Friday, July 29, 2011

Eva 1996-2011

A short post today about a small brave dog, who left us yesterday after a lingering illness. She will be missed.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim (1883)

Mary Hallock Foote
As the wife of a mining engineer, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) left the East and lived for a while in mining towns in California, Colorado, and Mexico. There she continued a career already begun as an illustrator and writer. The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp was her first novel, with her own illustrations [shown below].

Set in a Rocky Mountains silver mining camp in 1877 Colorado, it describes a world already well known to viewers of Deadwood. She captures the atmosphere of a raw, turbulent settlement. It’s a town constructed on the fly, as it absorbs a growing influx of fortune seekers, mostly young men from everywhere and every rung of the social ladder.  

Plot. Foote’s central character is Cecil Conrath, the newly arrived young sister of a silver miner. She meets by chance the young and handsome George Hilgard, operator of a neighboring mine, the Led-Horse claim of the title.

Hilgard falls for Cecil in a big way, but the immediate obstacle to a full-fledged romance is a dispute between Hilgard and her brother, Conrath. He has followed a rich seam of ore underground and crossed over to (i.e., “jumped”) Hilgard’s claim.

Matters eventually escalate to an exchange of gunfire. Conrath gets killed, and though it can’t be known for sure, there’s an even chance the fatal shot was Hilgard’s. The shooting brings an end to any hopes for a future the two lovers might have had together. 

Romance. This may all sound like sentimentality laid on with a trowel, but Foote is not your usual romance writer. Given the pitfalls and potholes embedded in Victorian moralities, the emotions that plot contrivances stir up in the characters are honestly portrayed.

The romantic conflict in the novel becomes simply this. Cecil cannot love both her brother and the man responsible for his death. Since she cannot imagine loving anyone else, she commits herself to mourning the loss of both men until the end of her days.

False dilemma, yes. Hilgard resolves it by tracking her down back East, where she’s been living with her aunt and grandmother and refusing to accept the fate that duty has committed them to. How she finally surrenders to his persistence, we don’t know, because Foote skips ahead to the wedding six months later.

A word should be said about blushing, which people in fiction of this period seem to do a lot of. Easily shamed, embarrassed, or made self-conscious, characters betray these feelings by turning color. Men and women alike. The word “blush” appears seven times in this novel. And there are multiple variations. Living, perhaps, in a shameless age, we can wonder at a world where so much in social relations is concealed—and thus in danger of self-betrayal.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)

Here’s another early-early western by Charles King, whose Two Soldiers (1888) was reviewed here last week. Both novels were published under one cover in 1891. (BTW, these dates are my best guess; there’s some disagreement in the references.) This novel takes place in west Texas, at a U.S. garrison post. The central characters are cavalrymen and the wives of the officers.

The Dunraven Ranch of the title is a huge cattle ranch a few miles from the fort, owned by an ailing Englishman. Surrounded by barbed wire, its gates locked, there’s a degree of mystery about the place. Friendly relations have broken off between ranch and fort sometime in the past. The mystery deepens as the novel’s hero Lt. Ned Perry attempts to pay a call and is sent away by an unfriendly employee.

A return visit, with a small backup of troopers, develops into a donnybrook between the Irish soldiers and English ranch hands. This dispute escalates as a sergeant, who is English, gets roughed up, and a band of Irish troopers sneaks off at night to settle scores at the ranch.

Parade ground, Ft. Richardson, Texas
Meanwhile, Perry has met the ranch owner’s beautiful daughter, Gladys (what’s a novel like this without a romance?). He falls so hopelessly in love with her that his life becomes almost a misery of longing. His dismay is worsened by suspicions that she is the object of the post surgeon’s interest.

Suspicions are complicated by the gossip of the officers’ wives, who easily dwell on the more lurid aspects of any mystery. One of the wives, Mrs. Belknap, confounds matters further by trying to carry on a flirtation with Perry. Events take a sudden turn when Perry dramatically rescues Gladys on a runaway horse.

The crisis point comes as Perry is shot and badly wounded attempting to stop a showdown between troopers and ranch hands. Recovering, he learns that he has no rivals for Gladys’ hand, and the English sergeant turns out to be the long-lost son of the ranch owner. Flash forward in the final chapter to happy days on Dunraven Ranch as friendly relations have been restored with the post, and Perry and Gladys are now united.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Rio Bravo (1959)

I probably saw this film in 1959, the year I graduated from high school, but I don’t have a memory of it. And I’ve put off seeing it now because I wasn’t sure I’d like either Dean Martin or Ricky Nelson. Turns out, they are both good, and Wayne is easily the best I’ve ever seen him.

Cast. Could be that the director was Howard Hawks, who  directed the classic western, Red River, also with John Wayne. He gets a relaxed performance from Wayne that has him doing what he always does best, reflecting a wry sense of humor. But if you grew up with Dean Martin opposite Jerry Lewis and then with his own variety show on TV, you think of him as belonging in a high-class Italian suit, holding a highball and a cigarette. A cowboy hat? No.

But the big surprise was the credible job he does as a former deputy on the comeback from two years of finding oblivion at the bottom of a bottle. Ricky Nelson is surprisingly stiff, given the fact that he grew up in front of cameras. But Hawks gets it to work for him, by not giving him much to do or say. The movie gets a little self-conscious when it has singers Martin and Nelson sing a duet, but with the help of Walter Brennan, it recovers itself again.

Brennan is at his comic best in the film, almost a self parody. He gets plenty of lines and though he almost never leaves the jail, where he’s keeping an eye on a prisoner, he has enough action as well. Angie Dickenson is given more than the usual two-dimensional part as the token female in the cast. The scenes of teasing flirtation between her and Wayne are plausible and seem to suit both of them. 

Plot. The plot is pretty simple for a film that runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. In a wordless opening scene, Claude Aikens shoots a man in a saloon and is arrested by Sheriff Wayne. With a town full of Aikens’ friends and a wealthy rancher for a brother, an attempt to spring him from jail is highly likely.

Wayne has only himself, game-legged deputy Brennan, and the still drying-out deputy Martin to prevent that from happening. And it’s a 6-day wait until a U.S. marshal arrives to take away the prisoner. Ricky Nelson, as the “Colorado Kid,” joins them. And the four men manage to hang onto the prisoner while being greatly outnumbered.

Shot in widescreen and color, the film includes a big cast of characters. A regular actor in Wayne’s company, Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez plays the town hotel owner. With his thick Mexican accent and his diminutive size, he is a warmly comic presence in the film. Ward Bond also appears in a role that is surprising for its brevity.

Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett were the film's screenwriters. Furthman had a long writing career in Hollywood (1915-1959). Rio Bravo was his last film. Said to take place in west Texas, it was shot in Old Tucson, Arizona, and in Warner Brothers Studios, Burbank.

There’s an extensive list of interesting trivia related to the film at The most revealing is that the film was intended as a response to Gary Cooper’s High Noon, which Wayne is supposed to have considered “un-American.”

Rio Bravo is currently available at amazon and streamable at both netflix and amazon. Tuesday's Overlooked Movies is the bright idea of Todd Mason over at Sweet Freedom.


Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Peter Brown, western photographer

West of Last Chance (2008). This terrific collection of color photographs is an unsentimental but loving portrait of the High Plains, from West Texas north to the Dakotas. All manage to bring the panorama of this wide-open country within the viewfinder of the still camera. Photographer Peter Brown's achievement is to show the suggestive and telling details that transform these "empty" landscapes into spaces that are filled with drama and atmosphere.

Among many things, he shows us prairie land now cultivated and overgrazed, often with the blasted look of early spring when trees are barely in leaf and the earth seems still in shock from the extremes of the previous winter.

There's a balance between photos of vast flat landscapes and distant horizons under endless skies and shots of small-town storefronts, often with quirky signage. For example, the dance hall in Merriman, Nebraska, with a small sign at one corner pointing to the "South Entrance."

Towns and landscapes alike are depopulated. Maybe a single person walks, stands or sits somewhere in the frame, giving the impression of social isolation. Lacking captions (the locations of all photos are listed at the back), these images force you to look more deeply into them for what there is to be seen and comprehended. I liked that.

The minimal text supplied by author Kent Haruf, however, is often about interactions between people – both early settlers and modern-day inhabitants. The account of the football game in sub-freezing temperatures is a brilliant short-short story. As a former resident of the plains, just east of the 100th meridian, I can attest to the veracity of everything that Brown and Haruf have included in this wonderful book.

On the Plains (1999). An earlier collection by Brown, with an introduction by Kathleen Norris, brings together   photos taken 1985-1995. There are similar themes. A shot of winter prairie, south of Edgerton, Wyoming, reveals the contoured undulations of grasslands thick with frost, the banks of a shallow wash weaving into the distance, the horizon blending into the brightly overcast sky. The entire image seems sepia-tinted in the winter light.

An early summer shot of ground water standing dark and rippled in a Nebraska Sandhills pond shows tufted grasses in the foreground leaning with the wind. A single slender fence post is echoed in the distance by a single tree in full leaf and just visible beyond it a windmill. The grass extends to the gently rolling horizon where a white thundercloud begins to pile upward into the vivid blue of a brightly sunlit sky.

Light, shadow, clouds, all seem still but are in movement, and many of the photographs heighten a sense of time's gradual passing – the hour, the day, the season, the years. A roadside directory, indicating the distances to ranches has been weathered and sun-bleached. An old shingle-roofed elevator stands empty and overgrown with trees. There's a disused one-room school, white paint worn by wind and rain down to the bare boards. Tall weeds grow in the playground, and the setting sun casts the shadow of a swing set against a side wall.

And there are many signs of life, as well – a general store with gas pumps and pop machines in front, a TV antenna overhead, and a gravel lot for parking; a barber shop with curving glass brick and shiny red tile facade, with an American flag on a pole at the curb; a last-picture-show cinema, the Rialto, with nothing on the marquee, but above it a wonderful mural of cowboys around the campfire and a chuck wagon with "Welcome to Brownville" on its canvas covering.

There are photographs of small town life – a young man and little girl stand by the front door of a tiny house, the white siding bright in the late afternoon sun and a darkening sky behind them; a sign painter sits on the back of his truck under a hand-lettered sign, "Advertise Dammit Advertise Before We Both Go Under"; a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard is filled with for-sale notices for hay hauling, an early American sofa and matching swivel/rocker, a 3/4 ton Chev. 4x4, toy poodles, chow puppies, and a bird-dog that "will point."

And this really only scratches the surface of both collections. The photographs reveal themselves slowly, and with a patient and inquisitive eye, there is much to see in all of them. For anyone who grew up on the Plains and now lives elsewhere, this book is like a return home. You will see much that you recognize, recall the quieter pace of life, and marvel again at the great diversity of landscape, seasons, and weather.

Both books are currently available at amazon.

Coming up: Charles King, Dunraven Ranch (1890)

Friday, July 22, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: desert town

There's a raw, unfinished quality about desert towns that appeals to me. It's the romance of anti-romance maybe. I'm talking about the parts that are unprettified, unlike the gated neighborhoods with their manicured landscaping and absurd grass lawns. Here vacant lots mix with houses that have had the time to show their age, with full grown trees and whatever else has survived over the years, often twisted by the winds. Rocks, which are plentiful and don't blow away, might be arranged in some way, maybe along a property line.

Few signs of life, people staying in out of the sun. School kids indifferent to the heat and going somewhere, on foot or skateboards. Probably aching to be anywhere but here in the middle of nowhere. No sidewalks. Cars and trucks parked in the street. You get a sense of the human tenacity that clings to a spot on earth, no matter how unwelcoming, with little to offer but its own stark beauty.

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

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Charles King, Two Soldiers (1888)

Charles King (1844-1933) was a captain in the U.S. Cavalry when he wrote this novel. A West Point graduate and career officer, King served most of his years as a fighting soldier during the height of the Indian Wars. Two Soldiers gets included in our ongoing survey of early-early westerns because it takes place in part during the Apache Wars on the Arizona frontier.

King has been faulted for his unsympathetic treatment of Indians. However, coming from a young officer in the years following the Little Big Horn, his opinions should not be surprising. In this novel, a band of renegade Apaches commits all manner of savageries, killing whites, pillaging, and kidnapping women and children. The novel’s hero, Cap. Fred Lane, leads a small number of troops that valiantly rescues the captives before the Apaches escape to Mexico. 

Charles King, 1898
Plot. This battle is actually only a small part of a novel that is mostly set back East in a large fictional city. It takes up the matter of a man’s reputation and how a cowardly, devious, and unprincipled man can still rise swiftly in the eyes of others.

That man in this novel is Gordon Noel, a dashingly handsome young officer whose looks and engaging manners charm everyone into thinking he’s a hero in the making. The gossip and rumor mill and the patronage of a colonel’s wife help him to vault over soldiers more worthy of promotion. The cousin of a Wall Street millionaire, he’s able to wield influence among the wealthy and powerful.

While he talks big, no one has seen him actually do anything that involves any risk taking. He’s managed to avoid engagement anywhere on the front lines, getting convenient reassignments far away from the action or arriving too late to take part. Fellow officers, being a league of gentlemen, never confront him in the matter.

Lane is one of these. Though he doesn’t miss much, he is distracted by having fallen head over heels in love for the first time in his life. The girl, Mabel, is a sweet young thing and the only daughter of a well-to-do family. When Lane leaves her to rejoin his regiment, Noel steps into his shoes and eventually makes off with the girl.

Rescue of wounded Lt. King, 1874
Noel’s downfall finally comes in that engagement with the Apaches. He and his troops have been ordered to rush to Lane’s support, but he drags his feet, losing crucial hours. Then he pulls back when shots from a handful of Indians put him in fear of an ambush. Eventually, the truth of his cowardice comes out, but not before he has again claimed to be the hero of the hour.

Structure. The story is well told and expertly plotted. King builds suspense and keeps intensifying the conflict between the two men. He includes letters, dispatches, and news clippings to advance the action. A subplot involving a deserter adds an element of mystery.

Best of all is his portrayal of the social discourse on an Army post. We overhear enough conversations among the officers’ wives to be convinced that they’re the real originators and shapers of received opinion. Careers depend on their likes, dislikes, and resulting judgments.

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. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

3 Godfathers (1948)

The way this film was transformed in its journey from the printed page to the screen has director John Ford written all over it. Peter B. Kyne’s novel (reviewed here earlier) was published in 1913. Ford directed the first film adaptation of the novel in 1916, with Harry Carey. When Carey died in 1947, Ford decided to remake the story in Technicolor and dedicate the film to his memory.

Other film and TV versions have appeared under different titles over the years, before and since. Seems likely it has to be there somewhere in the background of the Tom Selleck comedy 3 Men and a Baby (1987).

Plot. The Three Godfathers was already a kind of Christmas story in Kyne’s hands. Not exactly the three wise men, the central characters are on the run following a failed bank job. But crossing the desert, they come upon a pregnant woman in the final hours before giving birth.

The new mother dies, after leaving her infant son to the care of the three men, who promise to be his godfathers and to bring him up right. With a dwindling supply of water, they start on a trek to a mining camp called New Jerusalem (New Bethlehem being maybe too obvious). Only one of them eventually arrives with the baby. It is Christmas, and so ends Kyne's novel.

John Ford, 1946
Ford’s version. The biggest change in the plot was to make John Wayne’s character the sole survivor of the three. In Kyne’s telling of the story, the youngest of them makes the final leg of the journey alone. Instead, the film makes this character (Harry Carey, Jr.) the first fatality. During the bank robbery that starts the film, he sustains a gunshot wound that’s eventually the cause of his demise.

Another change was to make one of the men Mexican (Pedro Armend├íriz). He lapses into Spanish at times, which gets Wayne telling him to stop speaking “Mex” in front of the baby.

Ford’s impulse to show characters as part of a larger community seems behind the decision to expand the cast with the addition of a subplot. Ward Bond as the town sheriff leads a large posse of men into the desert in pursuit of the robbers. Finally apprehended and then brought to trial in the town saloon, Wayne’s character demands to retain custody of the baby.

Found guilty of armed robbery, he’s given the lightest sentence by the judge, who’s been moved by the obvious character of a man who won’t renege on a promise to a dying woman. On the train that will take him to Yuma prison, Wayne waves his hat at the crowd assembled to see him off, one among them a pretty girl who clearly looks forward to his return.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 15

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of terms garnered from early western writing. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from a novel about a homesteader in South Dakota, a cowboy elected to the state legislature in Colorado, and U.S. cavalry officers during the Indian Wars. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the meaning of “hop-room,” “dopster,” “Maudism,” or “squeegee,” leave a comment.

acequia = irrigation canal. “Clear running water sparkled through the acequias that bordered the parade.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

Back of Beyond = any real or imagined remote region; first put into print by Sir Walter Scott in his novel The Antiquary, 1816. “How absurd you are! Who ever dreamed of such a thing? This isn’t the Back of Beyond.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

Illustration from Punch
charivari = a  noisy mock serenade, typically performed by a group of people in celebration of a marriage (also spelled “shivaree”). “The next night about sixty of the white neighbors gave us a charivari and my wife was much pleased to know there was no color prejudice among them.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

come to taw = to meet a requirement or expectation. “In some way he or his partner, Clark, came to taw with additional funds.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

curtain lecture = a scolding or rebuke given in private, especially by a wife to her husband. [Illustration above from Mrs. Caudle's Curtain Lectures by Douglas William Gerrold in Punch, 1846, with illustrations by Charles Keene.] “She seemed to me to be more forward than ever that morning, and I felt a suspicion that I was going to get a curtain lecture.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

David Harum = fictional character in a popular novel of the same name, published 1898, about a sharply devious horse trader. “It was with many misgivings that I called out in a loud, breezy voice and David Harum manner; ‘Hello, Governor, how will you trade mules?’” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest. 

Four-wheeled dog cart
dog-cart = A one-horse carriage, two- or four-wheeled and high, with two transverse seats set back to back. “As they thus talked and loitered, Ben Davison came driving by in his dog-cart, with Clem Arkwright.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

haversack = a backpack for carrying a soldier’s rations and personal items. “One of the men had a led horse, completely equipped for the field, with blankets, saddle-bags, carbine, canteen, and haversack.” Charles King, Two Soldiers.

indignation meeting = a meeting held for the purpose of expressing and discussing grievances. “An indignation meeting was held, where with much feeling they denounced the actions of Ernest Nicholson in buying land north of the town.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest.

Photo by Trish Steel
led horse = a packhorse or spare horse. “Three troopers with a led horse—all four steeds panting from their half-mile race—reined up in front of the eastern portico in the full glare of the lights.” Charles King, Dunraven Ranch.

let/shake a reef out = to enlarge (reference to adjusting the amount of sail exposed to the wind). “If you do anything like that again I’ll have to let a reef out of the band of my trousers.” John H. Whitson, Justin Wingate, Ranchman.

luck cage = an hourglass-shaped cage containing three dice, used in the gambling game chuck a luck. “In tents, back rooms and overhead could be heard the b-r-r-r-r of the little ivory marble as it spun a circuit over the roulette wheel, and the luck cages, where the idle sports turned them over for their own amusement, to pass away the time.” Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Gerald So, We Might Have: Poems

Gerald So’s poems capture nicely the special anguish that comes with adolescence (early, middle, and late) and the discovery that life is way more uncertain and confusing than ever seemed possible. Feelings go everywhere in search of you’re not sure what, and they invariably come back empty handed.

The idle gesture of another signals lack of interest. Worse yet, complete indifference. Heart and hormones fasten on someone who couldn’t care less. Rejection is always the day’s forecast.

So’s short, wry lyrics are iPhone snapshots of life on the fringes of the social media. Each is a glimpse behind the uneasy smile in every group shot on Facebook. And it’s all kind of sadly comic.

For the Kindle edition of We Might Have: Poems and more about the poet himself, visit Gerald So’s author page at amazon.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Oscar Micheaux, The Conquest (1913)

It’s not easy to pigeonhole Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951) as a western writer. On the other hand, it’s maybe too easy to classify him as one of a kind. His first novel, The Conquest, falls squarely in the genre of Great Plains pioneer fiction. The main character courageously goes West to become a homesteader and break sod on the open prairie of South Dakota.

His challenges are the vagaries of weather and overcoming the errors of learn-as-you-go farming. The far greater challenge for him, unlike his neighbors, is the color of his skin. He’s an African-American in Jim Crow America.

Being a black man means he has to go it alone. Not because any whites are holding him back, but because he can’t persuade other blacks to take advantage of the opportunities that western development offers. So Micheaux’ novel draws on the go-west themes of independence and building character on the frontier. But it’s also a polemic against the false values and lack of gumption that keep blacks from getting ahead. 

Oscar Micheaux, c1913
Race. His grievances are dramatized in his great difficulty in finding a suitable marriage partner. The only women available in the surrounding community are white. Thus courting requires much letter writing and trips to Chicago and the rural black communities of southern Illinois.

After several attempted courtships that go nowhere, he has the misfortune to marry the daughter of a domineering minister. The Reverend instantly takes a dislike to Oscar’s progressive ideas and independence. Believing that Oscar is “rich,” the family grudgingly consents to a marriage.

A year later, after the stillbirth of their first child, she’s had enough of the frontier, and the Reverend has had enough of his son-in-law. He willfully comes between the two of them and wins away the girl’s affections. She returns to Chicago, never to return. 

Homesteading. Interesting for the modern reader is Micheaux’ detailed account of transfers of government lands to homesteaders. He describes how tens of thousands descend on a frontier town to register for only a few thousand available quarter sections.

Tents sprout on vacant lots, with cots for up to 500. In others, notaries and pretty girls offer to help applicants prepare applications. Hotels install 3-4 beds to the room. Among the crowds are pickpockets, conmen, and "lewd women." Automobiles appear in large numbers. There’s gambling in the bars and pouring from them the sound of ragtime music.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Vintage photos: Homesteading in South Dakota

Tomorrow I'll be reviewing, The Conquest, an autobiographical novel by South Dakota pioneer Oscar Micheaux. Set during the first decade of the last century, it describes homesteading and the settling of frontier towns. Included in the book are many uncredited photographs that seem to be by a single photographer. They capture the raw, treeless terrain of the prairie and the rough and ready appearance of new towns. I'll use a few of them for the review but wanted to devote an entire post to them. So here they are [click to enlarge]:

Cattle and horses along a fence line.
People gathering for a celebration.
A dog in a field.
Farmer in field with horse-drawn equipment. Missouri River in background.
Settlers with wagons and mule team. Beer hall in background.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

G+ or not G+?

Thanks to my trendy online friends, I now know about G+. In a world without blogger and twitter, I would have remained blissfully ignorant. Alas, a lovely summer morning is being spent adding yet another bunch of words to the current discourse on the subject.

So G+ is a cleaner version of Facebook. I can see that. Is this what we need? Too early to tell. But what it doesn’t alter is a basic misconception that Facebook is built on.

I watch college kids use social media, and FB is the real world for them. My classroom, I realized last semester, is not an app and is therefore less real. Do I think this is good? Well, it makes teaching a lot harder, but I’m about to retire, and so I pass that one on to educators still laboring in the academic vineyards.

Friends vs. belonging. What bothers me is what keeps getting lost in the many social media worlds now available to us. It’s a sense of community. Real community is where you can't easily opt in and out without some accountability. There's a human need for that kind of belonging that FB, twitter, and G+ can’t or don’t want to replicate.

Each tries to sell you on the idea that you can have a make-believe social life in the absence of a real one. But when I’m one of your 200 online friends, I’m sorry, what we have is probably not a social relationship. Even longer lists of followers on twitter can mean even less. In neither case do the numbers reflect the existence of a community.

Now G+ has circles. Members of a real-world circle usually know each other, and they know you’re in the same circle with them. Social media get around that. They let each of us create a virtual social world of which we are at the center, wrapped in an illusion of belonging. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Missing (2003)

This western has a lot going for it, not the least of which are performances by Tommy Lee Jones and Cate Blanchett. Filmed entirely in New Mexico, its location photography is also a big plus. Set in 1885, the story, about the kidnapping of young women by Apaches, is not new if you know The Searchers and Lonesome Dove. But its journey into the boundary land of identity and colliding cultures gives it an interesting angle.

Identities and boundaries. Tommy Lee Jones is a white man who has left his young family and gone native. He’s been taken into a tribe of the Chiricahua and grown old there. With his long hair, unsmiling stare, and ravaged face, he is far more convincing in the part than Paul Newman managed to be in Hombre.

Yet he hasn’t shaken his white identity. Returning as the father of the woman he once deserted when she was still a girl, he’s doing a kind of penance for crossing cultural boundaries at the expense of his family. Pursuing the Apaches who have stolen Blanchett’s daughter, he is making an Indian version of amends.

Latir Peak Wilderness, New Mexico, photo by Dave Herrera
The fear of child-stealing cuts to the soul of just about everyone, its worst terrors felt by anyone who has been a parent. Kidnapped by Indians on the frontier was to be taken forcibly across a cultural and geographic boundary to be lost forever. Not the least dangerous in the film are those whose boundary crossing betrays the trust of others. In the renegade band are men who were once scouts for the cavalry as well as white men along for the ride.

A chief of the Chiricahua joins the chase. Handsome and self-possessed, he is fluent in Spanish and communicates easily across the cultural divide with Blanchett. A doctor herself, she treats the chief’s son who has been stricken by a debilitating curse. Cursed herself by the evil Apache, she is brought back to health by Chiricahua medicine.

Finally, she even agrees to wear a bead necklace as a protective charm. Thus her own carefully defended identity is altered in a mutual crossing of cultural and racial boundaries. All well and good, we are given to understand. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Crime in early western fiction, cont.

From The Taming of Red Butte Western
Though crime is a common theme in early western fiction, sleuthing and crime solving rarely come into play. Likewise, we rarely get a look into the criminal mind. A story’s focus is almost always on the hero, not the villain.

There are a few interesting exceptions. For examples, let’s look at three novels: Stewart Edward White’s The Westerners (1901), Frank H. Spearman’s Whispering Smith (1906), and Francis Lynde’s The Taming of Red Butte Western (1910). Each has a slant on crime that’s worth a closer look. 

Sociopath. The Westerners would rank as western noir if such a thing existed 110 years ago. The setting is the Dakota Territory of the Old West, and the story takes place mostly in a mining camp called Copper Creek in the Black Hills. The central character is a half-breed by the name of Lafond, who has a hate on for a white man, Billy Knapp, that goes back many years.

For a time, we learn that Lafond “went native,” joining a hostile band of Sioux and taking part in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Returning to the white man’s world, he becomes a successful entrepreneur. He builds a saloon and dancehall franchise, setting up wherever there are mining camps.

He finds Knapp, now a prospector in Copper Creek, and hatches a scheme to take ownership of his mine. Meanwhile, he is busily corrupting the morals of a young white girl, Molly. She believes Lafond is her father. She doesn’t know that he not only kidnapped her as a toddler but killed and scalped her real mother in an Indian raid.

Lafond is drawn as a chilling portrait of a sociopath. His villainy, however, is laid to his mixed blood. He has inherited the worst traits of both races. He meets his end when he is captured by the Sioux tribe he deserted years before. They hold a tribunal during which he is found guilty of a crime he didn’t actually commit. And he is tortured to death.

For the reader, a walk in Lafond’s shoes is a vicarious stroll on the wild side. So far, I have not come across another character study like this one in the early western. Villains do villainous things, but there’s not much curiosity about the criminal mind itself. 

Detectives. The word “detective” in the Old West would have meant men like those of the Pinkerton Agency, hired by railroads and big business to protect their assets. Charles Siringo (1855-1928) and Tom Horn (1860-1903) were Pinkerton agents, infiltrating gangs of rustlers and train robbers and helping to bust unions. Horn also hired out privately to cattlemen’s associations to eliminate cattle thieves without due process.

For a fictional detective, early westerns offer us Frank H. Spearman’s Whispering Smith. Smith is a railroad detective working the Rocky Mountain lines of Wyoming. He hunts down and brings in any outlaws cutting into the company’s profits. These include train robbers and anyone disrupting business or willfully damaging company property. If they resist arrest, he has license to kill.

Because he is lightning fast with a gun, he has a reputation that gives your average lawbreaker an instant case of fear and trembling. He’s also in possession of superior intelligence and razor sharp judgment. Add to that his generous and winning ways with both friends and the ladies, and you have a thoroughly likable hero.

Whispering Smith is a wonderfully complex creation. He got his nickname as a boy, when bouts of laryngitis reduced his voice to a whisper. But it suits him as a man with a dangerous job who brings an enviably deft touch to whatever he does.

While apparently fearless, he knows he has enemies and is aware that his life may be cut short at any moment. Spearman hints that he is a lonely man whose chief compensation is knowing that he does his work well. Meanwhile, he is conscious of its moral ambiguity. He is, after all, a hired gunman, serving the interests of a railway tycoon. 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Photo-finish Friday: Where the pavement ends

Snapped this a couple days ago when the storm clouds were building over the hills. The spot where I'm standing is a one-minute walk from my front door, and I'm standing in my socks, so you know I wasn't planning to be away from the air conditioning long. The street goes straight to the edge of the desert and then stops. A sandy track continues but is only good for dirt bikes and people on foot.

The hills are a maze of trails, and you can wander around and climb all you like, though taking water along is a must. If you're up before sunrise, you can beat the worst of the heat these days, but prepare to feel pretty warm anyway.

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

Thursday, July 7, 2011

George W. Ogden, The Long Fight (1915)

First edition cover, a tad worn
George Washington Ogden (1871-1966) was a turn-of-the-last-century newspaperman. A man of little formal education, he nevertheless worked as an editor for the Kansas City Star, the Chicago Tribune, and the Munsey publications. In mid-life he also became a prolific writer of western novels.

Product of hardscrabble farm life in Kansas, Ogden left home at 17 and never looked back. Yet his experience surely haunts the mood and action of this early and aptly titled novel. Set in Oklahoma, it follows for most of its 297 pages the misfortunes and setbacks of a young man trying to tap into the oil boom.

Young Ared Heiskell learns the well-drilling business from his father, whose every attempt to find oil on his property ends in failure. Ared then agrees to partner with a young woman, Jo Ryan, to drill an oil-producing well on her dead father’s leasehold. They have two months to accomplish this or she loses the lease.

Gusher, Oklahoma, 1901
The obstacle to success is a big oilman, Fleming, who wants the property himself and sabotages their efforts. The boiler is dynamited; the derrick is damaged. He also takes advantage of the widow Mrs. Ryan’s dislike for Ared. She considers him common and not up to her citified social standards. Fleming’s nephew, Sandford, is “Harvard-Yale” educated and shamelessly woos Jo to turn her mother’s head even farther.

Character. The downbeat tone of this novel is its most striking difference from other early westerns. Chapter after chapter is marked by betrayal, failed hopes, and the contempt of the powerful for the weak. The long-suffering Ared, decent and honest, is the constant underdog, unappreciated by his father and thwarted by Fleming.

After considering the options, Ared concludes that to be his own man, he must be self-employed. He won’t work for wages in the service of someone else. And he will not be bought or intimidated. Win or lose, he will work by his own rules and never be less than honest and responsible. What’s at stake is the quality of his character, to be proved by fulfilling his agreement with Jo to dig her well.

In one way, however, he fails to come across as a complete and full-grown man. He never realizes, until it’s far too late, that besides being his reliable business partner, Jo has also fallen in love with him. Drawn by the very qualities that make an honorable man of him, she is unable to find a way into his heart.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907)

Here’s another one to add to the long list of cowboy memoirs. It has at least two distinctions. It’s one of the earliest written, and the author is an African American. Nat Love (his first name was pronounced “Nate”) was born on a plantation in Tennessee in 1854 and took to the West as a freed slave when still in his teens.

Arriving in Dodge City when the era of great cattle drives was at high tide, he got a job cowboying after proving he could stay on an unbroken horse. A quick learner, he soon mastered roping and sharpshooting. By his account, he was destined to become one of the most widely known cowboys in the West.

His life story includes almost an honor roll of frontier figures. He knew Buffalo Bill, Billy the Kid, Pat Garret, Bat Masterson, Frank James, Kit Carson, and Yellowstone Kelly. He claims to have visited Little Bighorn only days after the battle.

He seems to have missed meeting Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, only because he’d already left Deadwood when they got there. In fact, after proving himself riding and shooting champion at a July 4th competition in 1876, his brief stay in that lawless gold mining camp earned him the name Deadwood Dick.

If being “colored” (his preferred term) was ever a drawback for him on the frontier, he never mentions it. His story makes an interesting comparison with Henry Flipper, who at the same time was navigating the stormy waters of racial bias as an officer in the U.S. Cavalry. It’s possible that Nat and the other black cowboys he mentions remained low enough in the social order to escape resentment. Given his relentlessly positive attitude, it’s possible that he simply chooses to leave the subject alone.

Instead he focuses on the action, which he presents as welcome breaks in the dull monotony of herding cattle days on end. There are many instances of Indian fighting, with fatalities on both sides. His Indians are rarely more than bloodthirsty savages. He blames them, in fact, for the demise of the buffalo herds.

He is captured once by Indians and inducted into the tribe, apparently for having fought them so bravely. They pierce his ears and offer him a wife. After a month he escapes one night, riding a pony bareback for 100 miles. Another time he gets lost for days in a winter storm, staves off thirst by drinking the blood of a buffalo calf he’s killed, and nearly freezes to death. When his mates find him, they bury him naked in snow to let him slowly thaw out.

There are also hot pursuits of “greasers,” half-breeds, and white thieves who run off and scatter the cattle on the open range. Fierce, all-out war finally reduces their numbers. In all his skirmishes Nat sustains 14 gunshot wounds, none of which slows him down for long.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Rancho Notorious (1952)

As much noir as western, this tale of “hate, murder, and revenge” is chiefly a vehicle for Marlene Dietrich. Director Fritz Lang keeps her looking glamorous and alluring, whether dressed in gowns or men’s clothes. She’s a femme fatale in an imagined West, offering bed and board for outlaws at her remote horse ranch in the desert Southwest.

Into their midst a man set on vengeance arrives (Arthur Kennedy). He’s looking for a robber who raped and killed the woman he was a week away from marrying. Neatly contrived, the plot offers opportunities for fistfights, gunplay, and jailbreaks. As bullets fly, the casualties mount.

For a western, there is also plenty of raw sexual subtext. Dietrich provides her share, often testing a man’s resolve by discouraging his advances. She first appears as a dancehall girl, riding the back of a cowboy across the floor of a saloon. Lazily singing a song with a cigarette hanging from her lips, she hauls off and wallops a patron who assumes she’s for the taking.

Later, romantically attached to a gambler, Frenchie Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), she invites a kiss from Kennedy before slapping his face. Eventually falling for him, she lets her usual tough talk slip and ruefully tells him to go away and “come back ten years ago.” Being a woman of compromised virtue, she has to pay her dues to the Production Code in the last reel. Though redeemed in part by her wish to leave her past behind, she has to take a bullet for one of the two men she loves.

All this steam is like an off-screen fog machine that sends a sultry cloud through the whole movie. Surrounding herself with rough men while enjoying their attention, Dietrich’s presence can be felt in scenes that don’t even include her. Jokes and banter among the men are thick with sexual innuendo. Meanwhile, dark passions find expression in the many shadowy after-dark scenes and an ominously stormy night sky. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Old West glossary, no. 14

Montana cowboys, c1910
Here’s another set of frontier terms garnered from early western writing. Definitions were discovered in various online dictionaries, as well as searches in Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang, Dictionary of the American West, The New Encyclopedia of the American West, The Cowboy Dictionary, The Cowboy Encyclopedia, The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, The Oxford Dictionary of Idioms, and The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary.

These are from turn-of-the-century novels and stories I’ve been reading. Once again I struck out on a few. If anybody knows the Old West meaning of “Lonesome Willies” or “merling,” leave a comment.

best bib and tucker = best clothes; originally women’s garments, bib and lace worn over the bodice. “She’d got herself dusted off by then and her best bib and tucker on.” William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky. 

blue-john; photo, Natalia A. McKenzie
blue-john = a blue or purple fibrous variety of fluorspar occurring only in Derbyshire: used for vases and other ornamentation. “It amounted almost to defeat, it seemed, looking at it in the blue-john light of that cold, harsh morning.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

catch a tartar = to lay hold of, or encounter, a person who proves too strong for the assailant. “They had not noticed me and they proceeded to hold up the agent in true western style, but that they had caught a tartar was evidenced by the rattle of the agent's artillery.” Nat Love, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love. 

Beeman's gum, 1897
chewing wax = chewing gum. “I’m agoin’ to stick to this well like chawin’ wax to a cheer.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.

cod = to tease, hoax. “I thought he was coddin’ me, but I didn’t want to let on to him I didn’t know any better.” William R. Lighton, Uncle Mac’s Nebrasky.

corn pone = a type of bread made from a thick cornmeal dough and baked in an iron pan over an open fire. “He resumed his cooking,  moving his coffee pot from the coals, turning his corn pone out on the palm of his hand, and blowing the ahses from its crust.” George W. Ogden, The Long Fight.