Thursday, May 17, 2012

Willis George Emerson, Buell Hampton (1902)

My somewhat used copy of the original novel
Every novel is a lesson in how to tell a story. This one has several stories to tell, and if the word “mashup” were available to reviewers in 1902, they surely would have used it to describe this one—instead of “amateur ,” “mediocre,” and “slush.”

It’s a young-man-goes-West story, a farmers vs. cattlemen story, a man vs. the elements story, a love story, a mystery, a story of long-lost family members, an amnesia victim story, a cattle-rustling story, another love story, and a story about social and political reform. The list is longer, but you get the idea. Set on the Kansas frontier in the 1880s, all of these stories revolve around a single character, Hugh Stanton. He’s a young Princeton graduate, who heads West with his inheritance to go into the banking business and make his fortune.

Hutchinson, Kansas, 1880
Plot. The novel is packed with characters and incidents. A faithful synopsis would be nearly as long as the book. Stanton himself is chiefly an observer, who doesn’t make an entrance until chapter four. Up to that point, the plot concerns the schemes of two Anglophile women to marry off the daughter of one of them to a titled Englishman. He’s shopping for an American heiress to rescue the family estate from a truckload of debt.

Meanwhile, Ethel, the girl in question, has fallen in love with a red-blooded American, Jack Redfield, a handsome young doctor in Chicago. The two women keep the young lovers apart by intercepting letters between them. And the Englishman, Avondale, is entertained on an extended stay in America, with a visit to the ranch of Ethel’s father, Horton, a millionaire cattleman. Avondale is all sleazy aristocracy, with the moral fiber of a soft-cooked egg. We don’t like him.

Buell Hampton, after whom the novel is named, is the local newspaper editor and an avowed Populist, who attributes every social ill to the unequal distribution of wealth. While cattle keep disappearing in large numbers from cattleman Horton’s herds, Hampton’s editorials call for greater effort to stop the rustlers. Though he even attempts to capture them himself, the rustlers go uncaptured.

Hampton’s beautiful young daughter Marie takes a fancy to Stanton, but Stanton is romance-proof and misses all her overtures. Determined to rescue Ethel from the clutches of Avondale, he proposes marriage to her instead. Alas, she’s still carrying a torch for Redfield.

Farmland, Kansas, 1887

A fall from a bucking horse sends Horton back 25 years to the Civil War battle where he sustained a head injury that wiped out his memory. Lo and behold, it turns out he is Stanton’s father, long thought dead. Often yearning for the father he never had, Stanton is delighted by this development. It also makes Ethel his half-sister, so it’s a good thing she declined his offer of marriage.

Hampton isn’t who he claims to be either. In the final chapters, the cattle thieving is finally tied to him. Something of a frontier Robin Hood, he has been actively redistributing wealth. But apparently mad as a hatter, he claims to be a Rosicrucian who has lived for hundreds of years in the support of mankind’s evolution toward altruism.

Though disposed of by vigilantes for cattle theft, he achieves a kind of resurrection not often seen outside the Bible. In his last appearance, he blesses the union of Stanton and Marie, who are now certifiably in love, and disappears into the night.

Prohibition-era advertising, Kansas, 1880
Detours. While these several plot lines hang in the balance, Emerson takes detours into other topics. One chapter is devoted to an account of a horrific prairie fire. Another is a study of how Prohibition in Kansas, which began in 1881, closed the saloons but permitted drug stores to sell alcohol in speakeasy-style backrooms. In the character of Justice of the Peace Lynn, a flagrant tippler, we see how alcoholism continued to thrive despite the anti-drinking laws.

We get a lesson in how local politics are corrupted by a handful of insiders. Claiming to represent a large organization of populist agricultural workers, they extort money from candidates for office in exchange for delivering the vote in the next election. They then collect from those who actually win. Both Republicans and Democrats are ethically compromised enough to fall for the scheme, and proceeds are  substantial.

Land sale poster, Kansas, 1880s
Finally, Stanton’s role as a partner in a local bank allows for insight into boom-and-bust economic cycles. We learn how a few years of plentiful rainfall breed confidence that the climate is gradually favoring agriculture in Kansas. Eastern investors pour money into high-interest loans for Western developers, creating an over-leveraged economy that collapses with the first drought years. Foreclosures, widespread poverty and starvation soon follow, along with the dashing of homesteaders’ dreams.

Wrapping up. Willis George Emerson (1856-1918) was born in Iowa, and after studying law he lived briefly in Kansas, Utah, and Wyoming, before settling in southern California in 1904. During that time he was employed in banking and as a town planner. He was known as an orator, political writer, and an expert on “sound money.” Besides writing extensively for the magazines on diverse subjects, he was author of a fair number of novels beginning in the 1890s. Buell Hampton was his fourth.

Willis George Emerson, 1902
He also came to be associated with more than one dodgy investment scheme. Shortly before his death, he was indicted by a federal grand jury, along with thirteen others, for mail fraud. They had allegedly bilked investors out of an estimated $1.5 million for a fictional automobile manufacturing company supposed to produce a low-cost motorcar named, of course, after Emerson.

Alexander Nicolas De Menil, The Literature of the Louisiana Territory, 1904.
John Steven McGroarty, Los Angeles from the Mountains to the Sea, Vol. 3, 1921.
Business Digest, April-June 1917.

Photo credits:
Wikimedia Commons
Photo of Emerson, Publisher’s Weekly, 1902

Coming up:
Randolph Scott, Man in the Saddle (1951)


  1. Moby Dick wanders around like that. Maybe that was the influence. Earlier novels often had more of this kind of structure.

    1. Melville was writing before the Internet. An online version of MOBY DICK would have links to all that extraneous material and be half as long.

  2. Anybody interested in the John Mack bridge in Wichita Kansas? I can make you a very good deal. I have had the pleasure of swapping a few beers with Jesse Chisholm, great grandson of the cattle trail blazer by the same name. Actually he was a trader that traveled back and forth between Texas and Kansas so naturally he was the one to ask about a path from one watering hole to the next and sometimes they just followed the wheel ruts he had left behind so that's how the trail got it's name. There used to be a bar on 81 south of town locally known as the Chiz. The actual name was The Chisholm. A very very long tome ago it was the site of the first watering hole on the trail before you made your way into town a days ride later with your cattle. Wyatt Earp made a bid for sheriff in Wichita for a time but was run out of town after he and his brothers tried to assume duties as an unofficial licensing commission for various "entertainment" industries. The more things change the more they remain the same.