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.

Andarko, Oklahoma Territory, 1901
Cowboy ethics. Ogden gives Ared a sidekick, Triggerheel, who enters the story early on. He’s an old-time cowboy, who still lives by the code of the West. Hard work and loyalty are his trademark and, unlike Ared, so is his down-to-earth sense of humor. Neither does he keep his feelings bottled up. When the time comes to be angry, the expletives fly.

Triggerheel is an enjoyable presence in the novel. It’s obvious from his first appearance that he is a cowboy, “long, lean, dry; sharp-eyed, grey-moustached, brown as the bacon in his pan.” A drover from Texas to Montana in his time, he can also blacksmith, sharpen oil-drilling tools, and haul coal and water for the boiler.

With a central character so wounded by life that love and laughter are foreign to him, Triggerheel is an entertaining foil. He takes adversity lightly and cares little about material gain. His old-school frontier values make him a welcome exception to the rest of the populace slavishly intent on finding fortune in the oil fields.

Hoy oil field near Enid, Oklahoma, 1917 [click to enlarge]

Villainy. Fleming is a man driven by greed. Corrupt and heartless, he can still make a good appearance and charm the ladies. When charm is not required, he is brutal and blunt, his language offensive.

In fact, he has a powerful hold on the entire community. As a company town, it relies on his continued patronage. Even the sheriff and town officials do his bidding. It’s significant in the imaginative world of the novel that men like Fleming and his nephew go unchallenged and unpunished. One way or another, they take what they want. This, Ogden seems to be saying, is the way of the world. 

Ogden novel in The Argosy, March 1915
Wrapping up. It’s not difficult to see the novel as a critique of Big Oil. Besides the blight on the landscape and the rampant fraud and chicanery, there is the corrupting influence of the get-rich-quick mentality. Under its influence, traditional values are eroded.

In such a world, Ogden seems to be saying, a man’s true worth is not in the wealth he is able to grub for himself. As long as he belongs to nobody else, he is still his own master. And that is enough.

Ogden went on to write a total of 30+ novels and scores of stories and serials for the pulps, most of them set in the West. His memoir There Were No Heroes was published in 1940. The Long Fight is available free online at google books

Tuska and Piekarski, Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction
Review of Ogden’s memoir, There Were No Heroes
The FictionMags Index

Image credits: Wikimedia Commons
Gusher photo, Beryl Ford Collection, Tulsa City-County Library

Coming up: Crime in western fiction, part 2


  1. I've heard a fair amount about Ogden. A very interesting fellow.

  2. Love that picture of Anadarko in 1901. That's where Jim Thompson was born in something like 1906 or 1907, I believe.

  3. Ogden is another of my favorites. I've read several of his serials in POPULAR, ARGOSY, SHORT STORIES, and WESTERN STORY. His autobiography, THERE WERE NO HEROES sounds like another interesting book about life in the west.

  4. Sounds like nothing has changed in the way of men and oil from what we read in the daily news. Ogden sounds like an interesting character and a self-made man.

  5. Charles, Ogden was new to me. I'd like to know more about his newspaper career.

    Chris, thanks for the tip; I didn't know that.

    Walker, I'm hoping to read one of his cowboy westerns before long.

    Oscar, John D. Rockefeller set the standard for oilmen, didn't he?