Thursday, June 30, 2011

William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky (1904)

William Rheem Lighton (1866-1923) grew up, as one source says, “mostly in Nebraska” during the early decades of statehood. He appears as himself in this novel, though only as the “Billy” to whom the Uncle Mac of the title tells his tales. These all occur in the 1850s and 60s around Omaha and along the Platte valley.

A young man given to adventuring and little thought of risk, Mac gets himself involved with horse thieves, Indians, homesteaders, and even John Brown and the Underground Railway. He works for a time as a freighter between Omaha and San Francisco. During the war between the states, he spends some time in the U.S. Cavalry, escorting prairie travelers and providing protection from the Sioux.

The book is a character sketch of a man remembering the good old days. Each chapter is a different episode or collection of them. What they add up to is his main argument, that the pioneers in the territory did just fine without “civilization.” They were basically trustworthy, self-sufficient folk who didn’t need rules and laws to run their lives.  

Book illustration by W. H. Dunton
Code of the West. Mac himself is a living example of that breed, “staunch, fearless, strong, steadfast.” Being a man of the outdoors has made him healthy in body and mind. Whether in a fistfight or giving a man the coat off his back, “the need of the occasion is his sole guide in conduct.” Desiring neither wealth nor power, he has lived “for the pure joy of life itself.”

Like Will Rogers, he seems never to have met a man he didn’t like. People are mixtures of good and bad, he says, which seems to be what the good Lord intended. Even a horse thief has a “native sense of integrity.” His first story is about being deputized to bring in a half-deadbeat by the name of Turk Wesley, who’s been running off horses from the local Pawnee.

Mac gets his man but is unlucky enough to get shot in an exchange of gunfire with the Indians. Honoring the code of the West without a second thought, Turk takes the wounded Mac to a settlement where there’s a doctor. Problem is, Turk has been thieving from the folks there, too, so he knows he’s taking a big risk. When Mac recovers weeks later, he learns that the residents have caught Turk and he’s met his end. A “born fool,” Mac says, but not without integrity. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Crime in early western fiction

Cover, 1902 edition
This may seem like a stretch, but the early western novel is more than a little about crime and criminals. I’m talking here specifically about the flood of novels that followed the huge popular success of Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902).

The scores of writers of these westerns are unknown today except for Zane Grey. Most of them (again, with the exception of Grey) are as good as Wister. Many had long careers in the pulps and in hard cover, their stories often made into Hollywood films.

The essential themes of the western are on full display in The Virginian, and that includes an interest in the criminal mind. Wister’s imitators followed suit, inventing the genre as they went. So let’s start with Wister.

Trampas, the villain of the novel, qualifies on many counts as a sociopath. The historical West had its share of misfits, which is often how they got on the frontier in the first place. And Wister, writing from first-hand knowledge, didn’t have to dream up this bad guy.

Trampas is a cauldron of barely contained rage. Meanwhile, he can competently hold down a job as a cowboy – not an easy occupation. Still, engaged in a continuing battle of wits with our hero, the Virginian, he carefully avoids open conflict. He backs down when challenged with "When you call me that, smile" [Illustration at left].

Wister, Harvard-educated and from a prominent Philadelphia family, is curious about what makes such a man. In the characters of Steve and Shorty, he shows how two men are corrupted by their association with Trampas.

Both descend into thievery out of weakness of character, stealing horses and rustling cattle instead of working at an honest living. Steve, though he’s the Virginian’s long-time friend, is captured and hanged. Shorty could make a career of handling horses, which he has a gift for, but he's lured by Trampas' promises of easy money. Trampas then shoots him dead as the two men flee from the vigilantes, but with a single horse between them [Illustration below].

So far, the story has two elements that make it a western on the one hand and crime fiction on the other. It’s a western because it takes place on the “lawless” frontier. I put that word in quotes because there were in fact two kinds of law out there: duly constituted and something called the code of the West.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

“Doc” (1971)

Yet another western about Doc Holliday, this one is both really good and really awful. Smack in the middle of early 1970s revisionism, it celebrates the famous friendship between Holliday and Wyatt Earp and then trashes it.

The amazing production design is way ahead of the script in its all-out effort to be true to history. You could believe at times you’re watching Deadwood, the sets, costumes, and the lighting look so authentic. The use of background music is nicely minimal, and the Mexican musicians playing in the saloon give Tombstone the feel of a real border town.

Plot. The script itself makes enough passing references to actual people and events to suggest an underlying familiarity with them. But the screenwriter slices and dices what’s known into a curious mix that’s plausible only for anyone who doesn’t give a hoot about history. [Bill Crider correctly notes that "Doc" was the work of writer Pete Hamill, who was a well respected journalist and novelist, about whom more can be learned here.]

Holliday (Stacy Keach) is on his last legs and - given violent coughing fits -  knows it. He and Kate Elder (Faye Dunaway) team up after he wins her from Ike Clanton in a card game. Crossing a desperate stretch of desert, the pair go separate ways once they get to Tombstone. He's there to meet up with old friend Wyatt Earp. She quickly finds work as a prostitute and wows the saloon crowd.

The movie shifts gears abruptly as Doc rents a house and decides to make an honest woman of her. Their scenes together are warmly lighted with the glow of Hollywood romance. Dunaway is her stunning self and doesn’t miss a beat. Big Nose Kate Elder would surely have been pleased and proud by her portrayal in the film - if not a little puzzled by the Better Homes and Gardens domestic side of her that love ignites.

Doc Holliday, before 1881
In the script’s defense, it should be said that it clarifies the medical background that provides Holliday with the title “Doc.” He was trained as a dentist, as he explains to Kate, and with a grin and a wink, the screenwriter has her ask his opinion of a gold tooth in her mouth.

And fair enough, they portray Wyatt Earp (Harris Yulin) as less than the admirable lawman of legend. He walks and talks tough as a law-and-order man, but he’s got plans to make a fortune in Tombstone. He intends to partner with his old friend Holliday by granting him free rein as a gambler. With his skill and his reputation, he will draw business like flies to a picnic.

Only Sheriff Behan in town is an obstacle, and Wyatt intends to put him out of office and take the job himself in the next election. In his efforts to this end, he enlists the help of the Clanton gang, who first beat the crap out of him and eventually back out of a crooked deal Earp masterminds. Their falling out leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral, in which the entire gang and Morgan Earp are shot dead.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 13

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from turn of the century novels and stories I’ve been reading. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

arc light = light produced by an electric arc inside a bulb filled with gas, e.g. neon, argon, or xenon. “The man drew out a cigarette case that flashed in colors from the nearby arc-light.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

bad cess to
= may evil befall. “‘Red Slavin, bad cess to him!’ and her eyes regarded her questioner with renewed anxiety.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer. 

Angold arc lamp, 1898
benedict = a newly married man, especially one who has been long a confirmed bachelor; from the character in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. “Your prediction sounds a bit strong from one who is himself a benedict.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

bulge = an advantage. “Of course them fellers has got the bulge; they kin starve us out, maybe they kin smoke us out, and they kin sure make things onpleasant whenever they git their long-range guns to throwin’ lead permiscous.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

duck on a/the rock
= a children’s game of tag involving the pitching of stones at a rock. “‘Let's play duck on the rock,’ suggested Florence.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

fandango = a ball or dance. “We’ve got them fellers roped and tied, gents, and they simply won’t be ace-high with the ladies of this camp after our fandango is over with.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer. 

Meadow lark, 1919
fill your tea-kettle = bird song. “The meadow-larks, singly or in pairs, announcing their arrival with a guttural ‘tuerk’ and a saucy flit of the tail, or admonishing ‘fill your tea-kettle, fill your tea-kettle’ with a persistence worthy a better cause.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

ginger = enliven. “He tried to ginger things up a bit when he was new here.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

Jehu = a king of Israel known for riding his chariot furiously; a coach or cab driver who drives fast or recklessly. “She sat comfortably ensconced in the back seat of the old, battered red coach, surrounded by cushions for protection from continual jouncing, as the Jehu in charge urged his restive mules down the desolate vally of the Bear Water.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

overhaul = to catch up with, overtake. “I didn’t know that we’d fail to overhaul you.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

owly = cranky, uncooperative, negative. “Every minute is valuable now. The outlook is owly.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch. 

Pasteboard book cover
pasteboard = thin card stock produced by pasting together three or more sheets of paper; used for playing cards. “The man at the left, tall, gaunt, ill-kempt, flicked the pasteboards in his hand to the floor and ground them beneath his heavy boots.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

plead the baby act
= plead ignorance or inexperience as an excuse for a mistake or wrongdoing. “Of course I believe ye. Not that you’re any too blame good, Bob, but you ain’t the kind what pleads the baby act.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

pre-emptor = someone who acquires or uses land without permission. “Three months dragged out their slow length before the pre-emptors could file and escape from their claims.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

rack-a-bone = an emaciated person or animal, a skeleton. “I was on my way to the store, but when I saw his old rack-a-bone team, I turned off to see you.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

scantling = a timber of relatively slight width and thickness, as a stud or rafter in a house frame. “Bailey went out to the front of the shanty to look at the lantern he had set up on the scantling.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch. 

Shot tower, by Jesster79
shot tower = a building formerly used in the production of shot, in which molten lead was dropped from a great height into water, thus cooling it and forming the shot. “Hills twenty, thirty miles away rose like apparitions, astonishingly magnified. Willows became elms, a settler’s shanty rose like a shot-tower.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

straddlebug = tripod commonly constructed of three planks of wood with a settler’s name attached to notify others that a plot of land was being claimed. “And so at last they came to the land of ‘the straddle-bug’ – the squatters’ watch dog – three boards nailed together (like a stack of army muskets) to make a claim.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch.

strawboard = a coarse yellow cardboard made of straw pulp; used in hardcover bookbinding. “Mr. Demilt had written to his firm explaining the advantages of starting a straw-board factory in Fairfield.” Henry Wallace Phillips, Red Saunders.

tidy = a small covering, usually ornamental, placed on the backs and arms of upholstered furniture to prevent wear or soiling; an antimacassar. “It’s more fun than working red poppies on tidies – that’s about all they’ll let you do back East.” Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch. 

Weary Willie (far right), 1898
Weary Willy = tramp character created by British cartoonist Tom Browne (1870-1910). “I'm not a Weary Willie. I prefer to earn my dole first.” Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair.

yellow boy = gold coin; originally a gold guinea. “There’ll be another yellow boy waiting when you come.” Randall Parrish, Bob Hampton of Placer.

Image credits: 
Weary Willie,

All others, Wikimedia Commons:
Meadow lark illustration from The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874-1927)
Pasteboard prayer book cover by By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "shooting_brooklyn"

Coming up: “Doc” (1971)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Charles Gramlich, Killing Trail

Thanks to Louis L’Amour for inspiring Charles Gramlich to turn his hand to the writing of western stories. He brings to life a sharp sensibility for L’Amour’s kind of hero, with a clean, elegant style of writing. Like his heroes, it never fusses over niceties or formalities and cuts, without apology, right to the chase.

Which is not to say his stories are all about chases. But there’s an unrelenting forward movement in them, an intensity that doesn’t let up. The man at the center of each story is driven by determination – to survive, to repay injustice, maybe even win the heart of a woman.

Most of the time, this means going it alone, against all odds. To journey with a Gramlich hero is to know the loneliness of the solitary horseman on a perilous mission. At almost any moment, he can kill or be killed. And for the most part, there is no one to miss him or even bury him should he fail.

Gramlich's stories navigate well the broad stream of western fiction that pits the lone gunman against villainy and treachery. The values he upholds are the uncompromising ethic of free men defending the rights of honorable men and women to live freely in the world. Where violence is used to subvert those rights, violence inevitably must come to the rescue.

These stories capture that world without a single misstep. Reading them, you take pleasure in the writer’s mastery of the genre. If you haven’t yet treated yourself to Gramlich’s way with a western story, you can find Killing Trail now for both the kindle and the Nook.

And prepare to read them just one at a time. They have that kind of impact.

Coming up: Old West glossary, no. 13

Friday, June 24, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: hello, goodbye

This is our last Friday in West LA and the second to last hello-goodbye. I snapped this not long ago while waiting for the No. 1 Culver City bus (Fairfax to Venice). It's the back of a bus stop bench, decorated to a fare-the-well by taggers. I would translate if I could, but I don't know the lingo.

Travel by bus in LA is probably like nowhere else in the world. About the only thing you can confidently say about bus passengers is that they are never from Beverly Hills. After that, there are a million and one different stories, one for every person who's ever had to get somewhere without a car.

Ear plugs are handy most hours of the day. Besides people yakking on cell phones, there's in-transit TV, ear-piercing beeping each time the front entry platform gets lowered and raised for folks in wheelchairs, and the automated recordings before, during, and after every stop: "Stop requested; please use rear exit"; "Approaching Sepulveda Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard"; "Please have fare ready."

The cheerfully pleading tone of that last one always put my teeth on edge. And riders forever shunned the rear exit in favor of walking back to the front, to block the way for any passengers getting on.

But if you ignore all that and pay attention, you can witness things that are rife with human comedy (and the occasional melodrama). Like the guy across the aisle from me once who tried talking to the guy behind me, who was having one of those off-his-meds one-sided conversations. And he just kept on talking to himself, until the first guy got angry and finally said, "How come you'll talk to somebody who isn't there, but you won't talk to me?"

I will miss those moments. . . but not much else.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Hamlin Garland, The Moccasin Ranch (1909)

This novella by Hamlin Garland (1860-1940) is about a handful of first-year homesteaders on the wide-open Great Plains of Dakota. It has two stories to tell. One, the impact of elements of nature on the well being of early settlers. The other, the questionable relevance on the frontier of conventional morality.

Plot. Arriving in the spring of 1883, the new arrivals stake out their claims on the flat, treeless prairie. Everything about this unbroken land lifts their spirits and fills them with hope for a bright future. They throw up one-room cabins for shelter and begin to make improvements that will give them rights to ownership of their holdings.

As the year progresses, however, their tentative grip on a spot of land becomes more doubtful. First there is drought, then there’s a massive and terrifying storm. Finally winter weather sets in and they are isolated by blizzards that threaten them and their livestock with starvation and death by freezing.

A couple at the center of the story, the Burkes, do not weather well under these conditions. She develops an attachment to another man, Rivers, the agent who has led them to their claim and delivers mail from town. He is something of a ladies man and enjoys the idle flirtation.

Hamlin Garland, 1893
With the arrival of winter snows, she despairs in the isolation of a drafty cabin, the wind howling day and night outside. Adding to her dismay is the discovery that she is pregnant. Throwing herself at the mercy of Rivers, she begs him to take her away.

Knowing already that he would have wooed her were it not for her marriage, Rivers puts her into his wagon. Together they brave the snow and cold with intentions to leave the country forever.

East vs. West. As a western story, The Moccasin Ranch finds its own way of pushing the limits of Eastern propriety. The weather forces the fleeing couple to stay overnight at the cabin of Rivers’ partner, Bailey, who instantly objects to the couple’s betrayal of her marriage vows. With his well-conditioned ideas of morality, he regards Rivers’ behavior as “lustful” and Mrs. Burke as “wanton,” and he tries to prevent them from going through with their plan.

While the three of them are snowbound in the cabin, Bailey tries to pass the time by reading aloud stories from magazines. Ironically, some are love stories about “innocent creatures” who overcome obstacles to find “bliss” in each other’s arms. Rivers and Mrs. Burke, alas, don’t qualify as innocent.

Then, the magnitude and indifference of the storm outside makes Bailey realize that on the frontier they do not inhabit a world of conventional values. The deep caring he sees between the two lovers surprises and touches him. He comes to see that it surpasses the man-made requirements of a marriage contract. The following day, they depart with his blessing.

Illustration by John Newton Howitt
Women. How this went down with readers in 1909 makes an interesting question. It hinges surely on how progressive were their beliefs about women’s rights. It’s maybe no coincidence that of the four states granting women’s suffrage by the turn of the last century, all of them were in the West (Idaho, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming).

And in this case, Mrs. Burke doesn’t even need to claim that her husband was unfaithful or beat her. Burke is in fact a fine husband. It’s enough that she has finally found the man she would have married if she’d met him first. The love of true hearts is enough to free a woman from a marriage vow. Period.

Landscape. There’s some irony in the title of The Moccasin Ranch. It’s the name the Burkes give to their modest acreage, and it reflects their aspirations. It’s also in keeping with how they relate immediately to the land, thrilled and made hopeful by its beauty. There “the majesty of God’s wilderness” even affects the quality of folks' social relations. Neighbors mix freely regardless of origin or gender (with the exception of some clannish Alsatians). Gone are “envy and hate and suspicion.”

By November, however, after living for months on canned beans and crackers, the new residents are growing weary. The plain has become an “oppressive weight,” and the land is “gray and sad.” As winter approaches, it becomes a “menacing desert, hard as iron, pitiless as ice.” The wind, once a solace, becomes savage and unrelenting. 

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie, Red Cloud, Nebraska
Wrapping up. The Moccasin Ranch is from Garland’s middle years as a writer. He’d already established himself with a collection of stories, Main-Traveled Roads (1891). These stories drew on his experience of growing up in rural communities in what is now known as the Midwest. Over the following two decades he published up to 50 fiction and nonfiction pieces. Many are set in the West, and most of them appeared in Saturday Evening Post and McClure’s. Though he spent his last years in Los Angeles, only two of his novels were made into films, both of them silent.

The anti-romanticism of The Moccasin Ranch no doubt reflects Garland’s early years on the rural frontier. Willa Cather knew it too from her girlhood in Nebraska. According to Garland, the frontier is a test of both fortitude and personal circumstances. Some thrive, some don’t. More than will power, the heart can make all the difference.

The Moccasin Ranch can be found free online at googlebooks and Project Gutenberg. It is also available at amazon and for the Nook.

Sources: FictionMag Index;

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Western photographer, Peter Brown

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Johnny Boggs, Lonely Trumpet

Often, it seems, the western is chiefly about inflicting and enduring pain. This historical novel by Spur Award winner Johnny Boggs is no exception. It tells of the short army career of the first black graduate of West Point in 1877, Henry O. Flipper. And it focuses on the court-martial at Fort Davis, in west Texas, that led to his dishonorable discharge in 1882.

Accused and eventually found not guilty on trumped-up charges of embezzlement, his chief fault was that he was a black man in an officer’s uniform. He had to go. The efforts of several fellow officers made sure that he did.

Reading stories of heroism, you wonder if you’ve got the kind of backbone it takes to act with such courage. During Flipper’s tenure at West Point and on the Indian-fighting frontier of West Texas, he confronted conditions that would have daunted the best of us.

Contempt for blacks was something he’d grown up with and learned to deflect. But being the only black among whites, most of them coldly hostile, he was often friendless and alone. Living daily in that kind of solitary confinement is an ordeal that would erode the confidence and fortitude of even the strongest person. Flipper somehow did it – until he was finally undone.

Fort Davis Historic Site, Texas, photo by Daniel Schwen [click to enlarge]

Lonely Trumpet is not the usual western novel. The pain inflicted and endured in it is not abstract or fictional but real, a matter of record. An honorable man and exemplary soldier, he was not just robbed of a career that he loved. He was robbed of a dream of equality that Emancipation had promised every American, black and white.

That the ill will of a few men could kill that dream is the sad lesson of this novel. Witnessing it, you watch a death more devastating than the western’s usual demise by gunfire.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Broken Lance (1954)

If for no other reason, this 1950s western is worth seeing for Spencer Tracy’s performance. He plays an aging Arizona cattleman who built an empire, using a six-gun and his own style of justice to preserve it. Now those days are over.

Not only do folks prefer due process in settling disputes, but three of his four grown sons are giving him troubles. They resent the old man’s rough fathering, and the oldest (Richard Widmark) has ideas about modernizing the family’s operation. They also hate him for the affection he gives to his youngest son, Joe (Robert Wagner).

A twist in the plot is that Joe is a half-breed. The boys’ father married the daughter of an Indian chief after the death of his first wife. This may have been common in the time of the frontier, but not anymore. Joe’s mixed parentage also makes him unacceptable marriage material by the father of the girl he’s fallen for (Jean Peters).   

Opening sequence, Broken Lance
Plot. The film is about the fall of a patriarch. His fortunes turn after some of his old-style intimidation of those who cross him get him dragged into court. A copper mining outfit sues him for damages over a disagreement about use of water rights. The older sons reject the settlement deal and Joe ends up spending three years in prison.

Struck down by a stroke, the old man spends his last days in the care of his wife (Katy Jurado), while the older sons do what they want with the ranch. Out of prison, Joe has scores to settle with his three brothers. Their differences are finally resolved with the assistance of an Indian employee of the ranch.

Robert Wagner
Indians. Broken Lance comes at a time when the Hollywood stereotype of the bloodthirsty savage Indian was changing. The film makes a point of dignifying them, though only as pacified members of a subdued race. Prejudice against them and objecting to intermarriage are regarded by the film as narrow-minded, if not racist.

Like the Lone Ranger's Tonto, however, their function is to be faithful retainers. They come to the aid of Spencer when he's outnumbered by the angry copper mine workers. They show up at his funeral to play their drums in respect for the departed. The appearance of a wolf at points in the film suggests the continuing of animist culture and traditions somewhere off camera. But for Hollywood, it’s Indian lite. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Will Lillibridge, Ben Blair (1905)

Here’s an early-early western with a familiar subject but a new angle. It argues that a man of unfortunate parentage can be a suitable mate for a woman above his social class. What makes him suitable is an inborn moral superiority and strength of character produced by living on the frontier.

Lillibridge gives it more of an “adult” angle by having his central character, Ben Blair, born out of wedlock. This single fact is so distasteful that the circumstances of his parentage are not even specifically revealed. You have to read between the lines.

Plot. The woman he loves is a childhood friend, Florence, from a neighboring ranch. Not only does she object to Ben’s being misbegotten. She is bored and yearns for the excitement of the city. She also has high hopes of finding a husband with an elevated social standing. So off she goes to New York.

Much of the second half of the novel involves Ben’s arrival in New York with his own hopes of changing her mind. A fish out of water in his hat, flannel shirt, and boots, he learns that she’s already being courted by a man of superior breeding and wealth. Yet as Ben’s prospects go from bad to worse, he is undaunted.

You already know how this turns out. On the last page, she finally relents, professing her love for him (despite his parentage), and she agrees to return with him to the frontier.  

Prairie, South Dakota, photo by Wing-Chi Poon
Back story. The first half of the novel is all back story to this. We know from the earliest scenes that Ben’s father is a hopeless drunk  and wastrel, as well as a wife and child abuser.  Ben’s mother dies of an undefined illness, and his old man abandons him, setting their one-room sod-house ablaze before he leaves. Surviving the fire, Ben is raised by a neighboring rancher, Rankin, an unmarried man who offers him the loving fathering that Ben has never known.

Twelve years pass, and Ben is now grown into a young “plainsman.” He is taciturn, stoic, and fearless, his moral superiority fully developed as compensation for the stigma of his birth. Standing for all that his father never was, Ben is a man whose actions are defined solely by responsibility.

The clarity of his thought comes through in his scenes with other characters. A conversation with him is a chess game – not with someone who uses words to manipulate but to cut straight to the heart of the matter. He says what he means and means what he says. And it doesn’t take many words to do that.

That’s appealing in a character, and we admire it in the laconic heroes that came later with western movies. Today, used to prevarication and half-truths in high places, we are likely to welcome it – even find it a little bracing. 

Friday, June 17, 2011

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1902)

With this publication date, I instantly think of The Virginian, which was published in the same year. Hard to imagine two works of fiction so different. Both have narrators who head off to a frontier of one kind or another. Both meet a man there who captures their interest. One story is a romance, the other a dark, dark vision.

Plot. I was in college when I read this novella by Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and surely must have understood only one-tenth of it at best. Reading for plot then, as one does at that age, there is not much to hang your hat on. The narrator, Marlow, captains a scow on an African River, and after many months of delays finally reaches an outpost run by an ivory hunter named Kurtz.

The Paris-based company both men work for regards Kurtz with undiluted awe. He is some kind of genius on the fast track to an upper-level executive position. So everyone says. Marlow is worldly wise enough to question the enthusiastic claims made for him. Nothing else he witnesses along the way is what he’s been led to expect.

Joseph Conrad, 1904
The natives who work for the company are used brutally as slaves, and efficiency of operations is less than zero. He sees waste of all kinds on all sides. The whites stationed along the river are intent only on personal gain and spend their time waiting for shipments of cargo or news that seems never to arrive. Only a bookkeeper is industriously employed, but it’s not clear that he actually accomplishes anything of value.

Always there are rumors about Kurtz, and for the reader, the mystery of the man grows in intensity. Marlow himself becomes obsessed with meeting him. The months-long journey up the winding river prolongs the growing suspense.

The ominous presence of the jungle pressing in on both sides is so full of warning you can’t miss it. That is unless you are 20, like I was, and blithely reading this as an adventure story along the lines of H. Rider Haggard. The portrayal of the colonial presence in Africa is itself full of horrors. But there’s no mistaking that truly unutterable and inconceivable horror lurks beyond the trees that line the river. Not the jungle itself but some Black Hole-scale evil mutely watches from the shadowy undergrowth.  

Steamboat on the Congo
Kurtz. When we finally meet him, Kurtz has not so much “gone native” as discovered his “inner savage.” Elevated to a kind of deity by the natives, he has permitted himself to act without shame or restraint. Like Wolcott in Deadwood, he has come to believe there is no sin – and with similarly nasty results.

Meanwhile, he is still an intelligent man, educated in Europe. He’s able to understand that civilization is no more than the thin veneer over a murderous criminality waiting to be granted free rein. The evil that inhabits the jungle’s darkness parallels the evil that lives within the darkness of the human heart.

More disturbing still is the trance-like worship into which Kurtz’s admirers fall. A wandering young man from Russia has had the privilege of learning at the great man’s knee. While he grasps that Kurtz is dangerous, he happily remains in his grip. He is an instructive study in the self-effacing devotion people gladly bestow on a demagogue.

Photo-finish Friday: hello, goodbye

Today is a sad goodbye to another neighbor. It's the Westwood branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. Brand new when we first moved here six years ago, it has always been a very busy place, with daily activities for all ages. Coming up the day I took this was their regular fund-raiser book sale.

For a city noted for its movie industry, where everyone with a laptop is working on a screenplay, LA has an enviable public library system. And it's still going strong despite budget cutbacks. This is one of over 70 branches. Besides books, it's got dozens of computers with Internet access, shelves of DVDs, audiobooks, and CDs. And free parking!

The coolest part is that you can get online at home and order up books from the catalog. They get delivered to the branch of your choice. You can renew online, and the only downside is that you have to eventually return them. For me, its massive and diverse holdings have been a resource as useful as just about any university library. It's going to be an adjustment living without it.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Man From Laramie (1955)

With a fiction genre that starts off with a novel set in Wyoming called The Virginian, there’s precedent enough for a movie set in New Mexico called The Man From Laramie. This fine 1950s western starring James Stewart makes excellent use of CinemaScope photography to tell a story about loyalty and betrayal.

Directed by Anthony Mann, the script is nicely realized and the cast is clearly in good hands. The pacing has been slowed down a bit to allow performances that seem naturalistic and characters that are more easily believable. Some sequences of soundtrack music add a haunting melancholy that brings out the isolation of the vast landscape.

The plot. The story is a familiar one. A tough old cattleman (Donald Crisp) has built an empire by driving out other ranchers. People live in fear of him, but as we get to know him – surprise – he’s not the mean bastard we expect. He’s still tough, but reasonable and fair, and he has some problems of his own.

The most obvious is his out-of-control only son and heir. Believing that he’s following his father’s example, he’s a belligerent and violent bully. Encountering Stewart and his men helping themselves to salt from a huge salt flat, he roughs up Stewart, burns his freight wagons, and shoots most of his mules.

The father has been relying on the foreman of the ranch (Arthur Kennedy) to groom his son to take over the operation. Meanwhile, Kennedy plans to marry the rancher’s niece and become part owner of the ranch. But he’s not family yet, and despite all he’s invested of himself over the years, his future is tenuous.

As often happens in westerns, when we get a glimpse inside a family with a big ranch, dysfunction is writ large. The old man has to learn the bitter truth about his offspring, and like King Lear make the most of one last chance to set his life straight.

James Stewart, The Man From Laramie

Stewart. By refusing to simply go back to Laramie, where he came from, Stewart’s character becomes enmeshed in the family’s problems. There’s a price you pay for every choice you make, and he pays painfully by taking a pistol shot at close range through his right hand. Before it’s all over, the old man, his son, and his foreman all pay bitterly as well.

Stewart’s performance is closely similar to the westerner he’s played in other films. Always the fundamentally decent man, he is no pushover either. He can work up a head of righteous anger, easily holding his own in a shouting match with another man or throwing himself into a fierce fistfight. Then, in a scene with a pretty girl, he can just as easily get self-conscious and start fumbling for words.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Harper’s Book of Facts (1895)

Warning: Truckload of facts ahead. This 115-year-old desk encyclopedia is a wonderment of information. I first stumbled upon it at googlebooks but found it hard to use there. So I shopped online and turned up a used copy in good condition at a reasonable price.  Thanks to the Queens Borough Public Library who gave it a home for who knows how long before discarding it. It has a new home now.

The book's full title is Harper’s Book of Facts: A Classified History of the World Embracing Science, Literature, and Art. Adapted from a British fact book, it has a transatlantic bias. But it’s full of facts and data that say a lot about what was considered worth knowing at the end of the nineteenth century.

What’s there (and what’s not there) makes for hours of both reading and reading between the lines. Here are a few items picked at random as they relate to the American West. 

Map of Manhattan Island, with Hudson River, 1776; created 1878
Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys get a single short paragraph. It begins with a factoid dating back to the Revolutionary War that was new to me. According to the book's editors, the term "cowboy" first applied to “British marauders and Tories who plundered the people east of the Hudson river, in New York, during the occupancy of New York city by the British, 1776-82.” This is followed by mention of “herdsmen on the ranches of the western states and territories.” That is all.

By comparison, Indians get five and a half pages of “facts.” A listing of tribes in the U.S. shows a total population of 249,273. Separate numbers are shown in Oklahoma for residents of Indian Territory, home of the five so-called civilized tribes (52,065), members of 17 other tribes, including Kiowa, Comanche, and Apache (8,708), and “colored populations and claimants” (14,224).

Chiricahua medicine man, c1885
Under a heading “Indian civilization,” the acculturation of the American Indian is summed up in a paragraph of statistics. Out of a total of about 192,000 (excluding data for the five civilized tribes in Oklahoma and the New York tribes), the numbers from the Department of the Interior show the following:

Engaged more or less in civilized pursuits (27,394)
Occupying houses (17,203)
Wearing civilized clothes (62,625)
Speaking English (26,223)

Numbers are also shown for horses and stock owned, acres cultivated, fence built, lumber milled, wood cut, butter made, crops raised, hay cut, horses and stock owned.

Under a separate heading “reservations,” we learn that a total of 150,231 square miles are occupied by Indian reservations. The entry notes that area reserved for Indians is rapidly diminishing. As recently as 1880, there were 241,000 square miles of reservations. Just the facts, of course. There’s no comment as to whether this development is good, bad, or indifferent.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Springfield Rifle (1952)

Best not to read a plot summary of this film before watching it, and allow yourself to be surprised by its unexpected turns. This is an unusual western with some but not many of the typical conventions. The setting is Colorado during the Civil War, and Gary Cooper plays a high-ranking Union cavalry officer in charge of delivering horses to the Union forces.

Southern sympathizers, however, lie in wait no matter what route the cavalry takes, and after a firefight they make off with every herd to sell to the Confederacy. Someone is leaking key information to the thieves, and the film is about finding out who and how.

After surrendering a herd of horses to the thieves without firing a shot, Cooper is court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge for cowardice and dereliction of duty. We then follow him as he becomes involved with the gang stealing the horses.

The plot turns on a bit of wartime history, as it concerns the introduction of the breech-loaded Springfield rifle to the battlefield. (Hence, the title.) These replaced the musket-loaded weapons used during the early years of the war and substantially increased the firepower of the troops equipped with them.

Hungarian-émigré Andre de Toth directed this engaging and unconventional western. Born into a military family who disapproved of his career choices, he seems likely to have had some personal interest in this story. A subplot of the film concerns the impact of Cooper’s discharge on his wife and son.

Recruiting poster, c1863
Filmed in color, Springfield Rifle makes ample use of the outdoor settings, many shot in snow-covered mountain terrain. Always visually interesting, the frame is filled with things to see, whether close-ups of faces or the herds of running horses in long shot, gracefully moving across an undulating landscape. Instead of a straightforward punch-up, a fistfight in the snow involves spectacular rolling falls down the drifted slopes.

Cooper is at his best as a complex character whose motivations are not easy to assess. There’s quite a large cast of characters, including brief appearances by Martin Milner and Fess Parker, who would become more familiar in TV roles. Lon Chaney, Jr., gets plenty of screen time as a mug-faced leader of the gang of horse thieves.

Coming as it does during the years of the Hollywood blacklists and the Korean War, it’s a curious depiction of the U.S. military. Compared to John Ford’s worshipful portrayals of the cavalry, this film is darker and less reassuring. Springfield Rifle is currently available at amazon and streamable at netflix.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Harper's Book of Facts (1895)

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cowboys in the news, 1883-84

Chicago Daily News newsroom, 1915
The short-lived cowboy strike of 1883 in the Texas Panhandle got a couple mentions in the Chicago Daily Tribune. In an item on May 22, 1883, dateline Dallas, Texas, the reporter seems to have spoken only with stock owners, for he attributes the labor dispute to the cowboys' resistance to change. The coming of barb wire and the fencing of the open ranges, he explains, have reduced their role in the regular roundups on the open range. The cowboy profession, as a result, faces imminent demise.

The report fails to include any of the cowboys' grievances against the owners. Most owners now represented investors from the East and Europe and had introduced lots of new rules and regulations. Key among them was the end of the poorly paid cowboy’s traditional source of additional income, the right to claim ownership of mavericks with his own brand and thus build his own herd. The owners added insult to injury by refusing to increase wages to compensate for this loss.

Painting by Anders Zorn, 1887
The news item continues: Now that the Texas legislature has permitted fencing of public lands, tensions have escalated. Cowboys have resorted to “terrorizing measures,” cutting fences and posting threatening signs like this: “We have fought the wolves and Indians, and will now fight the stockmen.” The owners show no sign of yielding, and as the spring roundup approaches, further disturbances, even bloodshed, are expected.

An earlier item in the Tribune on May 19, 1883, dateline Austin, Texas, reported that cowboys in one Panhandle county were returning to work – and without a pay raise. The source in this case was an officer of the State troops. He reveals that the stock-owners have asked for the presence of rangers at roundups in other counties. [I’m guessing that if the cowboys had their own newspaper, coverage of the strike would have had a whole different slant.] 

Ralph W. Emerson (1803-1882)
Troubles in Arizona. In other news, a cowboy gang leader, Kid Lewis, met his end in a hail of bullets in Clifton, Arizona. A report appeared in the September 27, 1883, Chicago Daily Tribune, dateline Tucson, Arizona. Lewis is said to have pulled his gun when confronted by a posse of 25 men. Three cowboys riding with him got away, one of them shot badly and assumed to be dead.

Sheriff Stevens is credited by the grateful community for attempting to stop an outbreak of bloody feuding among rival gangs. A second Kid, wanted for horse stealing, has been apprehended. However, two other lawmen are overdue in return from a manhunt following a stage robbery. The robbers, with a gang of seven cowboys, are believed to have retreated to a “stronghold” in the Santa Catalina Mountains.

Troubles in Idaho. Finally, an item in the March 24, 1884, Tribune, dateline Ogden, Utah, reports of a cowboy-related murder trial. The alleged assailant is the “notorious outlaw cowboy,” W. T. Stokes, who “just for amusement” fatally shot a violinist at a dance in American Falls, Idaho. Previously, Stokes and his gang were known for holding up a train and forcing a group of musicians on board to perform for them.

At a preliminary hearing, court proceedings were disrupted by a contingent of heavily armed supporters attempting to intimidate the presiding justice of the peace. The sheriff and a posse were required to disarm and disperse them. Stokes was subsequently held without bail.

Further reading:
Cowboy strike of 1883
Elmer Kelton, The Day the Cowboys Quit

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up:
Springfield Rifle (1952)

Friday, June 10, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: hello, goodbye

Another wonderful day in the neighborhood. Took this snapshot on the fly this afternoon, but the tilt is in the spirit of the name of this dry cleaners, which has been laundering my shirts for the past six years. Faultline Cleaners owes its name to any one of the network of seismic fractures under our feet that give us a shake now and then. Inside the entrance along the floor there's even a simulated crack a foot wide that looks for all the world like you could fall into it. A bit unnerving. I usually step over it.

Photo-finish Friday is the bright idea of Leah Utas over at The Goat's Lunch Pail.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

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

Over the past year or so, David Cranmer (writing as Edward Grainger) has been gaining an eager fan base for stories about his two U.S. marshals, Cash Laramie and Gideon Miles. Like crime fighters lifted from mid-century noir fiction, they work in an unwholesome world of Old West malefactors.

Add to that a 21st century sensibility about race relations and social justice, and you get  a powerful mix of narrative elements. Grainger stories are in the forefront of what I take to be the reinvention of the western. They pump life back into the old conventions, but with a fresh point of view – as the western has periodically done from its beginning.

White hats. The western hero has often been a marginal character, not quite a member in good standing of the social order. Think of Shane as a classic example. His use of the gun to maintain order on the frontier makes him socially useful, but it also creates a past that haunts him. Once his work is done, he has to move on.

But the men caught up in this kind of scenario have always been white men. The western novel emerged at a time when notions of racial purity intensified in the U.S. following the end of slavery. Expressions of contempt for blacks and “half-breeds” were routine in turn-of-the-century western fiction. The all-white westerns pouring out of Hollywood further reinforced this bias.

Now, Cash Laramie is white all right, but raised by Indians, and Gideon Miles is black. Whether working solo or together, this makes them marginal men of another sort. Though lawmen, they are also in a sense outlaws themselves. While their badges make them representatives of duly constituted authority, their experience of a corrupt world has them enforcing their own code of ethics.

If what Richard Wheeler says is true, the traditional audience for western fiction is not interested in stories with black and Indian-raised heroes. But there are plenty of younger readers (and some older ones like myself) ready to welcome them. And a Grainger story has its author’s finger squarely on the pulse of that audience.

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.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Face of a Fugitive (1959)

This film showed up on a list of noir westerns and, depending on how you define the term, it probably belongs there. It borrows from four classics I can think of: Shadow of a Doubt, High Noon, Shane, and Yellow Sky. But its thoughtful script and direction give it more than enough originality.

The first couple of minutes, you have to get over thinking of the TV series, “My Three Sons,” because the lead is played by Fred MacMurray. Then you mentally rewind to Double Indemnity and give the man a cowboy hat, and you recognize the type. Not a bad man, but ethically compromised, and with intelligence and a wry sense of humor about the ironies of life.

With his ordinary-guy face, resonant voice, and physical presence, MacMurray could seem to bring this off without effort. And Face of a Fugitive gives him ample room to do all that. Here he’s a good bad man, who starts out in handcuffs and quickly gets into far deeper trouble.

The plot when you look back at it is pretty contrived, but you don’t notice that as it unfolds. MacMurray is being hunted for the killing of a deputy sheriff, a crime committed by his younger brother, who dies of a gunshot wound as soon as we’ve got past the exposition.

Fred MacMurray, Double Indemnity (1944)
MacMurray gets off a train in a peaceful mountain town where he pretends to be someone else. He has 24 hours to move on before the wanted posters arrive with his picture on them. In that time, he befriends a young sheriff trying to enforce the law with a local rancher who refuses to stop fencing off public lands for his own cattle. He also gets to know an attractive and lonely widow with a precocious 7-year-old daughter.

Before it’s all over his true identity is revealed, and in a prolonged shootout in the darkened saloon of a ghost town, he dispatches the truculent rancher and his cowboys, one by one. (All of them authentically skinny, the cowboys include a youthful James Coburn with his already patented sneer.)