has been stamped at the bottom of the title page. On the back of that page is another stamp: “University of Southern California” and in the gutter on the facing page yet another stamp: “Gift of James and Vernon Pleukharp”. And so on.

It occurs to me that no one is going to have these thoughts about an ebook a hundred years from now.

Anyway, about Bertrand Sinclair (1881-1972), who was born in Scotland and came to North America in 1889. He was a young cowpuncher living in Montana when he wrote this novel. He had befriended and later married novelist B. M. Bower, who encouraged him in his writing. (I wrote about Bower here earlier.)

Raw Gold (meaning gold nuggets and dust) was published in 1908 after publication the previous year by Street and Smith. When I picked up this book, I expected maybe a male writer’s version of the kind of story Bower writes in Chip of the Flying U, a lightly humorous adventure based on real, everyday knowledge of working cowboys.

Not quite.

The story. For a first novel, Raw Gold has a lot going for it. We get the wide-open frontier of the 1870s with outlaws and lawmen and what was to become a staple of western adventure, the innocent fugitive wrongly accused of a crime. There’s stolen money, stolen gold, and more stolen money, as well as an imperiled young woman who needs rescuing. All is resolved at the end after a confrontation with the outlaws in an isolated canyon.

Fort Walsh, 1878
Sinclair puts his stamp on this material by setting the story “north of the border” in the southern corners of what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan. The time is shortly after the arrival of the Northwest Mounted Police, and the entire story takes place within one or two days’ riding of Fort Walsh (shown here) in the Cypress Hills. A key scene takes place in Writing-on-Stone, a section of the Milk River where the cliffs are inscribed with Native American petroglyphs.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)

There are two or three versions of this film, depending on how you count them. According to film historians, it was rushed into theaters by MGM in 1973 before receiving a “fine cut.” In 1988, there was another version put together by Turner Entertainment, meant to restore director Sam Peckinpah’s vision of the film.

Then 2005 saw yet another attempt to create a definitive version. These last two of the three are currently available on DVD. If you want, you can put them side-by-side on two laptops and let them duke it out.

I saw the original in 1973 and found it unmemorable, so I can’t say today that its vision is much different from the latter two. But it’s probably safe to say that all three attempt to (a) portray the Old West realistically and (b) make an angry statement about corrupt and oppressive power structures. It was, after all, the year of Watergate.

History vs. myth. The film tells a story about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid that is more or less accurate in some details. Billy’s breakout from the Lincoln County jail follows historical accounts fairly closely. But it shouldn’t be taken as a reenactment.

Neither should Garrett’s shooting of Billy at the end of the film. The writers had read their history, then “dramatized” it. Garrett sits outside the room where Billy has a lovemaking scene, and listens to the sound of what seems to be soul-satisfying sex. Then while Billy goes out to bring back something to eat, Garrett slips inside, where he is waiting when Billy returns.

In real-life that fateful night, Garrett and Billy happened by chance to meet in a darkened room. Garrett was probably surprised. Billy probably never knew what hit him. And he hadn’t come from lovemaking but from the nearby rooms of friends, where he’d shown up for a late night meal.

Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse portrays both men as simply that – men whose lives took them in directions that finally converged. Billy was both a thief and a killer; Garrett as sheriff of Lincoln County had taken on the job of stopping him.

Peckinpah’s film prefers the myth. Not only is his Billy a free spirit at odds with unscrupulous cattlemen, speculators, and businessmen. Garrett is portrayed as corrupted by serving their interests. “It’s just a job,” he says, justifying himself. But to Billy (and Peckinpah, one gathers) he’s a man who has sold out.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Book: To Hell on a Fast Horse

New Mexico was no land of enchantment during 1870-1910. After the Civil War, it was the frontier beyond the frontier, where the West was still wild and woolly. Territorial officials, duly elected and otherwise, were corrupt right up to the governor. Honest men with any power or authority were a rarity.

The murderous efforts of those outside the law kept them even rarer. Pat Garrett, a gambler, speculator, one-time buffalo hunter, and part-time lawman was one of the few with the determination to take on some of the criminals – and one of them in particular, Billy the Kid.

Mark Lee Gardner has written a well-researched book about both men. He claims that everything he has to say about them, including the words he attributes to them, are recorded and documented. His account is a happy mix of history and good storytelling. While he writes in a conversational style, his scholarship is evident from the 50 pages of notes and bibliography, plus a lengthy index.

Pat Garrett. Gardner finds both men engaging but keeps a historian’s distance. If anything, he may wish that events after the shooting of Billy had been kinder to Garrett. What made him a fearless man-hunter did not serve him in his later pursuits. He tried various business ventures that didn’t pan out. And he made enemies among people who were unscrupulous enough to want him dead.

He also had a love of gambling and drinking (not uncommon in the West) and a tendency to make the wrong friends. While a supportive husband and father of eight children, he let it be known that he kept a mistress. During most of his years, he was either poorly paid or in debt. He was finally murdered with a shot to the back of the head while stopping to take a leak at the side of a road near Las Cruces in 1908. His murder, like others at the time in New Mexico, was never satisfactorily solved.

The irony of Garrett is that today he is scarcely remembered, while the outlaw he killed has been mythologized and celebrated for over a century. For the hundreds who visit Billy’s grave in Sumner, New Mexico, its only the rare soul that seeks out Pat Garret’s in El Paso. Even today, there are renewed efforts afoot to have Billy the Kid pardoned by the state governor, and descendants of Pat Garrett continue to defend their grandfather.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Casual Friday

Friday the 13th and a few more days to enjoy the freedom of this summer before it's back to the classroom. I'm usually pretty verbose in this blog, but today is mostly pictures. These are from a set of postcards sent to my grandfather about 100 years ago. They are one of two things I have from him (the other is a mustache brush), and they came to him from a cousin, when he was still a young man.

