Thursday, July 3, 2014

Eugene Manlove Rhodes, The Desire of the Moth (1916)

The last time we saw James Wesley Pringle, he was helping his cowboy pals solve the mystery of a friend’s disappearance. That friend, another cowboy, Jeff Bransford, had been kidnapped and was being held captive in Old Juarez, across the river from El Paso. Through the crafty reading of clues requiring a knowledge of literature, they finally freed their friend.

Some time later, in The Desire of the Moth, Pringle is returning to his old home in Arizona and, while crossing New Mexico, stops in a town there on the banks of the Rio Grande. It is the same part of the Southwest where Rhodes’ other fiction is lovingly set: the Jornada del Muerto, White Sands, and the San Andres Mountains, where Rhodes lived during his formative years.

The short novel (call it a novella) begins with a vivid description of that setting:

Close behind, Organ Mountain flung up a fantasy of spires, needle-sharp and bare and golden. The long straight range—saw-toothed limestone save for this twenty-mile sheer upheaval of the Organ—stretched away to north and south against the unclouded sky, till distance turned the barren gray to blue-black, to blue, to misty haze; —till the sharp, square-angled masses rounded to hillocks—to a blur—a wavy line—nothing.

Plot. The entire story of The Desire of the Moth takes place in 24 hours, as Pringle arrives, traveling on horseback, in Las Uvas, a sleepy town where the local sheriff is brewing up trouble to get out the law-and-order vote for what he hopes will be his reelection.

An unscrupulous politician, and careless of other men’s lives, he engineers a plot to entice a cowboy, Chris Foy, to draw his gun on another man, Dick Marr. Pringle foils the scheme, but Marr ends up dead anyway, shot by an unknown assailant—we assume at the order of the sheriff.

San Andres Mountains
Intending to arrest Foy for murder, the sheriff and a posse head out of town into the night and learn that he is hiding in a cave on a high butte. Pringle gets to Foy before them and knocks him out with a punch before he can surrender.

By story’s end, Foy has recovered consciousness and is making an escape while Pringle holds the sheriff, his deputy, and two police officers at gunpoint. Pretending to help them make the arrest has been only a clever ploy. The sheriff is also tricked into admitting to Marr’s killing. Meanwhile, Foy has not only had his life saved. He’ll be fully alive for his upcoming wedding to a pretty rancher’s daughter, Stella Vorhis.

Storytelling style. The novel has much in common with stories to be found in Rhodes’ other fiction. Crafted with attention to detail, it is like fine leatherwork. Dialogue is articulate and neatly layered with wry humor and irony. Readers will find a similar theme in Bransford of Rainbow Range (1913), where an innocent man is on the run from the law.

Rhodes’ characters are self-consciously “western,” their intelligence and understanding of human motive and behavior are intuitive and bone deep. Pringle is a living example, with a finely developed ability to act on a hunch with full confidence that he is correct sizing up other men and situations. Of the men who will not play their hunches, he says, “they haven’t spunk enough to believe what they know.”

Eugene Manlove Rhodes
Unlike other early writers of frontier fiction, Rhodes lacked a formal education. He was self-taught and read widely. You don’t find Harvard and Yale educated characters in his stories. The “gentlemanly” qualities his heroes exhibit were not learned as members born to a privileged social class.

They have acquired traits of respect, honesty, and fairness by subscribing to a code of the West that measures a man’s worth on another scale—often no more than the strength of his word. Rhodes, who worked among cowboys, freighters, and other frontier laborers, said that the test audience for his writing was the men he knew on the range. He counted his work a success if it rang true for them.

Wrapping up. Drawing as it does on his own experience, Rhodes’ fiction opens a window into a world that one likes to think of as authentically western. It surely stands at the head of a series of excellent portrayals of the West to be found in later novels like Max Evans’ The Hi Lo Country, Larry McMurtry’s Leaving Cheyenne, and Jack Schaefer’s Monte Walsh.

The Desire of the Moth is currently available online at google books and Internet Archive, and in print and ebook formats at amazon and Barnes&Noble. For more of Friday’s Forgotten Books, click on over to Patti Abbott’s blog.

Image credits:
Author's photo,
Wikimedia Commons

Further reading/viewing:
BITS reviews
Bransford of Rainbow Range (1913), Part 1Part 2

Coming up: Glossary of frontier fiction


  1. I'm still reading Son of the Middle Border that you recommended; then I should read Daughter of the Middle Border; but eventually I'd like to read some of Rhodes novels.

    1. He developed an especial sympathy for women on the frontier and also lost two sisters when they were young adults. I'm guessing that Daughter of the Middle Border would reflect much of that personal experience and point of view.

  2. Do you have any idea where Rhodes first introduced the characters of Pringle, Bransford, et al? Good Men and True had some allusions to previous adventures of theirs, but I haven't been able to figure out yet in what book or story they first appeared.

    I'm reading some Rhodes short stories right now, in a collection I downloaded from Internet Archive. I love the wit of the dialogue, especially; and as you mentioned, the authenticity. There's a lot of intriguing details about the landscape and the people of the West that you don't find in other books.

    1. Good Men and True (1910) was his first novel. I have not read his short stories yet, but FictionMags Index says he had already published about 20 of them by then.

    2. A good way to get confirmation of the story as he did is letting the people who know read it, although he had personal experience in that way of life.

  3. Love that excerpt. I'm a sucker for great description that puts you in the scene.

    1. That descriptive sequence is actually longer and can be found if you like in chapter 1. Rhodes does something I have not seen in other writers. He uses description like this to capture the feeling of riding across a terrain on horseback.

  4. Ron, I'm with Charles on the excerpt you reproduced. I often come across some great writing in westerns and I'm very tempted to share it with others. What is it about the frontier, or the wild west, that inspires such writing? What must the writer be thinking when he is knitting those almost poetic words together?

    Over the years I've realised that western fiction is all about a man's character, or the lack of it, which is central to nearly every story. I think it is character that makes men like James Wesley Pringle help even strangers, like Chris Foy. He doesn't owe Foy as much as he owes to himself. This reminds me of Robert Vaughn's character in "The Magnificent Seven" where he returns to the village, to fight the bandits, because he owes it to himself. Another fetching scene is when Chris (Yul Brynner) listens quietly when a dying Calvera (Eli Wallach) asks him why a man like him came back to the village. The look on Brynner's face says it all: it was in his character to do what he did.

    1. In early frontier fiction, there is a belief that the western landscape actually helps produce that kind of character.

    2. Ron, I was vaguely thinking along those lines but I didn't know how to put it. I thought the land had something to do with it.