Friday, May 20, 2011

Jackson Gregory, Under Handicap (1914)

Conniston finds Argyl in the desert.
Let’s start with the curious title for this novel. There are two men with handicaps in the story, one literal, one figurative. There’s a literally disabled character, Tommy Garton, who has lost both legs. We never learn how, but his role is to win our sympathy as a bright young man making something of himself – unlike the novel’s hero when we first meet him.

“Greek” Conniston is the 25-year-old main character whose handicap is that he’s the son of a multi-millionaire. He lacks for nothing. He’s a Yale graduate, class of ’06, has plenty of pocket money, and swans around New York with the offspring of other wealthy men. Conscious of his superior class standing, he is more than a bit of a snob.

The plot. In a nutshell, Conniston gets stranded without a penny on a remote ranch somewhere in the desert Southwest. For the first time in his life, he has to work for a living, and the job so happens to be cowboying for an ambitious and well-to-do cattleman, Crawford.

Black Canyon, future site of Hoover Dam
He’s taken an engineering course at Yale to satisfy his father, and before long he finds himself on a land development project for Crawford. Canals and dams are being built to bring water to a dry but fertile valley. The project is a make-or-break gamble, as the investors will pull out if it’s not completed by an agreed deadline.

Overcoming many obstacles, Conniston is able to beat the deadline and wins both Crawford’s gratitude and the hand of his daughter, Argyl. (Yes, Argyl.) He has found and put to good use the fighting spirit within him. He has overcome his handicap.

Character. So, like many another early western novel, Under Handicap is about the building of a man’s character. To make it interesting, Gregory actually risks losing the reader's sympathy by giving Conniston not a few unpleasant traits to overcome. In the words of his disapproving father, he is “a dawdler and a trifler and a do-nothing” (p. 23).

Put to work with a friendly, red-headed young cowboy Lonesome Pete, he feels something close to contempt for the young man because he (a) works with his hands and (b) is illiterate. Pete has bought some second-hand books, and in an attempt to teach himself to read, he is slowly digesting a copy of Macbeth. Conniston finds all this pretty amusing.

Near Holbrook, Arizona, c1915
Too proud to be working with common laborers, he regards them with tolerant contempt (much as they clearly regard him) and refuses to consider them his equals. Thus, he is deeply wounded when Argyl says he’s less of a man than any of them. Talking like an early Ayn Rand, she tells him frankly that a man must prove his worth (not to mention his gender) by taking on a difficult goal and fighting fiercely for it – like her father.

Frankly, it is hard to warm to Conniston. At the end he is forced to make a choice between loyalty to his father and keeping his word to Crawford. A true “westerner” in these early novels would act from a sense of generosity and fair play. Conniston makes the right choice, but it is in the interests of his “reputation,” which is somewhat narrowly understood by him.

In Gregory’s hands, character is what it takes to overcome obstacles to one’s grandest ambitions. It’s weighed by measurable achievements and effectively managing the work of hundreds of laborers. One can imagine this book a favorite of Andrew Carnegie.

Jerome, Arizona, 1909
East vs. West. The central characters in the book are Easterners by temperament. The Crawford ranch house, though far from civilization, is a large and elegantly furnished domicile, complete with leather chairs, grand piano, and a staff of servants. There are verandahs and balconies, covered with climbing roses. Telephone lines have been installed to connect it to the outside world.

Meanwhile, native Westerners are rough, uncouth, and uneducated. The men are given to drink and brawling. A pair of cowboys early in the novel throw away their earnings at a gambling table in a saloon. Conniston easily outwits them by acquiring their horses and saddles in a wager.

As the action of the novel then focuses on the building of railroads, canals, and dams, it portrays the West as the object of “reclamation.” The wide open spaces are ripe for development as mountain streams are rerouted for irrigation projects and the desert is made to bloom with cash crops. The West, in other words, is there to be transformed, bending to the will of Eastern developers, underwritten by Eastern capital.

The Cavalier, November 1, 1913
Wrapping up. Jackson Gregory (1882-1943) was at the very beginning of a long career as a novelist when he published Under Handicap. He grew up in central California, and during his youth he cowboyed on cattle ranches in Nevada. Before taking up fiction writing full time, he was a newspaper man.

Writing for the pulps, he published a dozen titles in Street & Smith’s People’s Magazine, 1911-1913. According to one source, he apparently fell out with Street & Smith and was totally broke when a book publisher finally picked up his first novel.

Under Handicap was serialized as simply Handicap in Munsey’s Cavalier in 1913. For an early novel, it shows promise as a solid fiction entertainment aimed at a broad market of readers. It has its moments of high drama and suspense, and Gregory shows an ability to plot a story that is grounded in actual times and places. This is not an imagined West, but one he knows and understands from having grown up there.  

In 1917 it was made into the first of at least 16 films based on his works. During a prolific writing career, much of his fiction was set in the West. No less a writer than Eugene Manlove Rhodes regarded his work as a truthful representation of the West and westerners. 

Under Handicap is available free online at Google Books and Project Gutenberg.

Image credits:
Photos from Wikimedia Commons
Cavalier cover,  FictionMags Index

Coming up: Everett Dick, The Sod-House Frontier, 1854-1890 (1937)


  1. Ron, thanks for giving me my first two laughs of the day. First, when I read about the cowboy teaching himself to read with a copy of Macbeth. I guess I've seen and read this complex play a half dozen times and I'm still learning from it. Not my first choice for learning how to read...

    Second, when I read, "Talking like an early Ayn Rand..."; that's scary enough to make any man head for the hills!

  2. this was a not uncommon kind of plot device at that time it seems. ERB used much the same kind of idea, with the rich, pampered guy getting stranded on a jungle island perhaps instead. I recently read a Max Brand that had a similar theme.