The folder around the cards says, "Greetings from Pendleton, Oregon." There is a one-cent stamp on it, but the postmark is too blurred to read. I'm fond of these old illustrations of cowboy life from the Old West. I've been putting up a different one every week on the sidebar of this page. Today I'm showing most of the rest of them.

The artist is known to me only as F. W. Schultz. I've been unable to find out any more about him or her. They are all dated 1907, which by chance falls in the period of western fiction I'm currently studying. [As usual, click to see them larger. Enjoy.]

Coming up: Review of Mark Lee Gardner's To Hell on a Fast Horse and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Interview: Richard S. Wheeler

Last time I posted a review of An Obituary for Major Reno by Richard Wheeler, about a real-life commander of troops at the  Battle of Little Bighorn. He has graciously agreed to answer a few questions about the writing of that novel, and I am pleased to yield this space to him today.

Your portrayal of the novelist Whittaker in the novel is far from sympathetic. To what extent do you find yourself in his shoes as you go about writing historical fiction?
Frederick Whittaker was an actual person, a dime novelist who became obsessed with vindicating Colonel Custer and criminalizing Major Reno. He grew increasingly demented, and probably paranoid, and ultimately tripped on his cane and shot himself with the revolver that he was carrying. You will find Whittaker's life ably portrayed by historian Robert Utley in Custer and the Great Controversy.

Some novelists have axes to grind, but I am not among them. My whole approach is the opposite of Emile Zola's furious J’accuse! directed toward the president of France in 1898. I enjoy humanizing controversial historical figures, depicting their strengths and weaknesses in what I hope will be a balanced and perceptive portrait. I tried to do that with Major Reno. I've treated Buffalo Bill Cody the same way, and Irish rebel Thomas Francis Meagher in that fashion, as well as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and Meriwether Lewis.

You give a warts-and-all picture of Major Reno. Could you describe what it was like for you as a writer working day after day with this character?
Marcus Reno was a bundle of contradictions: he was sometimes honorable, sometimes capable, and sometimes full of crap. The one issue I faced early on was whether he was sufficiently admirable, or at least empathetic, to sustain the interest of my readers. I decided he was. He was an above-average field officer with battlefield commendations. He handled the occupation of New Orleans well.

He was also a drunk, had a temper, and was disparaging of other officers. He needed the anchor of a woman in his life, and indeed during his brief marriage he was at his best, but when his beautiful wife died, something died in Reno, and he grew less and less honorable. Sometimes I ached for him; sometimes he ticked me off. But he grew large in my mind, and I continue to regard him as an important figure in our history.

How did you as a storyteller go about deciding what to reveal of Reno's less appealing side?
I decided just to let it all be there; the novel would hide nothing. Death has been kind to Reno. Most of those who look at him now see a flawed but sympathetic man. I have visited his grave several times in the Custer Battlefield National Cemetery, and it is always decorated with flowers, artificial ones in the winter. He is remembered. The families of those soldiers who did not perish at the Little Big Horn have not forgotten him.  And of course he was reburied with honor in the 1960s.

How much of Reno's personality and motivation is part of the record, and how much for you was a matter of filling in the blanks?
I stayed as close to the record as I could manage, and avoided going out on any sort of limb. I did fill in a little because a novelist dramatizing history needs to.  We are telling a story. It hadn't been noticed that Reno's best years coincided with his marriage, and I made something of that in my novel. I believe my depiction is a valid one.

I see by the acknowledgements that the novel is based on a good deal of research. To what extent as a novelist did you feel you could take liberties with historical fact?
Historical novelists have a certain leeway not permitted historians who have to document and footnote everything they say. I may surprise you by saying that historical novelists are thus able to offer a deeper and truer picture of events than historians, but there is some risk in it. Academic caution is a virtue, and an academic historian cannot speculate or expand upon the material before him.

It is worth remembering that an entire collection of research material will, at best, tell only a part of a story, and that even the best-researched history may portray only a fragment of reality. The idea is not to take liberties, but to find reasons, and build them into events and character.

How much were you consciously making a case for exonerating Reno as you wrote, or were you deliberately leaving that kind of judgment up to the reader?
I largely left that to the reader. The story's narrator, working on an obituary, sees all of Reno, and still decides the man deserved a kind remembrance. Obituaries are the most important literature in the English language, and worth close examination. There are some new histories about the battle that parcel out blame rather than loading it on one person or another. These new histories also note that things simply happen, and ought not to be laid at the feet of one or another person. That seems reasonable.

To what extent did your editor contribute to working out these issues?
My splendid editor, Dale L. Walker, is an historian of note himself. He steered me to research material, and asked questions or asked me to support a view. I am deeply indebted to him.

Anything you'd like to add for writers who incorporate people and events from history into their storytelling?
English spoken in other times was radically different from today's vernacular. So is the cultural matrix that existed in other times. I constantly see fictional characters behaving in ways no man or woman of a period would dream of behaving, and speaking in modern terms, or with modern attitudes, that would be alien to historical people. Victorians could not even refer to a woman's legs. They were "limbs."

Richard S. Wheeler is the author of over sixty novels. He is the recipient of five Spur Awards and the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in Western literature from the Western Writers of America, Inc. He lives in Livingston, Montana.

Picture credits:
1) Battle of Little Bighorn, Kicking Bear, c1898, nmculturenet.org
2) Custer and men, manataka.org
3) Little Bighorn River, legendsofamerica.com

Coming up: Review of Mark Lee Gardner’s To Hell on a Fast Horse and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid