Wednesday, July 20, 2011

John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman (1905)

Illustration from first edition
Here’s an early-early western by John H. Whitson (1854-1936), a writer who’d cut his teeth producing fiction for Beadle and Adams starting in 1888. He was also a frequent contributor to Street & Smith publications, writing under various house names. A handful of western novels published under his own name during 1903-1907 includes this one.

In German there’s a word for this kind of novel, bildungsroman. It’s a story that follows a person from childhood to adulthood while they make choices and adopt values that eventually shape their identity. It’s a form well suited to the western, which often concerns itself with the building of a man’s character.

Plot. Justin Wingate is a foundling, left by a passing wagon train with a minister in a failing frontier town in Colorado. When the minister gets some bad news and suddenly dies, Justin is taken into the care of a guardian, Curtis Clayton. He’s a doctor who has divorced a wife and fled the artificiality and pretensions of life in the big city.

Justin and Lucy
Growing older, Justin cowboys at a nearby ranch, where he falls in love with the rancher’s niece, Lucy. The rancher, Davison, has a son, Ben, much favored by his father but a shirker, a drinker and gambler, and in general a moral washout.

Clayton’s ex-wife Sybil figures into the story as a femme fatale. In need of cash, she works a fat deal with a state politician to help win a crucial vote in the legislature. As part of her dabbling in political affairs, she exposes Justin to the discovery that his true father is Davison. A newly elected state representative, Justin has to decide whether to cast a vote based on conscience or be loyal to the interests of Davison, who’s not only his father but the uncle of his sweetheart.

After all conflicts have been resolved, there’s a happy ending as irrigation projects make the desert bloom. Justin and Lucy marry and he inherits the estate of the ailing father who has finally been reconciled to him. 

Justin learns of his parentage
 Character. Justin is deeply influenced by the two men who raise him. From his years with the minister, Justin has acquired “a structure of character that combined singular sweetness with great nobility and strength.” Inherited from his dead mother are “qualities of sturdy resolution.” Late in the novel, we learn that she left an abusive, hard-drinking husband to bravely cast her fate to the winds.

On the brink of manhood and lacking the slightest bit of vanity, Justin is unaware of being handsome. But handsome is as handsome does, and he proves over and again that he can be counted on to do the right thing. Even when it’s at his own expense.

He steps aside to let his half-brother Ben get ahead. And rather than speak poorly of him, he keeps silent about his dishonesties and bad behavior. Mostly passive and dutiful throughout the novel, he’s a decent and honorable man, but a curious example of western character. 

Clayton and Sybil
Romance. As in most early western novels, love and romance have a part to play in the making of a man. When the young Justin has his first big crush on Lucy, Whitson devotes an entire chapter to their tender and playful confession of affection for each other. And he contends that Justin’s love for Lucy makes him more of a man.

Justin’s devotion to her remains constant despite all the obstacles that lie between them. Pleasing her and keeping her affections is a driving motivation for much of his behavior. But when she encourages him to ask her uncle for her hand, you sense an insincerity. He’s only a ranch hand, and a stint in finishing school has her expecting more from a husband. Through thick and thin, she’s an ambivalent presence in his life, holding out on him until he becomes a man of means.

Villainy. Creating interesting characters, Whitson is more successful with his villains. The best of that lot is Lemuel Fogg, the kind of man who quickly trims his sails to whatever wind is blowing. An able businessman, he has his investments and is busily pulling the strings that serve his interests.

He rises during the course of the novel from an itinerant frontier photographer, selling cheaply made Indian “artifacts” at a big markup. Before long we find he’s become a cattleman and a mover and shaker in state politics. There he actively supports legislation that favors the cattle industry and discourages the spread of farming. A natural politician, he’s a glad hander and fast talker. And Whitson nails the type. 

Elk Meadow, Squaw Pass Road, Colorado
Is it a western? If a western has to have cowboys, this novel barely qualifies. Not counting the ranch foreman, only one cowboy is actually named in the novel, Dicky Carroll. He gets a mention only a half dozen times. But as is often the case when a cowboy is a minor character, Dicky is a spirited dash of local color.

Nevertheless, for me, the novel’s Colorado setting and its depiction of conflicts between cattlemen and farmers over land use and water rights make it western enough. The elements found in other westerns are there, including the central male character who represents a code of behavior and values we associate with the frontier.

This novel is maybe best read as an example of where the early western can go wrong. A New York Times review (June 10,1905) found the novel’s weakness in its not so compelling portrayal of romance. It argued that a novel about “the strenuous life” in the “virile” West would do well to downplay the love interest and keep the emphasis on “vigor and ‘go’.”

The House of Beadle and Adams
Geoff Sadler, ed., Twentieth Century Western Writers

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Charles King, Two Soldiers (1888)


  1. One of my favorite L'Amour's is "To Tame a Land," which is a bildungsroman.

  2. I think of a western as any fiction located (at least primarily) west of the Mississippi and east of California, in which the landscape is among the characters or movers-of-plot. In other words, a story that could take place no where else on earth.
    (Maybe I'm thinking a little too broadly?)

  3. The illustrations are very detailed and well done, and I like the photo of Elk Meadow.

  4. Unfortunately the NY Times advice to downplay the love interest would be rarely followed and many a western novel would be ruined by the romance element. How many times have I groaned when the author introduces the clean cut hero to the pretty girl. Perhaps a thousand times?

  5. Charles, the bildungsroman gets off to such a slow and aimless start, a modern writer would be likely to turn that part into fragments of back story.

    Veronica, I'd tend to put my money on that number.

    Oscar, I turned up a whole bunch of great Colorado pics at Wikimedia Commons. Would like to have used them all.

    Walker, Andy Adams was the only one I know to eschew romances. A romance is typically the weakest part of an early western.