Hutchinson begins the book with an essay on western fiction at a time when as a genre it was still going strong, both in print and on screen. The heyday of pulp fiction was past, but he predicts that the western is here to stay. He only laments that it hasn’t been taken seriously as a narrative genre since Zane Grey first drew scorn from the literary establishment.
In his essay, he argues that Grey fixed the genre in a formula of three elements: “virgins, villains, and varmints.” Each is defined by a limited selection of stereotypes. He attributes this in part to a simple fact. Western writers, including Grey, were chiefly “outsiders” from east of the 100th meridian, writing about a West they knew only selectively and from partial experience.
Grey vs. Rhodes. Grey, as we’ve seen, was writing about a mythic West. He favors action and melodrama set against a panoramic backdrop of mountain, desert, and canyons. Romance is elevated to grand passion. Villains are evil and must die. It is escapism pure and simple.
After reading writers of western fiction who were his contemporaries, you soon notice his utter lack of wit and humor. If there is irony in his writing, it can be heavy-handed. He was no master of the light touch.
The son of a dentist, Grey grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio. He went to the University of Pennsylvania on a baseball scholarship and was apparently a middling student. It’s worth noting that he knew the West as a place for adventuring. He wrote for Field and Stream, which featured his articles on hunting mountain lions and deep-sea fishing.
|Sacramento Mountains, New Mexico
Rhodes, Hutchinson reminds us, grew up in Nebraska and Kansas before resettling with his family in New Mexico. He worked there as a cowboy, miner, freight hauler, and in at least a dozen other jobs from an early age. The characters in his stories were men he actually knew. It is said that he wouldn’t write a word that would ring false to any of them.
There are virgins, villains and varmints in his fiction, but he presents them with a feeling for the human comedy. To know all is to forgive all. The virgins are clever and surprisingly daring in their refusal to be sidelined because of their gender – or their need of rescue. Violence between adversaries is avoided if possible. Life is hard enough without willfully making it worse.
Rhodes was mostly self-educated and a voracious reader from an early age. His fiction is full of literary allusions and a playful love of language. There is wit and humor and a brand of irony that make light of adversity and the harsh conditions of western life. It is a “western” sensibility.
So today I’m briefly looking at a few of his first stories, all of them published before 1910.
|Inscription Rock, New Mexico, Timothy O'Sullivan, 1873
“Loved I Not Honor More.” Published in Out West in 1903, this early story casts Rhodes himself in the role of a horse rancher. References to international affairs are not a common subject in western fiction, but the Boer War (1899-1902) figures in this one.
Though in desperate need of the money, Wildcat Thompson (i.e. Rhodes) refuses to sell his horses to an officer of the British Army for use against the Boers. He puts up such a fuss about it that all his neighbors, including Pat Garrett, decide not to sell as well. This leads to a prolonged fistfight between the officer and Thompson, which ends in a comic saving of face for both sides.
“Sticky Pierce, Diplomat.” Also published in Out West, in 1906, this is a rambling monologue told by one puncher to another. It resembles the humorous yarns of the Cattleman in Alfred Henry Lewis’ Wolfville stories. You can also picture it years later with Gabby Hayes talking to a bemused Roy Rogers.
Once more, a disagreement between men of different social backgrounds leads to a fistfight. This time the dispute is over spelling. Not “broncho,” the storyteller insists, but “bronco.” Not only that. A cowboy’s high-heeled boots and the way he tilts his hat serve a purpose. They are not silly or quaint. Again, there’s a comic resolution that lets each of them think he’s come out ahead.
|Gamblers, California Gold Rush, J. D. Borthwick, 1851
A Free Silver supporter of William Jennings Bryan gets lucky playing roulette until he is challenged to wager his substantial winnings on the outcome of the election. Unaware that the news of McKinley’s victory has already reached the camp, the man accepts the bet. Too clever by half, he’s not outwitted so easily.
“The Long Shift.” Published in McClure’s in 1907, this story is a breath-taking tale of adventure. Set almost entirely in a mineshaft, it recounts the desperate efforts of a small group of men to rescue a group of miners trapped underground after an explosion.
As the hours go by, they make slow progress drilling through rock to reach the men with an air hose. As working conditions worsen, the descriptive detail is vivid. Finally, help arrives in the form of a man known to be a thief. Their efforts together become a test of manhood as it’s understood in the West.
|Santa Rita, New Mexico, 1919
People get along by bartering goods and services. The loan of a hundred dollar bill quickly makes the rounds as one after another uses it to pay off his debts. The irony, as we learn in the last line is that the bill is counterfeit.
“The Trouble Man.” Best for last, this 1909 story appeared in The Saturday Evening Post. It involves cowpunchers in a dispute between outfits over the death of a trigger-happy young cowboy. Jeff Bransford, the central character of Rhodes’ novels Good Men and True (1910) and Bransford of Rainbow Range (1913), takes action to settle differences without further loss of life. He proves himself to be the “trouble man” of the title, meaning the best man to restore peace and order.
Early on, an exchange between two other cowboys sums up what it takes to be such a man. Says one – an old-timer – there’s only one way to find out whether you’re a square peg or a round peg: “Get in the hole.”
Picture credits: wikimedia.org
Coming up: Old West glossary #4