Thursday, June 9, 2011

Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer (1906)

Set in Dakota Territory in the 1870s, this early western novel features characters from the 7th Cavalry and has its climax at the Battle of Little Big Horn. A great deal happens, however, before we get to that event in this blend of adventure, melodrama, romance, comedy, and social and military history. 

The plot. The title character, Bob Hampton, is a man with a shadowy past who lives as a gambler among folks of ill repute and has a reputation as a killer. Drawn without much sympathy, he is a man whose life, once promising, has descended into grievous desolation.

This discovery about him is unexpected since his entrance into the story portrays him as something of a hero. We first meet him in a grabber of an opening sequence, as a group of soldiers and civilians are attacked by a band of Indians. Undercover of darkness, Hampton makes a daring escape, taking with him the 16-year-old girl, Naida. The two nearly perish on the open prairie before being found by soldiers from a distant fort.

One of those soldiers is a young officer, Donald Brant, who finds her again two years later outside a mining camp called Glencaid. Now a second lieutenant, he falls head over heels in love. Progress in their romance is slow going, however, as she deflects every interest he shows in her. Though Hampton has disappeared, she remains firmly loyal to him despite his reputation.

One-fourth of the way into the novel, Parrish introduces several other characters, most of them for comic effect. There’s Phoebe Spencer, a new schoolmistress from Vermont, a pretty young thing who instantly draws a flock of suitors in a community where men outnumber women five to one.

Phoebe has the intelligence of dandelion fluff and sees everything about the frontier, including Indian raids, as wonderfully romantic. Super conscious of propriety, she has a finely tuned awareness of social class that’s in constant collision with the freewheeling manners of frontier folk.

But bless her heart, she’s game. And she revels in the attentions of two men, Moffat, a mine owner, and MacNeil a ranch foreman. They compete for her affections, while another bachelor resident, a distant third in her affection, is the Presbyterian minister Rev. Wynkoop. His small flock is evidence of years of hard work in this heathen outpost. 

Whites and nonwhites. Maybe the most striking attitude in the novel is its undisguised dislike of Indians. Often referred to as “savages,” they are gleeful as they attack the group of white travelers in the opening scene. The pleasure they apparently take in wiping out the last survivors is bloodcurdling. Parrish also makes no bones about Naida’s fate should she be captured by them.

By contrast, the fighting men of the 7th Cavalry are portrayed as brave, courageous, and proud. They stand to the last man, defending with their lives their much revered, fair-haired commander, George Armstrong Custer. Of the Last Stand, Parrish writes, “no bolder, nobler deed of arms was ever done.”

The novel may not go so far as to advocate genocide, but it preserves the stereotype of Indians as uniformly bloodthirsty. It would confirm an image of Indians that would remain prominent in western fiction and movies right through to The Searchers a half century later.

East vs. West. Parrish lavishes no praise on living conditions on the frontier. Glencaid is described as a miserable settlement and an ugly blight upon the plains. The town’s residents are little better. They like to congratulate themselves as “citizens of this free and boundless West.” Yet later, laying hands on a man they assume to be a killer, they quickly form a lynch mob. The marshal, a brave upholder of the law, nearly loses his life while attempting to protect the prisoner.

The incident gives Lt. Brant occasion to berate the crowd for their mob-rule mentality. They argue for their right as “free-born American citizens” to administer justice in their own way. Eventually, they relent when cavalry troops arrive to bring order. Undisciplined by comparison with the soldiers, they are accused by Brant of acting “like sheep, not American citizens.” 

Style. The novel is often written in what I’d call a high style. Sentences can be long, somewhat Henry Jamesian. Pressed to the service of describing the shifting about of a character’s conflicting thoughts and emotions, they marshal a lot of words in pursuit of elusive nuances. There are whole chapters that Hemingway would have reduced effectively to a few paragraphs.

Then, Parrish can surprise you by switching gears into vivid, even fast-paced writing. He also has a gift for the telling detail. In a tense moment, as one man holds another at gunpoint, it is so still that a watch can be heard ticking in the other man’s pocket.

Wrapping up. Randall Parrish (1858-1923) did not take up novel writing until he was in his 40s. By this time, he’d practiced law, served as a Congregational minister, and worked as a newspaperman. During a brief time in the early 1880s, he was scrounging a living in the West. In short order he worked as a laborer for the Acheson, Topeka, and Santa Fe, mined for gold on Apache lands in Arizona, and got work on the Greeley-Loveland canal in Colorado.

An educated man with a respectable social background, there he was in the wild West of cattle towns, Billy the Kid, Geronimo, and Wyatt Earp. The experience of these lean years in a mostly uncivilized borderland seems to have inspired the unromantic portrayal of the frontier as we find it in this novel.

In his lifetime, Parrish published 27 novels, many of them set in the West. A small handful were serialized in magazines, but most of his work apparently found an audience between hard covers. Three of his novels were made into films, including Bob Hampton of Placer in 1921, with on-location photography in Montana. AMC has a synopsis of the Hollywood version.

Bob Hampton of Placer is currently available free online at googlebooks and Project Gutenberg. Also for kindle and the nook.

Image credits:
Illustrations from the first edition by Arthur I. Keller
All-Story Weekly cover from The FictionMags Index

Coming up: Edward A. Grainger, Adventures of Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles


  1. Love those illustrations. I imagine that people closer to the time when life on the frontier was a life and death struggle had a different view on the native Americans than many of us today. I'm sure the Native Americans felt the same way at those times. seeing folks you care about get killed has a tendency to do that.

  2. Illustrations are marvelous, Ron. And Charles makes a very good point above.

  3. Charles, by 1906 the Indians have ceased to be a threat to whites, and in general they are portrayed that way in the fiction of the time. This novel is kind of an exception.

    David, the illustrations are unusual, too - they strike me as a little "old fashioned" compared to the work of illustrators like J. M. Marchand, Maynard Dixon, and N. C. Wyeth.